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Allen Cole: Teaching Philosophy


Music is for Everyone--not just professionals: Only the most minuscule percentage of school music students will ever play professionally. Even so, music is an incredible source of recreation and satisfaction for those who are accomplished players. Its study holds many important lessons for life in general including the rewards of commitment, teamwork, and shared experience. It also instills levels of perfectionism, thoroughness and circumspection that make musicians well-regarded in a number of other career fields, including computer programming.

Personal empowerment and fulfillment are the goal. This is true of all pursuits. We all have something that stirs our passions and makes us reach for excellence. Students must explore music on their own to find what excites them and spurs their efforts. I teach musical skills. They are not an end goal. Instead, they are a foundation for the student's own musical exploration. They must be learned thoroughly and applied passionately. Besides, nothing yields a greater sense of personal accomplishment than actually accomplishing something.

School bands and orchestras are essential, and every student must be a team player: Band and orchestra instruments were not made to be played by themselves. Even soloists like Kenny G. have backup bands and must work as team players. The primary goal of every student who studies privately should be to become a true contributor to his/her school ensemble--someone who does their part to its fullest and helps the overall team to be its best. Too many band students simply hide out in their sections and absorb what they can passively. They become a drain on the energy of the group. Teach your child to be a contributor!

Music should be a lifelong source of enjoyment, not just another subject in school. At best, only the top ten percent of high school band students will continue playing their instruments into or beyond college. This is primarily due to a total dependence on the school band for both education and performance. Students need to also be playing on their own and with friends. Life holds many opportunities for a saavy team player with good skills on an instrument. Community bands, chamber groups, church groups, rock & pop bands...the list is endless. Unfortunately, very few school band musicians hone their skills well enough to get involved. In many cases, the best band musicians could learn quite a bit from even a mediocre guitarist. Click here to find out what those guitar players know.

Necessity is the mother of invention. And young musicians must be brought fact-to-face with the necessities that transform them from passive to active musicians. They need to play a solo piece on their own or with an accompanist, a duet with a friend, or to learn something by ear when written music isn't available. The average person expects a musician to play a familiar song on demand, and to get through it with no mistakes. (They also expect musicans to know whatever song they ask for!) This represents a real-life necessity that should be faced and tackled. Oddly enough, school musicians are generally far weaker than unschooled musicians at rising to this challenge. It doesn't have to be this way.

Practical Skills, Common Sense & Common Knowledge.   These make the difference for all musicians. All musicians must master the rudiments of manipulating their instruments and counting rhythms. This is a starting point, not an end goal. It is essential for good sight-reading, playing by ear, jazz soloing, etc. as well as keeping up and playing solidly in band. Students should also learn to play by ear. Imitating things on records helps to promote independent thinking, more concentrated and productive listening, and a greater overall knowledge of music and the roles played by different instruments.

Common sense is best illustrated by the need to meet the challenges and make a contribution to the school band--rather than depending  on rote learning of the band music. Counting rhythms and keeping place, and applying scales and similar skills to execute fast runs and other difficult passages. Another area for developing common sense is in playing chamber music, or even 'jamming' by ear with friends.   Learning how to interface with other players. Almost all unschooled singers and guitar players take for granted the art of playing by ear, navigating a song, and harmonizing. Players of band instruments can learn these things just as easily, but must also deal with issues unique to their instruments.

Common knowledge means knowing music. Musicians need to learn commonly known songs and styles of music. This means exploring more than just band music and Top-40 radio. It means listening to all types of music and learning what makes them tick. It means knowing common-knowledge songs like Jingle Bells or The Star Spangled Banner. It means having heard Beethoven's 5th Symphony, and Mozart's 40th. It means listening to music that involves the student's instrument and knowing who the major players are and what they do.

Learning music is like learning a sport--and 'talent' is largely a myth.  It's true. People come to music imagining an artistic, intellectual exercise and a mode of free expression. Music itself is all of that, but playing an instrument is a physical skill that requires discipline, conditioning, and repetetive practice. Facial muscles must be in shape for proper tone production, and motor skills in the fingers, wrists and tongue must be finely tuned for manipulation of the instrument.

The concept of talent is also analogous to sports. Talent is largely overblown, and effort is far more important than talent in reaching success. In fact, talent itself is subject to question--probably more a result of environment than of genetic heredity. People who grow up with music tend to be more at home with it than people who first experience it when you put an instrument in their hand.

Effort level:  Compare the effort made towards playing a musical instrument with that of playing little league or scholastic sports. How much time each week is spent in team practice? In personal exercise and skillbuilding? In reading about the sport or watching games on TV? What sort of standards are school athletes held to? Bottom line: Who's going to sink more baskets? The kid with straight A's (for good conduct)  in gym, or the kid who shoots baskets on the playground every day after school?

Students must be armed with the best possible materials in order to learn for themselves.  Make no mistake about it, I am not the true source of a student's discovery.  In their weekly practice, students are teaching themselves under my guidance. For this reason, I use a wide variety of quality materials for instruction and am constantly on the lookout for better ones. Why? Because I am only in the picture once a week. Students need materials that support them during the rest of that time.

Play-along methods for younger students, quality duet books, books loaded with common-knowledge tunes for sight-reading. The lifesaving Master Theory Workbook. I insist on these materials because it arms students with what they need to push their abilities and stretch their knowledge. These are books that will last a lifetime, and help with problem-solving for years down the road. Hopefully, they will be there for your child if they seek to resume playing after an absence from the instrument.

Standards and Accountability: Artistic efforts are seldom quantifiable, but skills on a musical instrument can and should be measured. The best school band programs individually grade competence in the playing of scales and counting of rhythms. Elite all-city, all-county, all-district and all-state ensembles have concrete audition requirements and they are virtually identical in nature. The only real variable is the level of difficulty. Any student who studies privately should be able to meet the minimum audition requirements of groups appropriate to their grade level. Whether the student wins a position in such a group is a matter of competetion. My expectation is that they meet the stated standard.

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