Jason Mohlenbrock

Rethinking Music Lessons

Thoughts, rants, and advice for teachers and parents.


Experiencing Failure in Advance

I love Seth Godin and what he has to say about making and shipping creative work.  (If you haven’t yet, definitely check out his blog, his podcast Akimbo, or any of his amazing books).


One of my favorite quotes from his 2010 book Linchpin is “I define anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.”


Let that sink in…experiencing failure in advance.  I love it!  I’ve always viewed anxiety as worrying about what might happen…but actually experiencing the “what if” before it even happens is what’s really going on.  This idea has definitely helped me personally (and I can imagine the shift in thought helping so many people in their personal battles with anxiety) but wow, it really adjusts the pendulum when we talk about performance anxiety for kids.   


When the kids we support step up to the stage, they actually experience how we reacted to their past performances.  Yowza.  That’s some pressure!  (And we thought they were the ones under pressure….)

Their experience and our reactions are way more interrelated than we might want to admit, but we can actually use that understanding to their advantage:


Don’t highlight failure – They got some notes wrong?   They forgot to practice every day?  They played the wrong scales with the wrong changes?  WHO CARES????  (By focussing on those mishaps, you’re just training them to experience the failure that might happen later, before they even try)


Go easy on success – They got the notes all right?  They practiced every day?  They played the song “correctly”?  Celebrate them!  But go easy on how they got it “right.”  Be more proud of them, for the risk they took, for their bravery to share….and always keep in mind how highlighting the absence of failure is just highlighting failure, in disguise.  (This is an insanely difficult balance, I feel you, I’m nowhere close to achieving it myself)


Embrace the potential for weird –   Will it work?  Will they mess up?  Will other kids in their school or neighborhood (or other teacher’s students) be better?  Will anyone get the art they’re about to make?  WHO CARES??!  Help them embrace the moment right before they take the leap, and keep going easy on whatever happens after (because their next leap needs you to).


Here’s my take on the antidote to experiencing failure in advance:

Lets help our kids experience here’s a new way to play this in advance; wow, a lot of people saw me mess up and I’m fine with that in advance; no one’s heard this before in advance; I have no idea how this will end up, but I’m so happy to be here in advance….


How do we build these amazing, self-affirming skills in our music students?  

Jury’s still out.

But, asking the question seems like a pretty awesome step…


The Ideal Music Student

What makes the Ideal Music Student?  

I have no idea, but I know it wasn’t me.


I rarely practiced what I was supposed to.  I never could memorize the notes fast enough.  I rejected music theory almost completely.  I liked Enya and The Lion King way more than classical music.  I’d rather play around with different settings on my synthesizer than “put in the work.”  I was really good at coming up with new ideas, but could never finish a composition correctly.  I could improvise for hours, but I could never find the right scale to use with the chords in real time. 

My teachers could never describe what the ideal music student was, but I learned to know that I definitely wasn’t. 


I ended up playing in countless bands, finally embraced classical music and jazz, composed music that was premiered by a member of the Phoenix Symphony, and helped start my own music school.  I even hit the illusive 10,000 hours of practice required to be an expert in my field!  

So maybe I was an ideal music student afterall?  

Still not sure.


I still don’t know what makes an ideal music student; but I know full well that I never had the ideal lesson on the circle of 5ths, the ideal support to know why chords and scales work the way they do, the ideal freedom to fully experiment with sound, the ideal empowerment to know 2 hours of practice on my own project was valid, the ideal patience to embrace the fact that I learned slowly on purpose, the ideal trust to know that who I was actually mattered.  


I’m very grateful that a series of lucky breaks allowed me to continue to make music the primary focus of my life, but I am quite aware of the fact that I probably should have experienced a very different fate.


What does Music Education’s relentless search for the Ideal Music Student typically result in?

“I loved playing music as a kid, but…” over, and over, and over…



Why “2 years from now” matters so much in music education

(It’s easier to teach, and the responsibility is on the student)


2 years from now will only be successful with enough discipline and practice.

In 2 years, your student will be more creative and understand what’s really going on (if they’re lucky).

If your student memorizes how to read the notes on the staff fast enough, in 2 years they’ll be sight reading!

If they learn the material and try hard enough, your student will earn the stage (in 2 years).


Discipline, practice, head down, show up…and in 2 years it will be worth it.  


What about right now?

Nah, that’s scary.

Anything can happen right now!  Mistakes, no practice, no understanding…

So we delay…we put off the real test for at least 2 years.


