Learn How To Teach Yourself

May 18, 2018, 5:50 PM · Think about it-students spend the majority of time with their instrument alone in a practice room. Most students see their teachers for just an hour each week, and many of them expect the magic of perfecting their technique and musicianship to happen then and there. But is that expectation realistic? Not likely. I think budding musicians need to learn the art of teaching themselves.

Of course, it is essential to have a great teacher. Lessons can be magical! They should open our minds and ears to understanding and wet our appetites for growth and improvement. But the greatest accomplishments happen in a practice room. So how do you teach yourself?

cello in studio


I recently asked each of my students in their lessons what their thoughts and opinions were on intonation: first, as a concept, and secondly, about their own. I was not surprised to find that every response was in the ballpark of not being sure. They were not fully aware of their own intonation. I also asked for thoughts and opinions on sound production and cleanliness. They concluded that they were not listening critically to their own playing. Now that they are listening with a conscience every aspect of their playing has improved dramatically.

Most students are afraid of the truth, afraid of being aware of the problems that they have because it makes them feel inferior and insufficient. While these feelings are not to be ignored, they shouldn’t trump the fact that knowing the truth is empowering. When students listen to themselves with healthy self esteem and acknowledge where they fall short in their playing they are in the best position to improve.

It is also important to listen in lessons. Don’t check out when your teacher is repeating something for the umpteenth time. Pay more attention-it’s important!

If students listen critically, using the information they receive in each lesson, they gain a platform for improvement.


No one is born a perfect technician or musician. Everyone has problems to solve in their playing. Once a student knows what the problems are they need to find solutions. This is the majority of what should go on in the practice room. Practicing passages intelligently on a quest to gain control and ease involves trying exactly what teachers spend many hours going over in lessons. Teachers give tools for students to pick up and use, try out, mull over, get frustrated with, and finally own in their own right. But if we are honest with ourselves, most 21st century practicing is mindless repetition, hoping against all hope that problems will fix themselves. This kind of practicing should to stop. Why waste time with your instrument when you could be reading, outside in nature, talking to friends, sleeping, doing homework, listening to great music, etc.?

Looking at the flip side of the coin, mindful practicing will result in rapid improvement. Instead of spending many hours struggling to accomplish something you will take less time to accomplish a lot. As a great cello teacher and performer used to say, our minds should be tired before our bodies.

Finding creative solutions to problems will dispel the secrets of playing an instrument and will guide someone from being unable to being in control.


Students need to have an opinion about music, their instrument, intonation, sound production, tone quality, technique, phrasing, composers, and many more subjects. Musicians need to have opinions to make decisions about how they want to play and sound. Listening to various artists play the same piece or listening to many pieces by one composer is a great help in forming personal thoughts. Discussing questions and ideas with friends, colleagues, and teachers is another great way to formulate and voice opinions.

Opinions direct our focus toward accomplishing something specific. They create a passion to sound a certain way. They make one want to work harder because there is a drive.


Listening, finding solutions to problems, and forming strong opinions lead to developing a unique, personal voice. The arts are vitally important because they enable individuals to express themselves in tremendously beautiful ways, with freedom and creativity. It is in our nature to express ourselves. But the number of unique young musicians has dwindled, in my opinion, mostly due to the desire to use quick band-aid solutions in their playing instead of working slowly and methodically in the practice room. Ours is a society of quick fixes, technology thinking for us, and blindly believing what we hear and read without doing research. Teaching ourselves requires patience, awareness, knowledge, confidence, tenacity, imagination, and all of these put together help create an artist. Each artist’s voice is unique and priceless. YOUR voice is unique and priceless. Invest in it.

Teaching yourself in the practice room will ultimately result in many positive outcomes including gained control, sustained focus, developed artistry, and enjoyment in playing and performing. It will help calm nerves when you walk on stage and make playing your instrument easy instead of a struggle. Are you ready to become your own teacher?


May 19, 2018 at 01:42 PM · Interesting topic. I recently had a discussion with my current student about developing his skills as an autodidact.

I don't have a fancy studio or a large cadre of students as that is not my focus. I have noted that most young musicians put their lessons into the same category as "School Work." Their focus is all aimed at passing-the-test, getting an "A" or some other goal. Learning is not the focus - getting through the system is.

Listening, problem solving, finding your own sound and voice are great but you have to get the musician to get out of the "this is just more school" box.

I focus on aspiring young musicians who cannot afford lessons from most professional teachers and I limit my lessons to establishing the basics of posture, hand positions/attitudes, intonation and bowing so that the professionals will find them sufficiently interested to offer them scholarships/reduced rates.

We always explore music that the young musician wants to learn how to play in addition to what is in the method books (in my case Doflien). But I still struggle with their tendency to put the music training into the "More School - just pass the test" closet.

FWIW: After 30+ years of lessons my teacher died and I became an autodidact by default.

May 19, 2018 at 07:03 PM · I reacted to this as both a student (teacher of myself) and a teacher (teacher of others). It is true that teachers are taught a lot by their students. The most striking thing I learned from your article is "listen to yourself." You are never as bad as you think you are. If you keep a positive attitude about yourself, you can learn from your mistakes. Listen to yourself when you play those boring, repetitious etudes. You can work on your skills and also explore your personal sound. If you listen to yourself, playing is more than preparing for a test. It is about correcting your own mistakes and finding your own voice.

May 20, 2018 at 11:21 AM · As a self-taught violist, I agree: the most important thing is always to listen to yourself with a critical ear. And I also think having a good idea of how you want each bit of music to sound is important -- this fits under the topics of both mindful practice and forming opinions. I go into every practice session with a specific goal or two in mind for that session.

May 24, 2018 at 07:59 PM · As an adult beginner of violin/ fiddle I ind the articles very helpful in stimulating a desire to learn more than “just playing” and the included comments by readers offer a broad range of views.

Excellent newsletter

After attending many many recitals and music festivals i decided what the heck im going to have more free time not less as i get older so now that Im 67 im making a start

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