My Top 10 Books for Instrumental Teachers

Over the past 18 years, I’ve acquired many books related to music education and instrumental teaching. If you’re looking to expand your library, explore some new ideas or collect together useful texts for your teaching diploma preparation, here are my top ten books. I’m not going to claim they’re ‘essential reading’ because each of our teaching contexts is different; however, they are, in my view, good starting points.

Clearly, there are many books available and this list is by no means exhaustive. Rather, these are the books I’ve found most useful over the years. They’re the ones I go back to time and time again. I have restricted this list to books which are not instrument-specific.

In no particular order…

1. The Music Teacher’s Handbook

This probably one of my favourite books as it covers a lot, but in bite-sized chunks. Each chapter and section is written by a different specialist, so it isn’t completely weighted towards one author’s view. The book is divided into eight sections:

  1. Preparing to teach;
  2. In the lesson;
  3. Supporting skills
  4. Motivation and practice;
  5. Ensembles and concerts;
  6. Your teaching career.

A whole range of issues are covered, from the basics of actually teaching, to aural, sight-reading, theory, improvisation, composition, pupils with additional needs, and exams. There are many opportunities for reflection with tasks and questions designed to encourage this. At the end of each chapter and section there are suggestions for further reading and exploration. This is an ideal book if you’re just starting out, but also if you’re looking for a mechanism by which you can reflect on your teaching skills.

The Music Teachers Handbook (2005) is published by Faber Music in conjunction with Trinity College, London (ISBN 0571523307)

2. Instrumental Teaching (Hallam)

This is actually the first book I owned as an instrumental teacher. This offers of a weightier introduction to the theory behind instrumental teaching. It’s a substantial book divided into three parts: understanding pupils; processes of learning; and the teaching environment.

This is often referred to as the instrumental teacher’s ‘bible’, and with good reason. It covers everything from the function of music in society, through to resolving problems with pupils’ parents. Every possible angle is covered with opportunities for reflection and further development. If the book above was the bones, Hallam really puts the flesh on those bones. In my view, this is a ‘must-read’ for anyone looking to develop their teaching and especially those looking to work towards teaching diplomas and other qualifications.

The only downside is that it has been long out of print which is a great shame. Although it is over 20 years old, in my view, no one has yet written another text with such depth. If you can obtain a copy second-hand, snap it up. Although most retail for £20+ it is a substantial 350-page book.

Instrumental Teaching (1998) by Susan Hallam is published by Heinemann (ISBN 0435811460)

3. Tuning In: Practical Psychology for Musicians (Mackworth-Young)

Anyone who has explored The Music Teacher’s Handbook mentioned above will be familiar with Lucinda’s excellent research and writing about the psychology of playing and teaching. The book draws on psychology in a way which aims to help musicians and teachers ‘deepen their awareness and understanding of music teaching, learning and performing, and enhance and enrich their skills’.

The book is billed as a ‘home study course’ and it is exactly that. This is a book you can work through at your own pace. It is highly accessible and written in a way which offers practical application of the principles in your teaching and playing. The book covers: emotion; motivation; practice; energy; making music; group teaching; working with parents; working with different age groups; and performance. At the end, Lucinda encourages you to conduct your own action research project within your own setting.

The book is also not easily available in print form; however, it is now available for Kindle download.

Tuning In (2000) by Lucinda Mackworth-Young is published by MMM Publications (ISBN 0953948501)

4. The Sounding Symbol (Odam)

A bit like the Hallam above, this is something a bit more ‘academic’ in nature. The book is subtitled ‘music education in action’. Odam considers a variety of topics, including: music as language; brain, body and music; aural skills; notation; composing; and listening.

Whilst this book isn’t aimed specifically at instrumental teachers, the penultimate chapter considers how all he’s discussed can be applied in this context. There is an easy-to-digest summary of each chapter as well as numerous case study examples of how these ideas might be applied in practice. This isn’t necessarily an ‘easy read’, but it is challenging, and as teachers, we should be prepared to reflect on our practice in this way.

Again, out of print, but available fairly cheaply second-hand.

The Sounding Symbol (1995) by George Odam is published by Stanley Thornes (ISBN 0748723234)

5. The Virtuoso Teacher (Harris)

I could, in theory have listed all Paul Harris’s books here. He has done an immeasurable amount for music education and instrumental teaching over the years, in a way which I don’t think has yet been fully recognised.

