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Interview with Dennis Anderson
The Music Man


Dennis' unique approach to teaching music is also addressed in the Music and Motivation article.

How did your approach to teaching music evolve?

When I started teaching it was unreal to me that anyone exposed to "real music" wouldn't want to be a professional. I was passionate about music and thought that everyone else would want to be. It was detrimental. If you treat all people as though they'll be professional musicians many buckle under and stop playing.

I began to reevaluate my approach. I decided to ask the students and help them discover what they wanted to get out of music. It was important for them to see that their goals could develop.. For instance, some might want to play because a friend who played music was popular. Students might start off with one intention, and it might change. I wanted to work with them as a team and foster communication.

What did you learn from your students? What did they learn from you?

When a person heard a song they liked they wanted to be able to play it. They wanted to address that need immediately, not way down the road.
So we started off with a tune the student wanted to play. I'd arrange it on the spot.

By doing that I set a trap. In order to play, the student needs to develop a skill -- the skill necessary for a particular piece. As a student's vision and artistic passion evolve, students realize they need skills. Technique is a means toward an end.

How do you individualize the music for so many students?

The individualization evolved over time. I bought the books and tapes; invested in these resources and hand wrote pieces for the students. That way I developed a whole sight- reading program which is now huge. A computer music program enabled me to tailor pieces for each student and track their effectiveness.

What is a lesson like?

I usually start a lesson with by asking "what did you do this week?" That implies that the student has a choice. I encourage them to write music on their own. We print it on the computer and copyright it. Music is an artistic process and I refuse to take their artistic viewpoint away from them. From a technical point of view I'm the master, but from an artistic point of view I'm their guide.

What if a student wants to quit?

I believe in giving students responsibility for determining if they want to continue. If we don't give kids responsibility later we're upset that they aren't responsible. The goal is "self-motivation" in the students. It's up to the students how they are going to use what they've learned.

What do you tell parents about your approach?

I tell them that there's a lot of rapid development over the first 6 months and then kids hit the "skill wall." Skill level varies. By the second or third year parents are sometimes comparing their kids with friends who have developed certain skills. But the kids who focus only on skills drop music if their experience has been joyless. In junior high school kids get more work so that's a time when many kids need to decide. My approach is first and foremost creative.

Can you say more about your creative approach?

I encourage the students to compose and alter pieces, so long as they are aware of the composer's intentions. The idea is for the student to collaborate with the music. Pop music is often collaborative and creative. Classical arts tend to be exclusive... a fraternity that's hard to get into. Classical music can be forbidding. In sports everyone is able to participate -- there are many levels of participation and everyone can have a terrific time.

How do you see yourself as an educator?

"Edu -cate" means to lead out. Masters in any field make you want to follow. Any good teacher needs a certain amount of theater. I try to bring some drama to the lesson, which allows energy to continue rather than short-circuit. As in the theater where each audience is different, each student is different. I use a three-ring binder and have a binding machine so that I can put together all the pieces a student likes.

Each student is on his own for 6 days, so I help them work out strategies that work for them. Often this is through trial and error. I try to work with a student's strengths. Some students are sound sensitive; some are structure sensitive.

What about practice?

Playing is a key element. I try to get students to focus on the end of a piece, since often they will only remember the beginning. They'll start off strong and then peter out. If they know the last parts of a piece, they'll be playing into something familiar and their attention will be maintained. This short-circuits mindless practicing. They put together the chunks they have learned, sometimes mastering them in reverse order.

If a student isn't playing on his own, it's between me and the student. I get parents out of the loop. I ask the students why they aren't working on the piece. Is it homework; boredom; rebellion? I allow the student to be responsible and experience the consequences of no practice.

Any words of wisdom to parents whose kids are learning to play?

Be involved but don't take over. Don't take the experience from your child. Find out what the child wants help with rather than giving it where you think it's needed. Listen, but don't criticize.

If you want to learn more about Dennis Anderson, please contact us. Tell us what you think of his approach.

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