Integrated music teaching

Tim Topham
Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Pianist-educator Tim Topham, founder of instrumental teacher training site TopMusicCo, argues for a more integrated approach to teaching music, one that eschews the linear exam approach in favour of creativity that bridges theory and practice.

 Tim Topham and student
Tim Topham and student

Courtesy Tim Topham

For some 200 or more years, music lessons have followed much the same linear sequence. Perhaps you experienced lessons like these yourself as a child? Let me outline the flow:

  • Student enters, teacher asks how much practice they did, student mumbles something incoherent while turning red and avoiding the question.
  • Teacher asks for scales. Teacher corrects mistakes.
  • Teacher asks for piece no 1. Teacher corrects mistakes.
  • Teacher asks for piece no 2. Teacher corrects mistakes.
  • Teacher asks for piece no 3. Teacher corrects mistakes.
  • Teacher farewells student, asking that they practise more.
  • Student is already out the door, assuming that this is what learning music is about and looking forward to the day they get to Grade 8 and can finally quit.

Of course, this is a tongue-in-cheek view of lessons today. However, I'm sure it will still resonate with readers.

Depending on your measure of success, you could argue that this approach to teaching has worked perfectly well for the last 200 years, and so why do we even need to talk about it? If your measure of success is a student's ability to perform classical music with a flawless technique and with appropriate interpretation and style (and probably from memory), then you'll probably feel that this lesson process has been largely successful. And I'd agree. Indeed, you may have many competent past and present students demonstrating success in this area in your studios today.

However, if you measure success by your students' ability to teach themselves new music by ear, accompany a friend singing, compose new music, improvise some jazz, play along to a backing-track, create a lead-sheet and transpose on the fly, then the above lesson will be sorely missing many of the fundamental activities that give depth to musical learning. That's where I believe ‘traditional’ music lessons most often let our students down.

The linear, yearly music exam system that many teachers experienced as children doesn't help the situation, but it's not to blame. And teachers aren't to blame either – they're doing the best they can with the knowledge they have (which is often limited to their own experience of childhood music lessons).

What's to blame is the lack of innovation in music education that has led to music becoming a replication art rather than creative art, where the primary job of a performing concert musician is to reproduce the music and performances of a past century.

What music teachers can learn from art teachers

I'd like to outline one area for change, starting with a look at a closely associated discipline for ideas to help us improve. I was excited the other day when my son excitedly brought home a creation from art class. I had no idea what the object was, but it was pottery, hanging on three strings and had pipe cleaners sticking out from the sides.

As I looked for a place to display it in the house, I noticed his other artwork on the fridge and was suddenly struck with a revelation: ‘Why aren't music students bringing home their creations, too?’

Why are art classrooms adorned with students' work when music rooms are not? Sure, it's easier to display a painting than a sound wave, but sound waves can easily be represented in video recordings, notation or advertised with posters.

Why is it that if you replicate someone else's creation in sculpture or painting, you'd be called a forger or counterfeiter; while in music, performing someone else's difficult music is the height of performance stardom?

I think it's high time that music students got to bring their creations home, and that means that music lessons must contain much more creativity. But there's one big problem: with only 30 minutes once a week for lessons, how do you fit that in? Well, that's where I believe an integrated approach will help.

Why creativity is more than just ‘fun’

In recent years, many teachers have been exploring creative ideas in music lessons, thanks to the groundswell of support from many bloggers and teachers creating resources on ‘creative music teaching’. However, there is still a stigma that creative activities like improvising, composing, playing lead-sheets, playing the blues, arranging and so on, aren't ‘real’ musical activities; they are just there for a bit of fun after we finish the ‘serious stuff ’ (performing, exams, competitions, etc.).

This can't be further from the truth. As Dr Martha Baker-Jordan said in her Practical Piano Pedagogy: ‘All elements of music instruction must be consistently integrated so that students perceive all segments of music study as an integrated whole whose parts are all interrelated. Teaching a student to compose integrates and complements the skills needed to become a proficient reader in ways that many other parts of teaching cannot.’ [Author's emphasis]

The fact is that just reading more music isn't the only way to help a student become a better reader. Just sight-reading more music isn't necessarily the best way to make a student a more confident sight-reader. Novel, fun, creative activities that elicit emotion and build meaning in students is one way research tells us we can strengthen skills in other areas (Collins, 2013).

Not sure you agree? Well, if you're a reasonable piano sight-reader yourself, find some challenging music and sight-read it, taking note of what you're doing to allow it to flow.