What happens when right now is prioritized?  When confidence, creativity, and inspiration take a front seat immediately?  And what happens when right now is repeated continuously for 2 years?


(Hint:  It’s harder to teach, but amazing for your student)


What thinking sounds like



We tend to understand that serious art needs to incorporate silence to portray the human act of thought.

When we give a speech, we try and avoid filler words like “um” and “uh.”

In monologues, actors make sure to give enough natural pauses to help their character convey a more realistic cadence.

In serious classical performances, musicians will make sure to give enough breath in between phrases so their melodies will not sound robotic.

In jazz, soloists will make sure to give enough space between ideas to convey a more natural, thought-out improvisation.

The better we get at our craft, the more we recognize the importance of silence in our art.


Yet, when a young music student pauses and slows down to gather their thoughts during a performance, it’s considered a mistake

Perhaps we don’t trust or appreciate their more juvenile thought process.  Maybe we’ve decided what a “normal” musical pulse sounds like, and this isn’t it.  

Regardless, when a student feels shame for slowing down to think while they play, the shame isn’t coming from them, it’s coming from us.


I really think we can do better than this. 

Elementary education teaches deliberate pause to kids, actually encouraging kids to slow down and think about what they are trying to do or say before taking action. 

Slowing down to make sure to think about where to place their fingers, pausing to gather their thoughts about where they are in a song, and having the freedom to be fully present in the musical task are huge educational benefits for our students.  These should be goals to head toward, not mistakes to avoid.

(Later, matching the beat when playing with others and playing to a “click track” when recording can be additional skills to strive for)


We can embrace our students’ pauses and silences right now, regardless of ability level or musical style.  

After all, if our students ever decide to be serious artists, they’ll need to unlearn any robotic adherence to the metronome anyway.   



10 strategies to reduce anxiety in music lessons

Last week I wrote about 10 possible sources of anxiety in music lessons.  Each of these strategies will apply to the corresponding number in that post.

In 14 years of teaching music, nothing has positively impacted the experience for me or my students more than adopting these 10 strategies:


1. Cut up material into bite-sized chunks.  You can help reduce the stress your student puts on themself by identifying the small little bits of information that combine to make up a bigger task.  Recognize they cannot digest all of this at once, and actually teach the small little bits of information only.  When they are confident enough with the little pictures, take a step back, and let them synthesize the information into the bigger whole.  This creates a huge potential win for your student that you can slowly work toward together!


2. Save posture and technique for later.   This one will be very tough at first, especially if you have a strong understanding of how a student should be playing their instrument.  The key is to focus on helping them develop a strong understanding of what to play before putting any pressure on how to play it “correctly.”  Use a simple rule of thumb: Can my student play this comfortably the way they currently are?  If yes, ignore any technique or posture issues; if no, introduce a new strategy they can use to help their own playing.  This small shift in our approach creates an enormous shift in focus for our students: strong posture and technique become something they can own to reach new goals, rather than an annoying “extra thing” holding them back.


3. Use practice habits as a barometer.  That’s it.  Don’t ignore a lack of practicing, but don’t put any unnecessary pressure on your student either.  Start by understanding that progress can be made lesson to lesson even without practice.  Then, see what kind of motivating activities or material can increase self-driven practice.  Then, add in some planning and goal setting routines to help increase the frequency even further.  Look at any dip in or outright refusal to practice as an indication that the overall system needs tweaking.  Continuing this process disperses the pressure to all parties involved, balancing the accountability amongst the student, parent, and teacher in a more realistic way.  


4. Put goal-setting and motivation into perspective.    Music teachers can help students set reasonable goals, and parents can help put these goals into action with small responsibility-building routines.  As a child naturally fluctuates on their commitment to these goals, their motivation to engage in music lessons should never be tried.  Constantly ask yourself how you can find what motivates your student, and be willing to adapt to spark and re-spark their interest.  If a child’s interests are given the freedom to fluctuate naturally in the short term, there is much more room for long term motivation in music.


