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Exhaustion and education

It’s that time of year. Where all teachers, including music educators, start to slowly wilt, declaring that we need a holiday. Desperately.

I reality, and I’m sorry to remind teachers (in England) of this, but we have only been back at work for 5 weeks since our last break. Only. Five. Weeks.

I could swear it was longer than that.

At lot of people respond to this with the simple, ‘but everyone is exhausted at the moment, right? Teachers aren’t somehow more exhausted than everyone else. They’re just complaining too much.’

As I write this, I am sitting in a cafe on my weekend, catching up on work I didn’t finish during the week because I wasn’t well, waiting for the coffee that I didn’t have in my house because I decided to get someone to make one for me. But I haven’t been served yet, and I am SO tired that all I want to do is shout and cry if it doesn’t arrive in the next five seconds.

In other words, I am exhausted.

(In good news, the coffee did arrive).

So what is it about music education that is so exhausting?

Many things, and I could write an entire book about it. The workload, demanding parents, oftentimes poor management, demanding parents, keeping up with professional development, demanding parents.

We don’t need to have one of these conversations about what it is that makes music teaching so exhausting. As we all live it, we know.

What I do want to talk about is effective boundaries, and recognising when to stop.


Teachers work too hard. We work too hard on things that we really don’t need to work too hard on. We create beautiful displays, that students genuinely don’t care about. We craft perfect lessons, only to have them cut short by the reality of life. We push for perfection, always. And perfection doesn’t exist.

So in the lead up to Christmas, and that precious holiday, I want you to remember some simple facts.


There is no such thing as perfect.

It will never all be done, no matter how hard you try.

You are important. Without you, there is no learning.

Value yourself, and take time to rest. You won’t regret it.


Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

kids playing on the floor

Music games

If you’ve been around for a while now, you’ll realise that I am definitely developing a catchphrase.

It’s not always about the finished product, but it is always about the learning.

Me.

That can be a really hard pill to swallow in music teaching. We want to produce perfect little performers, so how can we really separate the two?

The short answer is that they are not separate. Imperfect learning is what leads to effective and beautiful performance.

An easy step in the direction of favouring effective learning over a perfect product is to incorporate games into your instrumental music lessons.

Now, I know the worry here. We will play games that are not connected to learning, that we will waste precious minutes just to make sure we are the ‘fun’ music teacher.


Let’s pause for a moment. If you really want to produce a wonderful performer, you want them to have solid, varied musical skills, right? They can’t achieve that by being at their instrument all the time. Music is more than just the chosen instrument.

Case in point. When I was 15, my piano teacher referenced a line in a Chopin waltz as obviously being inspired by a cello. In that moment, I couldn’t remember what a cello was, or what it sounded like. All I needed in that moment was to listen to an example of a cello. We didn’t, and I was left feeling quite inadequate for the next half hour.

Although this scenario has nothing to do with incorporating games, the point stands. My piano teacher wanted to produce a perfect performance, and he forgot to expand the rest of my musical education.

The point is that we get so caught up on ‘learning’ a piece of music, that we forget we are teaching music. Not just our instrument.


Back to games.

With younger students, games allow movement away from the instrument, incorporation of a wide variety of musical skills and builds a teacher-student relationship that fosters great musical learning.

Just remember to bring it back to one important question.

“What skill do I want my student to learn from music game?”

Maybe it’s reading music, or identifying notes, musical expression, or playing from memory.

If you can answer that question, you’re on the right track. If you can’t, spend some time looking through your student’s lesson notes.

What can you see you keep on reminding them to do?

Incorporate it into a music game.

What skill do they seem to avoid working on the most?

Incorporate it into a music game.

What skill do they seem to struggle the most to understand?

Incorporate it into a music game.

Every teacher uses music games differently, according to their space, instrument and personal style. Just remember, as long as you are focused on what your students are learning, you are getting it right!


Now, a treat for all of you wonderful music educators. We have created a music education resource here at the music educator for our youngest students – a collection of four games to get any music teacher started on incorporating games into lessons. For a limited time only, download it here for free!


Oh no, it looks like you missed out on our free resource! Don’t worry, if you look through our most recent blog posts, you will probably find another one, and it’s always available in the shop.


Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

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Who is your music classroom for?

While classroom music teaching can often be a nomadic lifestyle, there are those who are fortunate enough to have their own music classroom. If that is true for you, then I am absolutely delighted.

But how do we create these spaces?

A quick Pinterest search reveals perfectly curated boards, with bright colours, laminated to perfection, with western art music terminology on neat little cards, and an obligatory treble clef.

These are all beautiful, and look very pretty in a classroom.

I need to ask a question though. Who is all of that for? For the students? Or to make our classroom look ‘good’?

I’m certain many wonderful music teachers are starting to feel cross right about now. Please, hear me out.

One of the most frustrating things about these displays is how long they take teachers. And every teacher knows that they don’t easily stay looking good. They take maintenance, need to be replaced, and often get rearranged to add something new.

And even after all that work, who are they for?


When I first became a classroom teacher, I had a very big classroom, but with hardly any wall space. This meant that I had to get creative with displays. In my teaching degree, we had spent a lot of time discussing the actual worth of displays, with the conclusion that the only displays that we needed were ones created with, by and for students, that were updated regularly.

