5 Mistakes I made when I started Teaching Traditional Music

In this post I want to share some of the mistakes I made when I first started teaching traditional music.


Mistakes are an important part of the process for students and teachers alike. Yet, as teachers, we are often afraid to make a mistake – or to be seen to be making a mistake. If we are teaching, surely we should be on top of our game? We should know what we are doing. Right? And, therein, lies one of our problems – that pressure we put on ourselves to have it all sorted. All of the time. 

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t. I am constantly learning new things and trying out new ways of doing things. And so, making mistakes comes with the territory. What we need to do is get over the fear of making mistakes. And, if I can help any other teacher to avoid the mistakes that I made into the bargain, then there’s a win, right there! 

So, here are some of the big mistakes I made when I started out teaching.

  1. Teaching the same way that I had been taught 

When it comes to traditional music, most of us have little or no specific training in how to teach. We spend years learning and honing our craft as musicians – and then we have to figure out how to go about teaching it by ourselves.

Like most of us, when I started teaching, I reverted back to the ways in which I was taught myself. It was familiar. It worked for me as a student, so why wouldn’t it work for my own students? I was lucky in that I had some amazing teachers over the years, so I was drawing from a rich well, to be fair. But here’s the thing. By simply teaching in the same way that I had been taught, I wasn’t fully bringing all of my own experience and ideas to my teaching. Nor was I recognising what the students in front of me really wanted or needed, therefore I wasn’t creating a wholly relevant teaching and learning experience for them.

It’s only when I started considering my teaching differently that things changed. When it comes to playing music, I wouldn’t want to sound exactly like another fiddle player, right? So why was I content to teach like another teacher? What could I bring to the table? What could I do to make my teaching better? To make it more me?

That was the game changer, really. The realisation that, just like your musician self, you need to work hard at finding, exploring and nurturing your own voice as a teacher, your own teaching style and approach. 

2.Thinking that being able to play automatically meant that I would be able to teach it.

Wrong! Playing and teaching are two completely different things. And being good at one neither qualifies you, nor prepares you, for the other. 

It’s often the way with traditional music teaching, isn’t it? Somebody hears you playing and asks you to teach. Or, you are booked to do a gig, and a workshop is tagged on to the contract – so you find yourself teaching, rather than deciding to teach.

Here’s the thing though. Teaching demands a completely different set of skills. And, the bottom line is very simple – you have to learn these. You have to seek out and accept help. You have to work at it. Sometimes, as traditional musicians, we put this huge pressure on ourselves around teaching – as if it’s something we should automatically know how to do. 

We need to stop this thinking right now. 

Yes, we know how to play music. Now we need to learn how to teach music. It’s as simple as that. And the good news is – that with effort and support and training and commitment, it can all happen. YOU CAN BE BOTH a great musician and a great teacher. 

3. Thinking that I was the only one who suffered from self-doubt

Self-doubt  is a nightmare. And, when it comes to traditional music teaching, because we work so much in isolation, it’s not surprising that many of us suffer from self-doubt and imposter syndrome – that feeling that you are winging it and will be caught out any day now!

So, what can we do about it? 

  • Do an audit of all the skills you already have to bring to your teaching practice – this will give you a confidence boost
  • Gather up feedback from some of your students – use these positive comments to remind yourself of the strengths you possess as a teacher 
  • Commit to your professional development. Take a course, do a training workshop, read a book … and bring one new thing into your teaching practice this week/month. 
  • Connect with other teachers, and know that you are not on your own.  

Remember that, when it comes to teaching traditional music, there is no right or wrong way. Having the freedom to put your own stamp on your teaching style and practice is a gift. See it as a positive and don’t let that inner critic, that voice of self-doubt take the gloss off it. Keep growing, learning, upskilling – that is how you will get better and better as a teacher.

4. Being too focussed on the tune

When we think of our musical heroes in traditional music what are the features that make them so great in our minds? We think amazing music, great tunes, great arrangements, and so on; but we also recognise communication, authenticity, expression, individuality, creativity – all the other layers that go into being a great musician.  Yet, as teachers of traditional music, we can often fall into the trap of teaching tunes. And more tunes. And more tunes. Now, don’t get me wrong, tunes are at the centre of our practice as traditional musicians. But they are not the only thing. There are many, many other elements involved in becoming a traditional musician than simply playing – or learning to play – tunes. 

If as teachers, our job is all about helping our students to become traditional musicians, then how might we do that more holistically? How might we embrace the whole process of being and becoming a traditional musician into our teaching practice? How might we teach inside and beyond the tune?

Here’s what I did.  I started by simply taking 10 minutes within each class to work on something other than repertoire. Some of my favourites (my students’ favourites, indeed) are:

  • Body percussion (to focus on rhythm)
  • Quizzes (to focus on contextual knowledge)
  • Improvisation games (to focus on creativity and individuality)
  • Active listening (to focus on listening with intention)

These days I can happily teach for weeks at a time without ever teaching tunes – and the students get so much out of these lessons. 

5. Thinking I had to have all the answers 

Imagine thinking that you had to have all the answers. To know everything. What a lot of pressure! Yet, it’s so easy to fall into that trap. When I started teaching, I found myself in panic mode thinking that I suddenly – miraculously – had to have everything figured out. The stress of it! It was completely unrealistic. Plus, it certainly did not result in my best teaching, that’s for sure.

So what changed? I really examined what my role actually was as a teacher. And I realised that my role was not to transfer everything that I knew/thought/felt about traditional music onto other human beings – in other words, my students. No. My role was to support and help them to become musicians themselves. To borrow from one of my favourite proverbs, my role was not to give my students all of my fish, but to teach them to fish for themselves. Lightbulb moment!

So there you have it. My classic mistakes as a teacher (some of them at least!). 

How about you? What mistakes have you made? What are you doing differently now? How did you get there?

We’d love to hear your stories. Why not let us know, over on the forums.

And if you want to learn more about some of the strategies and tools I use to teach traditional music these days, why not join our course, A Framework for Teaching & Learning Traditional Music in our I Teach Trad online community (available on our Pro Plus membership package).

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