Injecting Music into Music Lessons

All of us who have played, taught, listened to or experienced music in any way know the power it holds. Many people can trace certain important times of their lives to specific recordings. Several musicians, myself included, can trace the reason we play music back to one or two recordings. Many people who play music have often been pulled out of major ruts in their practice/playing after hearing a recording. There are people who don’t have anything to do with playing music who simply can’t function without it.


In music lessons the students and teachers are often the ones making all the music. There can be an individualism that arises out of the lesson format that makes it hard for the students and teachers realize that they are part of a much bigger story and community. When we do our work in lessons or even practice it’s easy to forget that music exists outside of our sphere of lessons, practicing and performances.

Injecting recorded music into lessons and our life outside of practicing can be the singular thing that transforms us as teachers, students and players.

There was a time when I was really concerned about losing five minutes here or there in a 30-minute (or longer) lesson. The time went by so fast that is was always a race to get everything covered. However, after hearing a void in the way my students were playing and hearing this same void in students I didn’t know when I would go to outside festivals and adjudicate or listen – I realized it was time to include more music in the lessons… Music that wasn’t provided by the student or myself.

I started experiment with ways that recorded music could be used in lessons to help students play with more fire and not be so independent of all the amazing musical stories that had been told and were still being told by others.

The results were profound and inspiring. Students began to play with more personality. They began to practice more. They became aware of what they loved about certain pieces or types of music and wanted to include those elements in whatever we were working on – not just on the exact piece that inspired them. They focused more on the long-term arc of lessons and didn’t get frustrated when they ran into difficult challenges.

Here are specific ways you can inject outside music into your lessons and practice so that we become more connected to other music and musicians:

  • Buy a membership to a streaming music service. I know there is some controversy on how musicians get paid (and rightfully so), but artists will get paid something from a streaming service as opposed to tracks that find their way onto YouTube or SoundCloud.
  • With your membership to a streaming service, make playlists for your students. I would recommend finding/including music that is different than what you are doing in lessons. I love finding some electronic/hip hop/pop/rock piece made on instruments other than their instrument and using it to demonstrate articulation, balance, harmonic/melodic concepts and tone – so that students start listening for these details in all music so it gets more deeply ingrained in their playing.
  • Have a recording ready for the start of each lesson. As you transition students, put on music. When the student comes into their lesson let the music play for a bit. Ask if they’ve ever heard it before. Ask what they think of it. Then let them know why you chose this piece of music, what it means to you, why it made you think of them, discuss what we could learn from it and apply to their pieces.
  • Play a piece of music as they leave the room. Ask similar questions as the ones listed above when they enter the room.
  • Ask them what they’ve been listening to. Write the names of the songs/artists down and give it a listen. Add one of those songs to your playlist mentioned above so they’ll be more engaged. Play a different song from the same artists they mentioned when the show up to or leave the next lesson.
  • Listen to new music all the time. As teachers and players, part of our obligation is to stay current. We don’t have to be experts. We don’t have to love all of it. But in my opinion we do need to have our ear to the ground searching for exceptional quality in current, musical movements so we can help our students be aware and participate in those movements when their time comes. We can teach what we’ve always taught. But we simply relate our teaching to things our students are hearing all the time. They will see themselves that the Bach piece they are working on is directly related to things they are listening to outside of lessons.

Let us all know how you’ve injected recorded music into your experience as a teacher or player in the comments.