5. Try your best to see what they see.  Let’s say I want to learn how to make my own repairs on my car instead of having to take it in all the time, so I hire a car mechanic to teach me.  I have no idea what any of the parts of an engine look like or do, let alone what they’re called.  I just know what a working car looks and feels like when it drives at the end.  Now, imagine my car mechanic instructor started saying things like, “No, that’s not the right part!” “Why would you put that there?” “It’s never going to work right if you do that” “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and if you just watch me more closely you won’t have any problems” “Look at how well your neighbor fixes their car!”
I would probably get incredibly stressed out and then say something like, “Look, if you’re not going to take the time to talk to me like the car-part novice that I am, I will never be able to learn how to do this effectively.”  And then walk out…

The only difference between me in this hypothetical and a kid starting music lessons for the first time is that I wouldn’t have a problem questioning authority so directly.  This is why we need to start giving our future musicians the courtesy of questioning ourselves…


 6. Don’t steal wins.  When a kid learns the notes to a song, it’s a huge win!  When a kid realizes they can read the notes on a page of music, it’s a huge win!  Celebrate with them.
Sure, they didn’t keep a steady tempo throughout.  Sure, they didn’t get louder where it said to.  Sure, they paused in awkward parts of the song to remember where they were.  All of that stuff can come later, and be just another win. 
Saying, “Great job, but…” steals a win and makes right now feel less-than-perfect.  Saying, “Wow, look at what you just accomplished!” solidifies a win, makes right now feel special, and makes perfect unnecessary.


7. Embrace fundamentals and careful planning.   Just because music is so abstract doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for music lessons to be.  Even if your main focus is music being fun, things can still get stressful pretty quickly.  Most kids want to be able to make something amazing and creative, and, as their teacher or parent, we want to help them.  Don’t overlook the necessity of providing appropriate tools and resources before a student is asked to jump into the abstract.  Reading music, understanding chords, a powerful sense of rhythm, a strong understanding of historical context…. What are the necessary and appropriate tools our students will need for these things?  And how can we best provide them in a logical and progressive way?  Constantly asking ourselves these questions will go a long way toward providing the path and platform our students need to successfully navigate the bigger picture concepts later on.


 8. Embrace creativity.  When kids start feeling confident or excited about what they are learning in music, one way they might express it is by exploring what else is possible.  Look for signs of this, such as: improvising their own beginning or ending to a song, singing while they play, making their own song in the style of a piece they are learning, intentionally adding in notes that don’t belong…  

Don’t stop this process!  

Highlight it, ask them why they did it, open up a conversation, empower the decision to add a little of their own ideas into the music.  

But don’t stop there.  Create more platforms for them to create and expand.   Praise them for taking risks.  


9. Embrace the chaos.  Music is confusing.  Music is complicated.  Music is abstract.  Instead of hiding this fact, head directly toward it with your students.  Take opportunities to intentionally show how open-ended things are.

“If you play these notes over these chords you will have an awesome jazz solo,” can be followed by a video of Thelonious Monk breaking all the rules because he felt like it.

“The audience will be expecting this song to sound like this,” can be followed with a video of Bob Dylan getting booed at the Newport Folk Festival for playing rock when his audience expected folk.

Here’s exactly what this means.  Here’s why it might not matter…


10. Embrace mistakes and forgetfulness.  As a kid’s brain develops, so does their relationship with it.  When mistakes or forgetting are described or hinted at as problems to overcome, we can unintentionally reinforce a preconceived notion that many kids have: That there is something wrong with their brain, and thus something wrong with them.  Flip that thought process 180 degrees, and teach your student how to see their brain as their friend.  Mistakes and forgetting are going to happen – simple as that.  This isn’t a flaw, it’s our brains telling us that we need that information again, that we need to dig deeper, that we need to learn this material in a new way, or perhaps even that there might be more possibilities beyond the notes on the page (re: Thelonious Monk).  

What a gift!  Not only did your mistake help you know that you needed to learn this again, it helped me know that I needed to teach it in a different way…”  Thanks, brain!”


10 possible sources of anxiety in music lessons


1. Synthesis is required too early on.  Take reading music, for example.  There are so many different concepts wrapped up into one task: What notes do the dots represent? Where are they on my instrument?  How long do I hold them down for?  What’s a time signature?  How many sharps?  What’s that triangle looking thing again?  What about that curved thing, is it a slur or a tie?  Dang, I forgot to count!  Do I take the 2nd ending?  


