Play It Again, Sam! Connections Between Constructivism and Equality in Instrumental Music Learning





Part 1: Do teachers embrace constructivism and equality in instrumental music education?

“Play it again, Sam.” For most non-musicians, this unforgettable misquote from the legendary movie Casablanca, refers to the aesthetic need of listening once more to what was originally a great performance. For musicians, such a phrase is a dream come true if heard after a concert. Getting warm applause from an audience and playing an encore means your efforts were successful, and people were happy and touched by your playing or singing. However, in the teaching-learning context, hearing this phrase during a lesson might mean something completely different for music students and teachers.

“Play it again.” “Play it again from here.” “Play it five times in a row.” “That was wrong. Play it again.” “Correct that and play it again well.” These are some of the most frequently repeated phrases in music instruction, as studied by researchers. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, rote learning and correcting are important parts of learning to play a musical instrument or to sing, as are other strategies, skills, and cognitive processes. The problem arises when this direct and highly encouraged rote learning is connected to other issues.

When one tells in-service instrumental music teachers that music instruction is often hard, transmissive, non-student-friendly, teacher-centered, or focused on reproducing the score in a standardized way, some teachers react very strongly. And we should completely understand them. Everybody seems to embrace constructivism and equality in music instruction. Such combination is a humanistic approach in which learning is constructed collaboratively between teacher and student, by adapting to each student’s individual interests and capabilities.

However, many people don’t realize that what we think is typically much different than what we do. Teachers see themselves as friendly, creative, and encouraging. In fact, they truly believe they are teaching autonomy and self-confidence to their students and they would like their students to have fun and progress naturally. Many teachers, in music and in other learning domains, believe they are being constructive, but the reality shows that the opposite is true in many cases.

When following music lessons, many parents also see teachers as constructivist guides for their children. And that is what we all want to believe: that most teachers construct knowledge with their students. However, when we ask students about this, there is a dissonance between what they say or what we infer from their testimonies and what parents and teachers believe. Several students don’t experience what happens inside the classroom in the same way as their teachers. This is because the reality of their teachers’ practices shows that instruction is often teacher-centered instead of learner-centered, as it should be, therefore far from what many teachers believe in the first place.

Part 2: Teacher-centered vs. student-centered approaches to instrumental music education

What teachers do during lessons matter — a lot. The degree of students’ positive or negative development is a direct result of their teachers’ praise and even to the personal traits students receive. In fact, there has been extensive research about how important friendly, talkative, supportive, and relaxed teachers are in the development of students’ careers — but also how much psychological stress certain teachers can cause in a student’s life.

However, even if students know this, they often begin resisting the constructivist position in music, and they start requiring their teachers to give them the prescription for their problems. In fact, in terms of some children, teaching only happens when it is traditional and they are evaluated negatively, since that is the view they are mostly exposed to. Therefore, the ideal constructivist, egalitarian and holistic approach to learning instrumental or vocal music is quite scarce.

It seems that some teachers speak unidirectionally to their students about half the time during a lesson, and devote the other half to rote learning activities — the “Play it again, Sam”. We also know that, in some cases, if teachers ask students something during a lesson, they sometimes give students little or no opportunity to answer; instead the teachers answer themselves and, in some cases, even sarcastically mock their students if they speak up. This method might work for some students, but likely would not be effective for others. Music teachers should therefore not apply the same teaching method for all students, regardless of their differences in personality, biology, and psychology. So, where is the equality or fairness of this type of music instruction according to the neurodiversity of our students?

This tendency of teaching music in such a traditional and conservative way is acknowledged by several studies. You will find a selection of references at the end of this video, if you want to know more. These studies were carried out in different musical disciplines at different musical institutions; with teachers of different experience levels; in different western countries with different curricula; with students at different proficiency levels, with various instruments, genders, family and cultural backgrounds; and by using different research methodologies.