As a result, when my students came into the classroom, we discussed what we thought we would need as a class, and spent a year updating and improving it as we went. And I never once made an art display of their work. They did. It was their work to show off, after all.

This was not a perfect system, but I could guarantee all my students could explain what we had up in the classroom.

And more importantly, they could read and understand all of it, because they were there when I wrote it down. Rather than attempting to decipher a beautiful brand new poster and figure it out on their own, they gave a quick glance, remembered being taught that exact lesson, and applied their learning.

For music teachers, as we teach all year levels, this can’t be quite the same. But the principle still stands.

The best displays are the ones created with, by and for students.

Once again, the focus is moved away from that perfect finished product, to the learning.

The best advice I can give here is give yourself an ‘organised’ blank slate. Have a grand staff ready, that you can build with the students. Allow them to create their own, and put a few up with yours. Not with a pretty border, just stuck on the wall.

You are not just showing them what it looks like, you are teaching them how it works and how it is made, so let them do it with you.

And remember that a pretty music classroom doesn’t automatically equal a good music classroom. You are a wonderful music educator, not an interior designer.


Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

teacher asking a question to the class

Independence in classroom music

There are so many worthwhile conversations going around right now about classroom music. How can we teach valuable skills? Should we change what we are teaching? And the slightly more frustrating, but ever important discussion of the importance of teaching music in the first place.

This topic, though, I think is one of the most frustrating topics for teachers.

How do I encourage independence in a music classroom, when students cannot move on without my input?

Music teaching is exhausting, partly because it requires so much input throughout the entire lesson. I am by no means saying that teachers shouldn’t have to engage in the lesson. They should. But the difficulty of a music classroom is that everyone often requires ongoing input, rather than being able to move around and support students individually.

The answer to all of this lies, as it usually does, in effective music lesson planning. The reason why your students are not independent is not their lack of capability.


It’s that you are not giving them a task that is achievable for them to complete independently.


In other words, we are not very often willing to give up control of our music classroom.

I have been in this position. Rather than allow a tiny bit of chaos to reign, I have exhausted myself by being up the front the entire lesson, not getting students to stay still and listen by any means, but definitely not relinquishing my control over their choices.

The biggest cost paid in this bargain is your own. Your energy cannot sustain throughout the day at that level. The students will very often enjoy the lesson, but it is not sustainable for you.

So what then, can we do? What music activities can actually be independent in a music classroom?

The answer is many. Remember that the outcome is not always a beautiful performance, but rather rich and powerful learning. Their independent learning should not be something new that they have never before tried; it should be something that they have already learned how to do, that they can do mostly without assistance, to reinforce their learning.

It’s time for me to offer up a humble example of one such task. This task is for students who are comfortable with technology, reading, and understand the concept of electronic creation of music. As it’s classic free resource Thursday, today you can download it, for free! May it lighten your load of planning, teaching and classroom management.


Oh no, it looks like you missed out on our free resource! Don’t worry, if you look through our most recent blog posts, you will probably find another one, and it’s always available in the shop.


Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

green typewriter on brown wooden table

Meaningful goals in music lessons

I’m sure many of you had instrumental lessons like it.

The ones where you leave feeling utterly defeated, as if you will never be good enough.

Where everything went so tragically wrong that nothing could ever fix it.

Sometimes, I deserved to be firmly reminded that I needed to practice. That in order to improve, I actually had to put the time in.

This time though, I didn’t deserve it. I had worked hard, made improvements, but it simply wasn’t enough. It never really was. Spoiler alert, I changed teachers after a while.


The reason why I felt so defeated was simple. I had been set a task that I had no idea how to achieve. A task that I didn’t even know if I was capable of achieving. You could just as easily have said to me to refreeze melted ice cream by sheer brainpower, and I would have felt just as lost.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that even though I know this feeling well enough, I have been guilty of passing it onto my students.

Which is why I am so grateful that I am also trained in general classroom education. Because although perfectionism is a definite problem everywhere, it is not as pervasive as in music.

One of the most valuable skills I gained from this education is setting meaningful goals that students can pursue independently.

So often as music teachers, we send off our students to practice a set list of exercises, repeat a bar a certain number of times till they get it right, or just practice that crescendo.

Just PRACTICE.

That is not an achievable goal by any stretch of the imagination.


Which brings me round to my advice. Rather than just give the exercise, explain to the student exactly what you want them to achieve through the exercise. Model it, explain its purpose, give them a try, model it again. And then crucially, WRITE DOWN what you want them to be achieving, and how you want them to get there.

In example:

This week, make the melody line stand out more clearly above the accompaniment. Do this by practicing ghost fingering with your left and right hand, reinforcing the fingering and playing the melody on its own to make clear decisions about the phrasing. By next week, you should be able to hear the melody clearly over the accompaniment every time. Check your progress by making short recordings.

That example is significantly too long, but for your own students it would be possible to shorten it, due to the understanding that you know is already in place. But if your student received that, they would know exactly what needed to happen, and what to do if they were struggling.

This may seem harder in the short term, but in the long term I guarantee you will not regret the new found independence, confidence and growth in your music students!


Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.