How Teaching Music Taught Me To Play Better

I learned my bad habits religiously through many hours of practicing what my tutor instructed me to do. Not only do we learn through private practice, bad habits are reinforced through other experiences like playing with friends or rehearsing with the school concert bands.

Sometimes those habits are bad only if they are used exclusively. ex: “B” to “C” and back as in the pattern B-C-B-A-G. Repeat that a few times on the sax and you will see what I mean. Yes, you can play it by crossing your first and second fingers back and forth or …….. you could learn the alternative of moving just one finger which obviously is faster, smoother (without contrary motion which in reality is awkward), and has much better intonation and tone quality. If there are two ways of doing something, one is probably better than the other. But if you only learned one of the two, the one you know will always be the easier one to remember….daah… and not necessarily the better way.

If you are content with using the former and have no interest in trying the latter, then this blog is not for you.

Who wants to re-learn something that requires such a daunting task? To put this into perspective, something that takes 10 hours to really learn and become functional and is your primary habit over years of use will take a 100 times the effort to learn the alternative and apply it fluently and effortlessly when needed. Personally, today on occasion, I still find myself slipping back for a second to the wrong option if I am not super focused when sight reading.

You have probably heard the the expression “If you can, you do. If you can’t, you teach.” This is true on so many levels, however there can be a silver lining in all this.

For instance: After college and military service, I found myself teaching music, private tutoring, and gigging, all while trying to keep up the sax, flute, oboe, and clarinet. The clarinet being the dried cement blocks on my feet holding me back. Now comes my opening title of this blog.

As I was teaching beginner students private lessons on the afore mentioned woodwind instruments, I took advantage of the situation. Though I played fairly proficiently, there is always room for improvement. Focusing on my weakest instrument (the clarinet) which I was content playing 3rd parts every summer in the local town band, I eventually moved up to playing solos in pit orchestras on all four horns plus piccolo. As a side note, the town band director who hired and paid paid me for 5 plus years, had never really heard me play the clarinet or for that matter any of the woodwinds. Moving ahead, I found my self playing in a professional pit orch. Well low and behold, who is sitting at the keyboard but none other than my old friend, the band director. Every time I took a solo on a different instrument his head would do a double take. Actually, I had no idea he could play the piano either.

Now think about it. Who would go back to basics to rectify a bad habit you developed in your early years?…… Aaah no one! Most young musicians are too embarrassed to go back to book one, page one! On the other hand, when you are teaching, you are forced to go back many times to ground zero over and over. WHAT A BLESSING!

It’s all in your attitude. While teaching music, every time I introduced a new pattern to a student, I would set a good example and play along with them. Meanwhile, I was cleaning up my act on what I wasn’t taught in the first place. After many months of cleaning up those (really only 3 or 4) short comings that required hundreds of reps with multiple students, everyone walked away better for it.

Remember, each grasshopper learned it properly from the git-go while the Sensei, benefited as well.

So, if you are teaching music, enjoy the journey, and take advantage of this golden opportunity to improve your own skills.