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While many individuals are content to play a musical instrument "by ear" or by practicing individual pieces until a reasonable proficiency is achieved, others wish to develop mastery of one or more instruments, and commonly seek formal instruction in the form of music lessons. For people attempting to learn their first instrument, typical elements of such a lesson are as follows.
Posture and style
Perhaps one of the most obvious things one needs to know about playing an instrument is how to perform on it. This includes how to hold it, how to manipulate one's fingers and what how to achieve the correct posture for maximum playing results.
For all instruments, the best way to move the fingers to achieve a desired effect is to learn to play with the least tension in your hands and body. Maximum technique is achieved with the most relaxed muscles. This also prevents forming habits which may lead to injuries resulting from incorrect use of the skeletal frame and muscles. For example, when playing the piano, "fingering"—that is, which fingers to put on which keys—is a skill slowly learnt as the student advances, and there are many standard techniques which a teacher can pass on. In addition to fingering, a guitar player learns how to strum, pluck, etc; players of wind instruments learn about breath control and embouchure, and singers learn how to make the most of their vocal cords without hurting them.
There are many myths and misconceptions among music teachers, especially in the western classical tradition, about "good" posture and "bad" posture. Students who find that playing their instruments causes them physical pain should bring this to their teachers' attention. It is a potentially serious, if often overlooked aspect of learning to play an instrument. Learning to use one's body in a manner consistent with the way their anatomy is designed to work can mean the difference between a crippling injury and a lifetime of enjoyment. Many music teachers would caution students about taking "no pain, no gain" as an acceptable response from their music teacher regarding a complaint of physical pain.
In order to more fully understand the music being played, the student must learn about the underlying music theory. Along with reading musical notation, students learn rhythmic techniques like controlling tempo and recognizing time signatures, as well as the theory of harmony, including chords and key signatures.
In addition to basic theory, a good teacher will stress musicality, or how to make the music sound good. This includes tone, phrasing, and proper use of dynamics.
Although not universally accepted, many teachers drill students with the repetitive playing of certain patterns, such as scales, arpeggios, and rhythms. In addition, there are flexibility studies, which make it physically easier to play the instrument. There are sets of exercises for piano designed to stretch the connection between fourth and fifth fingers, making them more independent. Brass players practice lip slurs, which are unarticulated changes in embouchure between partials.
The teacher will give the student a set of pieces of slowly increasing difficulty. Besides using pieces as an aid to teaching various elements of playing style, a good teacher will also inspire more intangible qualities such as expressiveness and musicianship. Pieces are undeniably more enjoyable than theory or scales, and an emphasis on pieces is usually required to maintain motivation.
Examinations and other benchmarks
A popular measure of progress, especially for children, is external assessment of the progress of the pupil by a regular examination. There are a number of exam boards which offer the chance for pupils to be assessed on either muic theory or practice. These are available for almost every musical instrument.
One common way to mark progress is to have graded examinations, for example from grade 1 (beginner) to grade 8 (ready to enter higher study at music school).
Some teachers prefer other methods of target-setting for their pupils. The most common is the pupil's concert, which gives experience in playing in public and under a certain degree of pressure, without outright criticism or a more or less arbitrary marking system. Another is the graded system of books followed by teachers of the Suzuki method, in which the completion of each book is celebrated, without a system of marking or ranking of pupils.
Benefits of music lessons
Many people believe that music lessons provide children with important developmental benefits beyond simply the knowledge or skill of playing a musical instrument. Research suggests that musical lessons may enhance intelligence and academic achievement, build self-esteem and improve discipline.
A recent Rockefeller Foundation Study discovered that music majors have the highest rate of admittance to medical schools, followed by biochemistry and the humanities. On SAT tests, the national average scores were 427 on the verbal and 476 on math. At the same time, music students averaged 465 on the verbal and 497 on the math - 38 and 21 points higher, respectively. However, the observed correlation between musical and mathematical ability may be inherent rather than acquired.
Skills learned through the discipline of music transfer to study skills, communication skills, and cognitive skills useful in every part of a child's studies at school. An in-depth Harvard University study found evidence that spatial-temporal reasoning improves when children learn to make music, and this kind of reasoning improves temporarily when adults listen to certain kinds of music, including Mozart. The finding suggests that music and spatial reasoning are related psychologically (i.e., they may rely on some of the same underlying skills) and perhaps neurologically as well. A relationship between music and the strengthening of math, dance, reading, creative thinking and visual arts skills was also cited. (Winner, Hetland,Sanni, as reported in The Arts and Academic Achievement - What the Evidence Shows, 2000)
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