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Music tutors should not take on the role of therapist or counsellor. Please contact your engager or designated safeguarding lead to raise any concerns you may have regarding the welfare of a student.

Do your music students chat about their worries in lessons? Do you sometimes feel like a therapist as well as a music teacher? When I was younger, I would chat and offload to my one-to-one music tutors and over the years, lots of my students have offloaded their worries to me too.

I sat and mused. As musicians we’re trained to listen to music in such a detailed and reflective way; as ensemble players we require empathic listening and connection. Are we as musicians more likely to listen to other people?

Is chatting in one-to-one lessons something all music tutors experience? Do they welcome or discourage this part of the lesson? Are there other factors such as age, experience, culture, gender that create or hinder that space for a chat in lessons? How do tutors deal with this safely? Or, should we deal with this at all? I found myself with many more questions than answers.

Some tutors highlight tension or upset as being a barrier for a student’s music making

I decided to see how widespread this is and set about surveying a group of music tutors. A whopping 87% of music tutors said their students wanted, or needed, to have a chat or offload in their lessons.

It proved to be a hot topic: some tutors felt it was necessary at the beginning of the lesson in order to tailor each lesson to the individual, or as a way of tuning in to the individual's head space to help the student focus. Many mentioned the differences in this chat between teens, primary age, higher education students and adults, and some tutors highlighted tension or upset as being a barrier for a student’s music making.

Other tutors reflected on their own past experiences in lessons, and how these chats with their teachers had helped. Awareness of time and financial contract of the lesson (not wanting to waste someone’s money) was also raised.

100% of the tutors felt a responsibility to manage the length of chatting and maintain a professional boundary in order to be an effective music tutor.

Music tutors have a huge responsibility for the emotional side of music making

As far as I’m aware, one-to-one music tutors don’t receive any formal training in this aspect of the job. Safeguarding training is essential but in my experience, the subject of this casual chatting is only briefly touched on.

If a student discloses something that requires serious intervention or support music tutors need to know how to support the student appropriately, to record the information effectively, to know the DSL (designated safeguarding lead) and pass this information on to the relevant person or authority; the MU’s safeguarding tool kit is a great starting point to learn more on this.

I wondered how such a large part of a music tutor's experience can be so exposed to all sorts of complex ethical issues. As one-to-one teachers we build a relationship with our students, a rapport, and whilst this is a professional relationship with all the relevant and appropriate boundaries, it can’t be ignored that it’s almost impossible not to be affected both mentally and physically by what is happening in our lives when making music, this affects our playing whether you’re a student or teacher.

When asking students to communicate music and weave emotion into the notes or song text, we as music tutors invite this conversation.

Music tutors have a huge responsibility for the emotional side of music making, for students to feel safe in their musical explorations, being mindful of the emotional effect the music may unlock or ‘stir up’ and the language we use. And, to throw in the mix, music tutors can sometimes be the only trusted adult a school student might see in a one-to-one setting throughout their week. Wow, that’s a lot!

Empathic listening

When the outbreak of the war in Ukraine was first in the news, one of my 15 year old students didn’t feel able to play a particularly slow and solemn piece of music, she felt it was too upsetting.

Another student, 10 years old, had a few tears at the start of the lesson as she wanted to share that the teacher earlier that day had ‘told me off for something I didn’t do’. After some tissues and listening, the student was then able to play and make music.

Another told me they couldn’t practise because of stress and worry with exams and mental health difficulties. Another student told me about their worries around a bullying incident, to which I listened and then signposted to the relevant school channels and parents. The list goes on.

It’s often clear that if the chatting or offloading seems to be increasing, or the content more concerning, then a student may need signposting to appropriate support.

Never assume - safeguarding training is essential

Wondering why someone is chatting a lot in lessons is a useful way to think. Sometimes chatting a lot in lessons could be a distraction technique (the student won’t necessarily realise this).

Perhaps they haven’t practised, perhaps they’re nervous, but I never assume this in the first instance, and I have to reiterate – safeguarding training is essential.

If a student discloses something that requires serious intervention or support, music tutors need to know not only how to support the student appropriately, but to record the information effectively, to know the DSL (designated safeguarding lead) and pass this information on to the relevant person or authority.

No music tutor should take on the role of therapist or counsellor, but does that mean we shouldn’t ever listen and shut the chat down?

Without this conversation it’s a missed opportunity for music tutors to not only cater their lessons to the individual's needs, but also to pass on any vital information to school or a relevant authority about a student’s wellbeing. When a student shares their difficulties, successes, frustrations etc about their music making, we as tutors can support them to develop strategies for personal agency.

We need to be aware of our limitations and always work ethically and safely

Because of this gap in one-to-one music teacher training, in recent years I have sought out my own personal development and gained two qualifications: CPCAB level 2 counselling and Oxford University’s Introduction to Counselling Young People.

It struck me that what I’ve learnt has enormous parallels with one-to-one instrumental music teaching: setting boundaries in many areas such as time or physical; listening empathically; supporting people to find their own solutions; working ethically; reflecting; maintaining a professional boundary; remaining warm and open.

Obviously being a one-to-one music tutor and a counsellor/therapist are very different skill sets, but I can’t help but think training in this area would be hugely beneficial for music tutors.

We need to be aware of our limitations and always work ethically and safely (for both tutor and student) with appropriate boundaries, whilst simultaneously balancing and respecting the music students' need to have a chat at times.

Tips to create an effective learning space

Personally, I implement a check in and warm up session with my students at the start of their lesson each week, to see how their week has been and to see how they are at that moment in time.

A warm up can include a physical warm up with stretches and/or breathing and by taking some time to release physical tension, students can create mental space to be present in the lesson - you can then tailor the lesson accordingly.

Additionally, in asking simple questions about how their practice has been, we gleam a window into their lives - whether it be the activities they’ve been involved in, pressures from school, or issues with friends/home that they may be experiencing.

On another note, as a member of the MU I’ve used many of my membership benefits to help with my teaching work, such as the hearing protection scheme, public liability insurance (essential for all teachers) and financial support through the pandemic. I also frequently use many of the resources on the MU website, particularly the pages on education and teaching, working with neuro divergent students and inclusion and diversity in teaching.

As well as equipping students with the skills, knowledge and expertise in our chosen musical field, I think that respectful human interaction with positive communication, empathic listening, responding and adapting, all with professional boundaries are some of the vital ingredients that help create an effective learning space.

Photo ofHeidi Fardell
Thanks to

Heidi Fardell

Heidi Fardell is a freelance recorder player and Baroque flautist with over 20 years experience as a one-to-one instrumental tutor. In addition to her current private teaching practice and school work, Heidi has taught at Trinity Laban Conservatoire junior department (2006-2019), and schools across London and Oxfordshire. She has delivered workshops to clients including Kensington Palace, Tate Britain and the National Gallery. Heidi is also vice chair of the European Recorder Teachers Association, adjudicates for the British and International Federation of Festivals and is a National Youth Recorder Orchestra tutor. Profile image credit: Emma Spellman (Oojamaflick).

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The Emotional Side of Music Making: Heidi Fardell Explores One-to-One Music Teaching

MU Member Heidi Fardell has been a one-to-one instrumental tutor for over 20 years. Drawing on her own experiences, she shares why music lessons can often invite conversations on health and wellbeing, and how to listen and recognise when students may need signposting to additional support.

Published: 04 July 2024

Read more about The Emotional Side of Music Making: Heidi Fardell Explores One-to-One Music Teaching