Communicating in Lessons

When we take music lessons, the benefits we reap depend on two things, aside from the teacher’s expertise: 1. how well we practice between lessons; 2. how effectively we learn during lessons.

Here, I’m going to focus on the during-lesson part.

In lessons, learning hinges on communication. Teachers need to understand students, and students have to have a clear understanding of their teachers’ instructions.

But we all know that communicating can get tricky.

For instance, check out this excerpt from a forum hosted by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music:

In my last lesson my teacher suddenly said, “That’s it!” over a passage I’d been struggling with.
“That’s what?” I thought. “That’s it, I’m fired??”
Turns out he thought it was good, but I still now can’t hear what he heard. I thought it was awful.

It seems that neither the student nor the teacher in that example understood the other’s point of view. In the end, though, no communication equals no learning.

The following seven strategies will help you heighten your communication with a teacher and make the most of your lessons:

  1. Record every session. By listening back and taking notes, you can be certain you retain all the guidance you receive (I’ve posted information about inexpensive recorders on the Practice page at
  2. Agree on lesson goals. At your initial meeting with a teacher, discuss your long-range objectives so that each lesson will support your plans. Then, before you conclude a lesson, ensure that you and your teacher spell out the goals for your next session.
  3. Query your teacher when something is unclear. Students sometimes shy away from asking for clarifications because they don’t want to seem clueless or imply that their teacher’s explanations are flawed. Believe me: educators want students to understand. Ask.
  4. Document questions during practice. Keep a notebook handy as you practice, and then bring questions to lessons. Inform your teacher at the outset of a session that you have topics you’d like to address.
  5. Request feedback. During and at the close of lessons, inquire how well you’re attaining lesson goals and whether there’s anything more you could do to improve your skills.
  6. Listen. Communication involves both articulating one’s thoughts and accurately hearing the thoughts of others. So, always listen closely to your teacher’s words and musical demonstrations.
  7. Be positive and honest. Bring a can-do attitude to lessons so that you contribute to creating a productive learning environment. Speak honestly, too, about your interests and practice habits. If you’re ever underprepared for a lesson, admit it, adjust the lesson plan accordingly, and then review your practice schedule with your teacher.

What if you can’t establish a communicative rapport with an instructor? For starters, you could ask for advice from a friend or mentor. Then, if your attempts to communicate still fall short, it might be time to find a new teacher.

For additional lesson-optimizing guidelines, see Chapter 14 of my book The Musician’s Way, where you’ll find tips for choosing teachers, handling criticism, managing student-teacher dynamics, boosting creativity, and more.

Gerald Klickstein is Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and an active guitarist and writer. A version of this article first appeared on The Musician’s Way Blog.

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein