What’s a “well-prepared lesson”?

How do you, whether student or teacher, define a “well-prepared lesson”?

I mean, in this case, that the student is so well-prepared that after the lesson, the teacher says to a colleague or friend,”Wow, so-and-so was really prepared for her lesson today, and it was a joy to teach her.” And the student feels really good about how ready she was for the lesson.

A seven-year-old beginner’s well-prepared lesson is going to look/sound different than a doctoral student’s, of course.

I’m particularly in undergraduate college students, since they make up the vast majority of my students.  My cello students and I have started talking about this, and working to write something up.

I’m interested to hear thoughts on this regarding any age and level of experience.  Please add a comment.





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16 responses to “What’s a “well-prepared lesson”?

  1. now a senior piano major at DePauw I can say that the definition of being prepared has definitely changed every year (really every semester) because I get new tools to put in my musical tool box. what is expected of me (from my teacher and myself) is that i come to my lesson knowing that i used every single tool on my music to polish it up. the goal is of course to go to my lesson and just have a discussion on the musical aspects – interpretation – and not have to worry about technical aspects. a lot of the time i may not be comfortable with a passage but i worked on it and it shows that i put thought into it so my teacher doesn’t comment on technical things anymore unless i ask for it specifically. the last thing i want to do is bore my teacher. we both have a million things we could be doing so i do everything possible to take advantage of that one hour.

    long story short, the question i ask myself every week is, “can i do what ever crazy thing my teacher will ask me to do with the notes in front of me?” or “have i made a clear decision with the music i can back up and talk about in lesson?” or if i cant make a clear decision can i at least manipulate the music so that in lesson my teacher can help me shape it via color, pacing, dynamics, etc.

    hope this helps!!

    • Great answer, thanks. At different stages, we may be addressing technical issues–this includes some very advanced players. I really like “i used every single tool on my music to polish it up.”

  2. I’d say an undergraduate music major has prepared a piece or a section of a piece well for a lesson if s/he: has learned the notes, rhythms, and articulations; has worked out technical details (e.g., fingerings, IPA); can play it fluently at a reasonable tempo; has given thought to phrasing, expression, and other aspects of interpretation; has researched the piece, the composer, and, if applicable, the text; has incorporated into the performance a degree of what s/he has been working on in previous lessons; and has brought thoughtful questions about anything with which s/he is struggling after having attempted to answer them him- or herself. Etudes would leave out a few of those things. I think a doctoral student should do the same as the undergraduate but should bring a greater degree of technical ability, a more sophisticated interpretation, and a deeper understanding of style, performance practice, and historical context. I applaud anyone who can teach a seven-year-old beginner.

    What have I forgotten?

    • That’s a great–and very thorough–answer. I’d say with graduate students there would be a greater expectation in terms of quantity of music prepared, both for an individual lesson and over the course of a semester. A first or second year undergrad might take two or three weeks to get the exposition of a lengthy sonata or concerto movement, while a graduate student would do an entire movement in a week.

      On Tue, Feb 19, 2013 at 10:10 PM, Eric Edberg

    • Darcy McCoy

      I couldn’t agree more with what Scott has stated here. It is so easy for us to make assumptions about what students comprehend or about our own expectations, especially since we often work with such inherently talented and capable musicians. We cannot be too explicit in our explanations (especially important to address these in our syllabus at the very start of the semester) of what we expect for students to bring to every lesson in terms of musical preparation in order to achieve progress and specific grades associated with that progress (or lack thereof). I know this tediousness of our profession can seemingly dampen the artistry at times, but I think it is essential in order to amply convey what is expected and in order to adequately decrease the ambiguity which often accompanies applied teaching (not to mention the ambiguity that can result from a grade being assigned that the student was not expecting). I think if we instructors initially detail the musical expectations from the beginning, then we can direct our focus on the real substance of each lesson and not feel that we need to apologize when a student earns a poor grade (grading lessons throughout the semester and discussing the outcome with the student can help with this too) or hears from us that they did not meet our expectations.

  3. I’d like to add that I think it’s important to know what you’re struggling with and be able to articulate that to your teacher. No matter how rudimentary or complex, I’ve noticed my lessons go better when I can say ‘I’m having trouble with X’ instead of forcing my teacher to figure it out.

  4. lw

    The process of preparing for a lesson is different based on the level of a student’s playing, especially giving the various degree programs that DePauw offers. It’s not reasonable to ask a CLA student to devote the same amount of his/her time as a SOM performance major. However, regardless of what degree path the student is taking, I think a helpful question for every student to ask him/herself will be “did I try every possible way to make the music sound better before my lesson?”

    This might sound like a very general goal, but if the student would take notes during the lesson and organize them afterwards, he/she would realize the specific details on the music that need to be achieved, and might even find the motivation to practice. And most of the times practicing is just the foundation of “making music sound better”, especially in higher levels of playing. That’s when you go read about the music, the musicians, composers, appropriate performance style for the specific period, or try to explore a new technique, or go watch a performance/listen to recordings…

    If a student is well prepared for a lesson then both the teacher and the student would have so much to offer to each other that times goes so fast in the lesson – it feels like you don’t want to waste a minute. And I cannot stress the importance of an open/honest relationship between the student and the teacher. Music making essentially is a soul-searching process, thus the ultimate role of a teacher is to inspire, not demand. Also I feel more students need to discover the wonders introspection (immediately after the lesson, when the communication is still fresh in your mind) does – that’s the start of preparing for continuing good lessons.