Chances are, you won't be able to play all the notes because there are too many and it moves too fast. Instead, you'll be relying somewhat on your understanding of harmony and chords, allowing your left hand to ‘guestimate’ what's coming up while you read the right hand. You'll also need to have a convincing sense of style and a steady pulse to perform effective sight-reading.

If you've ever had to sight-read conductors' scores for musical theatre dance-breaks, you'll know only too well they're basically impossible to read, and the first thing most pianists do is write in the chords, so that they at least have a framework for playing in the right style and key!

I argue that the best way to learn these skills is through chord-based creative work. Things like playing and deconstructing pop music, learning the blues, identifying key chord progressions, playing chords in many keys, learning left-hand styles and patterns, making up compositions in certain keys, and so forth.

These are the activities, as Baker-Jordan suggests, that can have the biggest impact on a student's understanding of musical construction, and therefore their ability to play and read.

How to integrate creativity into lessons more effectively

So, if we agree that creativity is important, but we only have 30 minutes in a lesson to cover all the technique, scales and repertoire, how do we fit it in? The best way to incorporate creativity as a regular part of teaching is to use it as the glue that binds theory and practice. At TopMusic, we teach a three-step framework, demonstrated in Figure 1, for using creative activities to build connection and meaning.

Figure 1. Integrated Music Teaching framework

The three steps of the framework are:

1. Analyse the score for musical elements. In your preparation time, find all the key musical elements (e.g. keys, chords, patterns, arpeggios, modulations, terms, signs) in a piece one of your students is learning and highlight/mark them on your score. See Figure 2 for an example of this from the common teaching literature. This is probably something you do intuitively (i.e. in your head) when preparing a piece for a student, but we encourage teachers to mark these on a score to prepare for Step 2.

Figure 2. Burgmüller: Ballade No. 3, showing examples of mark-up

2. Connect some of the musical elements together
. Find connections between musical elements in the music, either to music the student has learned before or to music you know the student listens to outside of lessons. For example, there is a strong link between the key of a piece, the scale of the key and the melody of a given musical work. Often this connection is never made for students and they forever believe that the primary purpose of learning scales is for technical agility and fast finger strokes, which is only half the picture. Another example might be connections between the chord progression in classical works (say, Pachelbel's Canon) and a pop song the student knows (e.g. ‘The Graduation Song’ by Vitamin C). The better you know your students, the stronger you can make the connections.

3. Use novel, memorable activities to explore and deepen the connections. Take the previous example of the connection between scales and melody. Instead of announcing: ‘Did you know that the notes of the melody of this piece mainly come from the scale of the key in which the piece was written?’ (which is a good start), get creative and explore this with students. Have them compose a melody using the notes of the scale in the style of the piece or even using the left hand of the piece as written (this works really well if the left hand repeats). Is the student a bit nervous? Have them just use one or two notes of the scale for their creation. Start small and build over time. And don't forget to write down or record the student's creations – you never know what they'll develop into over time.

Ultimately, we want to deliver some ‘aha!’ moments for students when they realise something new or make a connection they hadn't thought of previously. We want to ask them questions to support their own curiosity.

The goal is that, over time, students will make these connections themselves: ‘Oh, I remember this – it's just like we learnt back in that Mozart piece from last year.’ Or they'll say, ‘Wait a minute, this sounds the same as that other song. Is that the same progression?’ and suddenly, you've got a student that not only has understanding, but can make connections between musical elements.

What the research says

The Integrated Music Teaching model is a research-informed teaching approach that will have a marked impact on your students' understanding of music and the connections between elements and pieces.

Dr Anita Collins, neurological researcher and music teacher from Australia, explains that creative activities like the one above in Step 3 build and deepen meaning, as novel activities jolt the student out of their normal lesson routine and provide something memorable to anchor the experience.

When creative activities are used to bridge understanding and connect theory and practice as a regular part of lessons, it's also learning this is ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’. Just-in-case learning is the kind that we used to do in a theory book at a table away from an instrument – perhaps your theory lessons were like this as a child. Just-in-time learning is the best way to capture students ‘in the moment’.


While there are myriads of benefits to using creativity to make connections for students, there are benefits for teachers too. Integrated teaching will refresh your lesson content, give you new ideas and challenge you to teach a little beyond your comfort zone. You'll connect on a deeper level with students and have a lot more fun in the process. Lessons may be a little less predictable, but that's exactly what good teaching looks like in 2023!

And the best thing is that your students will have something to take home and show their parents and friends that they've created while learning something new. A win for everyone. Let's keep up with the art teachers by bringing creativity back to music lessons for all our students.

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