Most of these studies are not only laboratory-based, but they analyze real classroom practices, aim at intervention in the music classroom, and seek teaching training processes that emphasize student-centered learning. The majority of these studies were conducted by reformist academic-performers who were aware of the latest learning theories and put them into practice to the extent they were allowed, despite much institutional resistance.

Part 3: Why teacher-centered teaching?

This way of behaving in the music classroom responds partly to the lesson work, as well as to the goals that some teachers pursue inside conservative educational contexts. So, one origin of the problem is this: When students learn to play a musical instrument or sing in our classrooms, what we practice with them — either unidirectionally or collaboratively — doesn’t always respond to the contextual or conceptual qualities of music. For example, who composed the music and why, how does the historical context relate to our time, which emotional connections to the audience should we explore as performers, and how can we possibly find the sound appropriate for our communicative goals. In fact, issues such as emotions or expression do appear marginally during many instrumental lessons.

So, what do we have left? Most teaching actions focus on the exact reproduction of the symbolic material, meaning decoding musical notation, specially when teaching small kids, because teachers’ beliefs tell them their students are not ready to tackle the musical pieces at a properly expressive level. Instead the children should just have a good grasp of the notes, rhythms, and similar basic notation. This is similar as learning to speak a foreing language in a high level, without understanding the meaning of what one is saying.

For this, we require routine activities and modeling, where errors are immediately penalized. But aren’t mistakes useful tools for learning? We know they are. In fact, when teachers encourage self-regulatory activities and view errors as learning opportunities, students begin to use more complex cognitive processes. But in these instances, trying to make things technically perfect becomes the driver and the final goal of music instruction, which is dangerous.

Thus, there is little space for comprehensive, dedicated learning in which students can develop their own personal and artistic voices. Of course, this method has other consequences. Students may be overwhelmed and stop participating in the classes because they are exposed to too many orders and they may start feeling like faithful imitations of their great teachers, who must constantly evaluate them after performances.

Graduated students often feel lost after starting their musical careers. They develop a continuous need for feedback and instruction. No matter our individual differences as learners, how fast, how deeply, or for how long we learn different aspects. For many traditional teachers, no resting during a lesson is permitted; the action must go on for the entire session. After all, as teachers, we do have to train students to pass exams and give our institutions clear quantitative descriptions of what we are doing with students. In that respect, reproducing notations clearly is an easier task than measuring artistic subjectivity or performance quality.

In the light of what I am saying, equality would support unique and creative individuals with different voices, learning at different paces. Teaching would foster cooperation through more dialogical learning environments and promote self-regulation and metacognition; that is, focusing on the students’ knowledge and capabilities.

Therefore, teaching would connect directly to the students’ intrinsic motivation (which comes from inside the learner) and their strategic actions, very much in line with the characteristics of effective learners — and I would say, happy learners. Equality would help students have their own view of thinking, learning, and knowing. That kind of deep understanding based on the integration of students’ prior knowledge and curricular outcomes would encourage students to take control and construct their own learning, feeling motivated and confident.

This sounds great in theory, but we are actually producing the opposite in many cases, even if teachers truly want the best for their students. This direct and common way of transmitting established knowledge in universities and schools of music to “subordinate” instrumental music students has been reported by a significant number of authors. In fact, it comes from the conservatoire tradition, which — honoring its name — tends to be conservative in its practices, organization, and goals. Conservatoires aim at preserving knowledge in quantifiable ways, regardless of the processes or conditions that are needed for learning to occur.

Part 4: Contemporary problems after traditional instrumental music instruction

After quite a bit of reformist teacher training, I assumed we were supposed to teach students using constructivist ways. I thought that we should be a step ahead of their needs. But the truth is that many of us are teachers of the 20th century who teach those 21st century students with methods from the 19th or early 20th century. These methods have been passed on to us through generations of teachers. They respond to the individual visions of unique educators who developed methods that worked fine under specific conditions in specific contexts many years ago, but which might not be valid anymore.