My reason for selecting this book is that it brings together much of Paul’s inspiration and advice under ‘one roof’. This book is designed for teachers to use as a mechanism for self-reflection and development. For example, it considers how we communicate with our pupils and the language we use. It encourages us to think about our own practice and how we might get the best out of our pupils. This is an essential read for all instrumental teachers.

The Virtuoso Teacher (2012) by Paul Harris is published by Faber Music (ISBN 057153676X)

6. Rhythm and Movement: Applications of Dalcroze Eurhythmics (Findlay)

I have always been interested in some of the alternative approaches to music education such as Dalcroze and Kodàly, although I’m aware, like many, applying the principles within a one-to-one context can be challenging, particularly with a wide range of age groups. At the heart of Dalcroze’s approach was the need for whole-body involvement and movement in learning music. A sound-before-symbol approach, Dalcroze developed an approach which taught musical concepts through movement before they were assigned a visual symbol.

This book gives a useful overview of the Dalcroze approach, but importantly, it covers a range of musical concepts such as tempo, dynamics, pitch, phrasing, form and rhythm. There are many suggested activities for each of these concepts and with a little adaptation, these can be applied in a one-to-one context. A useful appendix offers further suggestions for exercises, use of balls and action songs, although these would need greater adaptation. If you’ve not yet explored the Dalcroze approach, I think this is a really good starting point with many practical examples.

Rhythm and Movement (1971) by Elsa Findlay is published by Summy-Birchard Inc. (ISBN 087487078X)

7. Rhythm One on One: Dalcroze Activities in the Private Music Lesson (Black & Moore)

Following the same theme as the above, this book offers some practical examples of how the Dalcroze approach can be applied within a one-to-one teaching context. Whilst some of these activities may still need adaptation, there is much to admire in the practical suggestions offered in this book. It’s a useful companion to Findlay’s text above and shows how many of her exercises can be adapted.

Rhythm One on One (2004) by Julia Schnebly-Black and Stephen Moore is published by Alfred (ISBN 0739035444)

8. Teaching Beginners (Harris)

One of the most popular topics people write about for teaching diplomas is teaching beginners. Sometimes, it’s a specific essay on that subject, and sometimes the essay has to first consider how we approach teaching beginners before looking beyond the early stages.

Again, Paul Harris has written many excellent books, but for me, this one stands out. Teaching beginners carries responsibility as we, as teachers, may be a pupil’s first connection to learning music. As I’m sure many teachers would agree, teaching beginners is not easy. In this book Paul considers the first lesson and the lessons beyond that. He also considers tutor books and their place within our teaching. He covers transfer students too, something which can often prove challenging. We will all, at some time or another, teach beginners, so in my view, this is a book which should be on your shelves.

Teaching Beginners (2008) by Paul Harris is published by Faber Music (ISBN 057153175X)

9. The Music Teacher’s Companion (Harris & Crozier)

I was a little hesitant about including this book as it is published by ABRSM and in some ways, is weighted towards an approach which sits nicely alongside their own exams. That said, I still there there is much of use in this book, particularly for teachers just starting out.

As well as covering many aspects of teaching, it also considers the role of exams, festivals and competitions. A whole range of areas are covered such as lesson planning, motivation, rhythm, composition, improvisation, practice, group teaching and professional development. There are some usual templates for lesson planning, reviewing, progress and reports.

The Music Teacher’s Companion (2001) by Paul Harris and Richard Crozier is published by ABRSM, (ISBN 186096219X)

10. The Practice Revolution (Johnston)

I’ve had so much fun from this book over the years and it’s one I go back to time and time again. As the title suggests, this is a book about practice, but most importantly, it’s about effective practice (and effective learning come to that). The book is crammed full of ideas and activities to ensure our students are practising effectively. There is a focus throughout on using the right ‘tools’ for the job.

Johnston covers a range of areas including: learning a new piece; making a piece reliable; memorisation; speeding pieces up; and preparing for performances. There’s so much in this book that even after 10+ years I feel I’ve only scratched the surface.

The Practice Revolution (2002) by Philip Johnston is published by PracticeSpot Press (ISBN 095819050X)

Do you have any favourite books? Share them in the comments below.

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