2. Posture and technique are overemphasized.   Proper posture and technique can help a musician achieve good tone, execute difficult passages, and go a long way to prevent injuries from over-practicing.  It’s no wonder posture and technique are placed so highly in most methods of music education.  The issue comes into play when a student’s needs and level of understanding are not taken into account.  In the beginning stages of learning an instrument (especially when working with young kids), a student is nowhere near the performance level where “good technique” is either necessary or makes sense.  We may be thinking that we are helping them play better or more correctly, but what they are feeling is somewhere along the lines of “No matter how hard I try, or how much I learn, there’s this right way to do it that I just can’t get.”  What’s worse, when a desperate but undeveloped attempt to play correctly makes its way into a student’s practice and performance, tension builds in the joints and back of the neck.  This rigidness actually leads to more injury than proper posture and technique attempts to prevent.


3. Practice is overemphasized.  Here, we enter the classic symptom vs cause dilemma.  A student practicing their instrument at home is a very good thing.  When it becomes a problem is when we look to practicing as a way for a student to prove that they are motivated and eager to continue their learning in between lessons.  There are many things that can cause a child to not want to practice their instrument: busy schedule, low self esteem, a desire to spend their free time doing other things, or perhaps they’ve been assigned boring or confusing material to practice… There are so many things that a student’s lack of practicing can teach us, but it’s much easier to blame it as the source of the problem. The minute we call a kid out for not practicing, they are in on our warped way of thinking, and, more often than not, they fight back against the shame.  Practice then becomes a battle or, worse, a chore.  In short, a missed opportunity to diagnose a source of anxiety soon gives way to an escalation, causing many students to quit lessons altogether.


4. Responsibility and motivation are confused.  Have you ever said (or heard anyone say) “…they won’t even touch their instrument”?  This is usually an indicator that a lack of motivation has become personal.  There are many opportunities to use music lessons as a tool to develop habits of responsibility (setting goals, following through on tasks, making and keeping a schedule, working through challenges), but no kid has the responsibility to be motivated to play music.  Motivation is a roller coaster; it will fluctuate, and we need to stay aware of that.  When we get upset with a student for not picking up their instrument, we are missing out on a huge opportunity to understand what currently motivates them.


5. Lack of context isn’t put into context.  “What I would do in this situation” will almost never matter to any of my students, because I have 27 years of experience playing my instrument.  What their friends are able to play also doesn’t really matter because they have completely different interests and circumstances.  The longer we have played an instrument or learned to appreciate music ourselves, the more likely we are to take the difficult nature of learning music for granted.  Most kids start lessons with very little knowledge of any musical terminology, but an enormous eagerness to express what they like and who they are.  When we are unable to put into context the fact that they have very little previous knowledge in any of the complex tasks we are about to help them work through and expect predetermined results, we run the risk of forgoing the celebration of who they are for the shame of what they’re not. 


6. Taste and artistry are expected before they are developed.  Like garnish and plating for a meal, there are many ways a song can be elevated once it is learned.  Phrasing, dynamics, correct tempo, or playing like the recording are examples of ways to make a song even more powerful than the notes alone.  If these items are expected before a student develops an ear for them (or before they are fully confident in simply playing the notes), they run the risk of becoming the unexplainable-unattainable “No matter how hard I try, I know there’s something about this I just can’t do.”  Right around the corner is where “…there’s something wrong with me” lives.


7. Not enough support systems in place for big picture concepts.  Because music is so abstract, it can be experienced and defined in countless ways: organized sound mimicking nature, the strongest language on earth, a full artistic expression of the mind and body…  Exploring these sorts of abstract, open-ended concepts is an awesome way to help a student meet and develop their inner creativity.  But without a strong foundation in the more straightforward music fundamentals, we run the risk of our students being lost in the conversation we are trying to have with them.


8. Creativity is overlooked or rejected.  On the flip side, if the big picture concepts are completely ignored, and the fundamentals are the only focus, a sudden burst of creative exploration can be mistaken for a distraction or threat.  Singing while playing, an improvised ending that isn’t on the page, an alternate rhythm, repeating every phrase for no reason, even deciding they would rather just play something else are all ways that our students might try to add a little of who they are into the music.  If they are told they are not allowed to do it that way, they are really being told that who they are is not welcome here.  It’s scary for a kid to let us know exactly what they are thinking; it’s devastating when they realize no one is listening.


9. The abstract and confusing become elephants in the room.  The most common way to address this balance of fundamentals and creativity is to reach a compromise with our students: if they play what’s on the page correctly (or what’s on the recording flawlessly), then they are allowed to make a composition or jam with us.  This really only touches on the surface of how confusing and abstract the music fundamentals AND creative expression can be.  Since confusing and abstract are scary, both parties eagerly accept the compromise.  But abstract and confusing never go away, they just sit in the background getting bigger and bigger.  