  5. Anne Reynolds

    To me the key statement here is: the lesson went quickly for both the teacher and the student. I appreciate the lists of what a student should have done and agree with them basically. However, I’ve participated in lessons which were great where the student wasn’t playing well and ones where they are ostensibly well prepared which were a real yawn. Truth to tell my single ax to grind here is that the student should show up having had some rest. The post all nighter lesson is leaden. Just as one would work hard to play a concert having had some physical preparation (not be holding one’s eyes open, not being able to focus through the fuzz of fatigue)- the same respect should be offered the lesson. It’s your lesson! It’s for you, not some onerous task imposed from the outside, but something you sought when you signed up.

  6. Carla Edwards

    I love all the comments here and agree with all of them. Preparing notes, fingerings, and doing what was assigned from the previous lesson are really important items to do before a lesson. But to add to that, I think the best lessons are when the student comes in curious about the music (maybe even looking up things about the piece before the lesson!!!!) and engaged in the learning process (like Prof Reynolds, come to the lesson rested!).
    Engaging in the learning process means being ready to take the music to another level and ready to listen to new ideas. Lessons should be an exciting exchange of ideas, which can’t happen when notes are unprepared or when there is resistance to change.
    Music is a constantly evolving art – you have to be ready to run with it and be excited about it!

  7. (Caveat: My remarks are about general lesson expectations and issues I have seen with students in my years of teaching, and are not directed at or meant to point to any individual student at DePauw either now or in the past.)

    The well-prepared lesson does not happen in the teaching studio. It is created in the practice room and at home, for each of the 7 days between one lesson and the next. The most important abilities the student needs to develop to properly prepare for a lesson are (IMHO) the ones I’ve listed below. I was going to put some of them in bold but then I realized I wanted to put them *all* in bold because they are all critically important. Although I’ve numbered these points, they aren’t really in a linear sequence; often many of them are happening simultaneously because they are inextricably interconnected to each other.

    1. Correctly audiate the technical realization of the notation: pitches, rhythms, dynamics, etc.

    2. Be able to tell when what you play or sing does not match your audiation. If you do not know you’ve played the wrong note or the wrong rhythm, you won’t be able to fix it. (Everyone plays a wrong note from time to time, so once in a blue moon this isn’t a big deal. But if you habitually play wrong pitches, accidentals, or rhythms and are unaware of it, then this is a significant problem.)

    3. Fix those things insofar as you are able. This step will often bring up issues that will need to be addressed with your teacher. For example:

    Student: I keep playing this G# too low. I’ve tried to fix it in the practice room but I can’t seem to get it right consistently.

    Teacher: Ah, I see, you need to adapt the frame of your left hand so you can extend the finger differently. [The student has shown awareness of the problem and has done everything in his/her power to fix it, but the solution involves modifying the student’s left-hand technique, which is a fix the teacher must be a part of. THIS is what you pay us for, not pointing out incorrect rhythms and pitches. But if we spend all of the lesson talking about incorrect rhythms and pitches, we never get to the higher-level stuff we’re really supposed to be doing.]

    4. With an awareness based on your skills in theory, ear-training, and music history as well as your musical technique, sensitivity, and critical ear, audiate the phrase MUSICALLY. This step involves taking the “precisely precise” nuts-and-bolts audiation and imagining the nuances and energies necessary to make it precisely *imprecise* in a satisfying way. We like music best when it is precisely imprecise, perfectly imperfect, exactly inexact. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS STEP. If this means you need to walk the rhythm of the melody and experience the energy flow kinesthetically, then you have to be willing to do that. If it means you have to rewrite something in a different clef because the publisher has put a clef change in a horrible place, and then copy that onto staff paper and tape it into your music, do that. If it means you need to photocopy a part, white-out all of the incorrect bowings, photocopy it again so it is a clean copy and then write in the correct bowings, do that. Do not let laziness or inhibition stop you from doing the work the right way and doing it 100%. (I once had a student who came into a lesson with no fingerings penciled into her part; when I asked her why not, she said that when she was practicing, her pencil was in her case and it was way over on the other side of the room and thus too far for her to go and get it. While this is an extreme example, we all have tasks that we justify not doing because we think they are too much effort, and the difference between not being willing to walk across the room to get a pencil and any of these other ones is merely a matter of degree.)

    5. Be able to hear when/where and how your rendition of the phrase does not live up to the ideal you have audiated. The “how” is the most important thing here, because it drives #6:

    6. Insofar as you are able, figure out what needs to be done to align your performance with the ideal version in your head. Here again is where your teacher is most useful to you — when you know what you want it to sound like and you don’t know how to get there. Again, this is what you are paying a teacher for. Your time in the lesson is limited; use it for the highest-level work you can be doing, not the grunt work of rhythms and pitches. In order to make that happen, you have to have put all the other pieces in place before the lesson.

    (Actually, writing all that out has given me an idea that I might try in lessons this semester… Hmm…)

  8. They come with relevant, thoughtful questions in hand that reveal that they actually thought about the stuff and worked on it before they get there. That’s for ANYTHING, though — not just music.

  9. A well-prepared lesson has to have time invested. Different instruments/voices will divide that time in different ways, whether on techniques, stamina, IPA, reed making, analysis, solfege, metronome work, listening to exemplars, listening to your own recorded sounds, writing in fingerings, etc. I like LW’s criterion for deciding whether enough time was invested: “have I done everything I can to make the music sound better?” I know as a young brass player I had to put in the time to build my endurance, developing the breathing muscles and facial muscles through long periods of practice every day, with a goal of 3 hours each day spent with the mouthpiece on my lips. But not all of that time was on calisthenics. The brain and the heart must be engaged, otherwise what is the point?

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