Thus, when we end up copying other people’s methods and ideas and using them in the same way for everybody — similar to doctors who give the same pill for all patients suffering the same sickness (remember: the prescription for the problem) — we are not addressing equality, at least not in music. It is clear that we tend to teach the way we were taught, as a consequence of our learning culture. But by being unaware of contemporary educational needs, we keep establishing this unidirectional and hierarchical — therefore unequal and radical — way of spreading knowledge. Sadly, some teachers agree that this reflects the best way to teach students.

And of course, because we all know that this kind of teaching produces high-level performers, we keep doing things that way and we believe that this is the most effective method. Human beings like habits and feel safe when they can quantify development. But what are the costs behind this? Some of the consequences include: dropouts of students who potentially could have been good and motivated professional musicians, personality disorders, substance abuse, stress, stage fright, overly competitive environments, or professional musicians who play well without actually enjoying their career.

Such modern problems require experienced professionals such as psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other health professionals who care for our mental and physical balance. These wonderful people have extensively studied these issues, and have devised short- and long-term solutions for many of these problems. In the meanwhile, many researchers have studied how to resolve other more complex problems arising from our teaching-learning practices, those for which we don’t have answers or solutions currently, although there is plenty of hope.

But who can cure learning? Unfortunately, we know that, after having attended a few  less challenging lessons, students of traditional or less innovative teachers represent learning as direct and realistic as their teachers do. In fact, in line with their teachers, music students consider those teachers who evaluate them negatively and who dictate what and how something has to be done as the most effective. This is not ideal, but even here there is hope. To a lesser extent, we also have examples of students from constructivist teachers who assume and understand that learning requires cognitive management by the students, and that teachers should merely be guides in this process of discovery and growth. 

Part 5: Equality and constructivism, the perfect combo

It clearly seems that students from constructivist teachers focus more on complex learning processes and ideal conditions, student autonomy, and intrinsic motivation. On the contrary, students studying under traditional teachers focus on results, repetitive practice, and external motivation and evaluation, while responding to teacher instructions. Students not only say these things because they are familiar with certain teaching practices, but they also explain the underlying principles, and are capable of making complete sense of their responses. So what’s important is how we teach, because as they say: Like teacher, like student. Thus, it’s clear that teachers’ beliefs have a crucial impact in how they teach and their practices have an impact on how students conceive and approach learning. 

In summary, all this clearly supports the statement that mainstream conservatoire or music school practices are traditional, with a prevalence of teacher-centered practices. We seem to be focusing on a factory-like environment or, as Robinson put it a “system of delivery”, in our case, of standardized musicians. This creates an environment of incomprehension, misconceptions, and standardized reproduction of music, leading to the current phenomenon of audiences turning back to classical music. People explain this because of the predictable characteristics of classical music in concert scenarios. They are bored.

In my research, I explain all this as a natural consequence of the transmissive teaching that I have described here, and which dominates the setting of one-to-one instrumental lessons, as well as group lessons and even ensemble practices. We researchers want to change current traditional teaching approaches. We want a real educational change. We want to promote equality in music instruction, not only by having an impact on the educational laws (which has already ocurred), but also on the educational practices. And all educators and researchers have agreed to move towards these kinds of practices.

Part 6: How to achieve educational change in music institutions?

As I have described, teachers, students, and institutions are highly resistant to change. Why is this? Why is theory always a step ahead of practice? This strong resistance to change responds to different aspects. On one hand, more reformist or constructivist teachers are not accepted in their teaching environments by more conservative teachers, heads of departments, or institutions. On the other hand, our beliefs, actions, and predictions are a sort of intuitive representation of how we think and behave when interacting with others. That makes change even more difficult, because we are not completely aware of our beliefs. Then we have burn-out factors from constant routine through years of teaching experience or age, or having learned in different pedagogical programs received by different generations of teachers. It could also refer to teaching isolation inside educational institutions.