10. Mistakes are okay, but it’s better if they don’t happen.  “You learn from your mistakes” is a huge first step.  However, if we simultaneously celebrate perfection, kids are immediately in on the joke: mistakes are okay for now, but it will be better when I don’t make them.  How much patience do our kids have with themselves?  How long is the leash they are giving to their mistake-making?  How many months until the jealousy of those who (apparently) don’t make mistakes kicks in?  Will they ever trust their own voice?  It’s a shame when this onus is on them…


(Next week I will share some ideas on how to address each of these potential sources of anxiety)



I am writing this blog as a way to share my thoughts as I work through them.  I have come to realize that there are three seismic shifts that have greatly impacted the way kids experience and learn music.  The pace of technological advancements, growing global awareness, and expectations of leadership experienced at young ages mean that kids’ lives are more complex, connected, and stressful than ever before.  Music, as the most abstract of all art forms, has the opportunity to be the greatest sidekick our kids have in navigating this rapidly evolving world.  Unfortunately, most methods, techniques, pedagogical approaches, competitions, certifications, and schools of thought exist to preserve the past and resist this change.  Each of these blog posts will stem from the viewpoint that the change is already here, that these seismic shifts have already taken place.  

Whether you are a parent or a teacher, it is my hope that some of these ideas can help reduce anxieties and empower learning for you and the young musicians you are supporting.


Three Seismic Shifts:


1.  The apprentice model no longer applies.

“Watch and learn” requires two things to be successful.  First:  the task must have enough straight forward elements that allow a student to absorb the necessary information quickly, and immediately apply the knowledge in direct practice.  Second:  there must be a tangible payoff that creates the amount of extrinsic motivation necessary for the hard work ahead.  This just isn’t the case in music now that we have such immediate access to any song from any time from anywhere in the world.  Genres and expectations are more vague than ever before, and it is harder than ever to make a decent living as a performer.  

Working through this modern dilemma requires creativity.  And who owns that?  The teacher? The student? Both?


2.  Inspiration requires vulnerability.

Being creative, finding your voice, and leading others are no longer optional or extra.  These qualities are now required to navigate our world, and kids are exposed to this reality very early on.  Having the freedom and pressure to truly “be you” carries an enormous amount of social risk and personal vulnerability.  This experience needs to be kept in context whenever kids seem distracted, lazy, or unmotivated.  How can we help inspire without stifling or hiding their voice? 

Our own accolades and performances can provide an initial spark of inspiration, auditions and competitions can provide a short term amount of motivation to get through a difficult task, but the most valuable and long lasting form of inspiration we can help our students find is the ability to experience and trust their own voice. This requires us to look inward and voluntarily stare down our own vulnerability:  Are our methods helping or holding our students back?  Do we fully understand the task we are asking of them?  What else lies beneath the surface?  Does “what worked for us” address the current challenge?  What makes our opinions valid?  Do we understand what they are interested in?  Do we understand what truly motivates them?  What makes something perfect or great?  Does perfect or great even matter right now?  

The answers to these questions aren’t the point, the willingness to ask them in the first place is… Assess, adjust, overhaul, repeat… It’s time to stop trying to inspire kids to be like us, and start the hard work of figuring out how to inspire kids to be like them.


3.  There are no more gatekeepers.  

Screen time gets a bad rap, but, if you look closely, something amazing has happened:  Kids literally look up how to do things and what things mean…for fun!  Not only that, when kids are told something, there is a built in fact-checking system that gives them an “I’m going to see what that really means” attitude about pretty much everything.

There is an entire generation developing as we speak who looks to Youtube, Google, and countless apps for the basics.  They don’t need an art teacher to learn how to draw their favorite TV character.  They don’t need a dance coach to teach them the dance from their favorite song.  They don’t even need a programmer to teach them how to create their first video game. (What??!!

In this context, I hope more music teachers can feel less offended when they realize that kids no longer need a music teacher to teach them how to play their favorite piece.  (It’s true)

This really isn’t anything to worry about, it just gets the basics out of the way.  Music (and art, dance, coding) teachers have so much more to offer than the basics.  We can help teach confidence, creativity, humility, connectivity, communication, thinking outside and inside the box, making sense of the abstract, even curating collaboration….This stuff is WAY harder to teach than the basics (which is why there’s an app for that stuff now), but what we really have to offer is so much more important and rewarding… Let’s get started!!