AMI Blog


One of the cool things about being alive today is that you can learn anything you want from YouTube. I had a go at ‘teaching myself’ to play the guitar when I was a teenager (back in the dark ages) – and it really was hard to access information. But in the last decades, I have lost count of how many things I have learned from YouTube. From playing the ukulele and the accordion, to early music notation and Schenkerian analysis (not to mention how to make sourdough bread) – it’s all there for us! But have you noticed that you seldom ‘click’ with the first YouTube presenter you click on? Either they talk to fast, or too slowly, or the sound is lousy, or you cannot follow what they’re saying, or perhaps they just annoy you? Luckily, there are thousands of budding teachers out there with their own channels, sharing their skills in their own individual ways and asking you to hit the ‘like’ button and subscribe.. and perhaps join their Patreon page.  After some experimentation, you’re sure to find someone who suits you just fine and it’s the start of a beautiful learning journey.

Because of the centrality of practical skills in learning to play, the process of learning to play an instrument (or to be an excellent singer) is a kind of apprenticeship. In an apprenticeship, you learn from someone who has all the skills and knowledge that you hope will make you into an expert. YouTube music lessons work, in principle, because music is learned by doing it and you can see how to play in the video, and hear both the musical sound along with some kind of explanation. The apprenticeship model quite accurately sums up a great deal of instrumental teaching and learning, especially where students receive one-on-one instruction from their teachers. If the apprenticeship is successful, and the student becomes competent, then the master/apprentice model is repeated – the former students can take on apprentices (start their own channel?) and pass on the skills that they themselves learned from their teachers. Simple.

The apprenticeship model is part of the reason there is a widely held understanding (here in South Africa, anyway) that if you can play you can teach. Especially if you have qualifications in the form of graded music exams, then you are good to go. I have written a few blogs recently about job adverts for music teachers who can play the piano. In my experience, if schools can’t find a pianist with a music degree and music teaching qualification, many are happy to take on someone with piano skills, but without any further experience in music education (apart from having been an apprentice themselves). The most recent case I heard of was a school that employed a person with Grade 8 piano who had a law degree, but did not want to practice law. I mean, if you can play you can teach, no?

Many musicians find themselves teaching music, without a conventional ‘training’. (That is, formal lessons since a young age, studying music at university or a conservatoire, perhaps a teaching diploma). I am guessing this is more common amongst music teachers than it might be amongst history teachers, for example. YouTube alone shows that there are many different ways to acquire musical skills.

But let’s go back to the how many videos you have to click on before you find one that suits you. As a viewer, you have a unique set of needs and competencies, likes and dislikes; and you will find some YouTubers easier to learn from than others. The kids in your classrooms don’t have that luxury. They have you. Solo. And that’s why the quality of your own learning experiences and insight into music education matters.

Your own individual learning experiences contribute to what you believe about how best to learn. Like our musical biographies, they are quite different for each person. Some of us have happy memories of learning – others less happy. Some teachers believe in a make-things-up-as-we-go-along kind of approach, others a more structured this-is-the-way-to-teach-music-dogma. Our students experience these different teaching techniques completely differently: for example, some thrive under a ‘strict’ teacher, but others can be crushed. Some love the free-spirited teacher, others feel insecure and anxious when there is no structure to learning.

Whatever the learning path, the individuality of each musician’s experience is unlikely to prepare them for the complexity of teaching a range of students with all their quirks, or to do all the things required of the average school music teacher. How does a person who has ‘Grade 8’ in piano approach teaching Grade 3 class music, for instance? Depressingly often, they play them Carnival of the Animals and ask them to draw pictures. Or play a backing track of the latest Taylor Swift song and get them to sing along. Or they get them to draw treble clefs and crotchets. Their own pathway, which has served them quite well thus far, has not prepared them to create quality learning experiences that are fun, and that scaffold musical learning.

Music education is in a state of flux both internationally and here in South Africa. The huge changes we are living through are all the more reason for comprehensive and consistent teacher education. In South Africa, there are individual teachers and institutions that are hanging in there with a fairly orthodox, Western offering. But there are more and more teachers and institutions that see the need to diversify, to respond to musical tastes of their students, to include music that is rooted in Africa. No matter what the genre, students will benefit from teachers who have a rich knowledge behind them. Knowledge of different pedagogical approaches, of how to lay the foundations of musical skill and concepts, of how to help different students to make their own leaps of understanding, of building music programmes that inspire as well as educate. They need to have had their own ideas challenged, to understand that there is not just one way to teach, to have a pedagogical repertoire that can rise to the challenge of their diverse classrooms. Although YouTube can be a fantastic resource in your classroom, becoming a really thoughtful music educator means going way beyond the YouTube format – it requires you to figure out what is right for each of your students and figuring out how to mentor them through toward mastery.  

The saying ‘those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach’ has always bugged me because to be a good teacher every day is one of the most challenging jobs out there. And it seems to me that parents want the best teachers for their kids. To portray teaching as a job for the people who have failed is not only inaccurate, but stupid. It is also true that some who ‘can’ make lousy teachers…. Because they haven’t learned enough about the business of teaching and learning that goes beyond showing someone how. Many of us have had bewildering moments in our teaching practice, where we realise we have completely missed the ball in terms of connecting with our students. (Let’s say the student needs another YouTube channel….). In that case, we can either double down on our dogmas, or we can seek to broaden our own understandings and teaching tools to meet that kid’s needs. If music education is to be transformed, it will be achieved by versatile and well informed musicians – those that can …. teach.