We can be optimistic, however, because we know that younger teachers have accepted these new ideas. A real educational change is happening so that new teachers who are trained in constructivist principles agree on this. But they still have fewer strategies for putting those ideas into practice than more experienced teachers. And without help and equality in teacher training programs to expand their beliefs to more complex ones, this mismatch between what teachers believe and what they can actually do might eventually influence their ideas. They might end up following the educational culture of the institutional power around them, and being more greatly influenced by the practices of more experienced and traditional colleagues.

So, what are we doing? Is all this promoting equality? Is all this reflecting the diversity of teaching strategies needed for the diversity of students attending our lessons? Are we happy producing passive, stressed, and competitive students?

Is the relationship of teacher and student an equal one within these common teacher-centered practices? And by teaching everybody under the same methods, are we actually treating all students equally, or shall we instead adapt to the students’ personal, biological, and cognitive differences?

Is this factory-like environment helping to develop cooperation, collaborative learning, and professional work? Or are we creating competitive musicians who do not have time to even reflect upon their relationship with their instrument, their colleagues, and their careers.

Are we really focusing on using complex cognitive processes related to concentrating on our students’ personal progress apart from any external rewards or criticism? Are our students strong enough to surpass this external pressure? In this respect, are grades and competitions promoting equality? Are we aiming to help students to connect with their intrinsic motivation and happiness?

Because equality means that all people within a music family should have the same status in certain respects, in this context we shall truly think of making the students more participative in their learning process, for instance by letting them assess their own progress and by considering such a process as part of our teaching. Let us have a variety of learning materials and strategies that adapt to individuals’ needs. And let us update them as needed. Different cultures and special needs shall be considered too. We as teachers need more dialogic interaction and enjoy the true “meeting of minds” with our students. Needless to say, we ought to truly enjoy our profession.

Let us stop wanting to produce young geniuses, because children learning to play musical instruments should be equal to children who are not attending music lessons. How about music students having time to play games with their friends and spend time on their own doing other things they like too, without the pressure to succeed?

We also need equality when teaching students with a family musical background and those who do not, because they all can learn. The same applies to those students with more or less resources and support, or who attend better or worse institutions, or are studying under more or less proficient teachers.

ArtsEqual is an ongoing research project led by the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki in Finland, in which many of my colleagues are working. They have the privilege but also the responsibility to identify which mechanisms produce inquality and equality in arts education, a question that is central to my own research since pedagogy may function as a mechanism of equality. If you want to help us in this transformation process or walk by our sides on this challenging but rewarding path, share this video, support the project, and follow its development. Thanks for watching!

By Guadalupe López-Íñiguez (2016)

Read more about Guadalupe López-Íñiguez


López-Íñiguez, G., & Pozo, J. I. (2016). Analysis of constructive practice in instrumental music education: Case study with an expert cello teacher. Teaching and Teacher Education, 60, 97-107. doi:1016/j.tate.2016.08.002 (JCR 2015: 1.823, Q1)

López-Íñiguez, G., & Pozo, J. I. (2014a). Like teacher, like student? Conceptions of children from traditional and constructive teachers regarding the teaching and learning of string instruments. Cognition and Instruction, 32(3), 219-252. doi:10.1080/07370008.2014.918132 (JCR 2013: 1.75, Q1)

López-Íñiguez, G., & Pozo, J. I. (2014b). The influence of teachers’ conceptions on their students’ learning: Children’s understanding of sheet music. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(2), 311-328.  doi:10.1111/bjep/12026(JCR 2013: 2.25, Q1)

López-Íñiguez, G., Pozo, J. I., & de Dios, M. J. (2014). The older, the wiser? Profiles of string instrument teachers with different experience according to their conceptions of teaching, learning, and evaluation. Psychology of Music, 42(2), 157-176. doi:10.1177/0305735612463772 (JCR 2013: 1.903, Q1)