In this episode, we discuss the roles that teachers, coaches, and mentors play in your musical growth, making connections and distinctions between them to help you understand what kind of help each provides in your journey.
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Today we’re going to be talking about teachers, coaches and mentors, and the role each can play in your musical journey. This is picking up on something Andy Wasserman said in our recent, about the distinction between an instructor and a mentor, and the way he talked about the huge impact his mentors specifically had had on him.
These three words, “teacher”, “coach” and “mentor”, don’t have universally-accepted fixed definitions, and so the three are often blurred together. You’ll encounter teachers who actually provide a lot of coaching too, or mentors who are happy to act more as a coach, and so on. And within each of these three categories there are a few distinctions to be aware of too.
So like with our recent episodes about the word “tone”, it’s helpful to have a clear definition of each in mind, so that when you encounter the words being used out in your musical life, you have the mental model to make sure you understand what the person means by that word, and clarify if you need to.
Why are we talking about this on The Musicality Podcast? Well, because aside from talking specifically about musicality skills, we’re also all about taking ownership of your musical life and being aware of all the possibilities available to you – not just the rigidly-defined status quo you might have encountered so far.
So I’m hoping that by talking through these three roles you’ll have your mind opened up a bit to some new options that might be exciting for you – and you’ll feel more clear and confident when people talk about teaching, coaching or mentoring in music in future.
Now I’m not going to be saying that mine are the only correct definitions or that anyone else is wrong in how they use these words.
But hopefully by providing you with one clear set of definitions it means when you go out there and encounter people using them in various ways you’ll be equipped to pick apart what they actually mean.
For example, is this teacher actually providing you with useful coaching too or do you need to find one who can? Does this person who’s offering to mentor you actually have in mind more teaching than mentoring? Is what you need to move your music and your Musicality forwards now more teaching, more coaching or more mentoring?
Sound good? Let’s get started.
Overall, I think one really helpful way to think about it is this:
- A teacher helps you with knowledge, explanations, and skills
- A coach helps you with performance or effectiveness, and
- A mentor helps with your identity: who you’re choosing to become
We’re all pretty familiar with the idea of a teacher, or “instructor” in music. But as we’ll be talking about, that role of teacher can often get blurred with coaching and mentoring.
And in this age where a YouTube video or online course might be playing the part of “teacher” for you it’s important to understand what a teacher should be providing and what’s actually beyond the role of a teacher.
I believe teaching is about developing knowledge, understanding and skills.
The value you receive from a teacher is generally going to be in them telling you facts, explaining concepts or giving feedback about what you’re doing to guide you through learning specific, concrete skills.
In music we often separate into two groups: an “instrument teacher” who is providing instruction, normally one-on-one, on how to play an instrument. And a “music teacher” who is teaching music in a broader way, normally in a classroom environment and more often for children than adults.
Your instrument teacher may well explain some music theory along the way, and a music teacher will often be teaching some instrument skills to support what they’re covering. But unfortunately, as we’ve covered many times here on the podcast before, both types of music teaching often neglect what I see as the third vital area: alongside instrument skills and music theory, there are ear skills – and, more broadly, musicality as a whole.
There are some types of music teacher who will always include these – and the big established systems we’ve mentioned here on the podcast before are:
- Kodály, in our episode with Jimmy Rotheram,
- Orff, in our episode with David Rowe, and
- Dalcroze, in our episode with Jeremy Dittus
There are also many music schools or independent teachers who will put a focus on musicality skills alongside instruments and music theory, such as past guest Casey McCann of the Eclectic Music School in Atlanta, and the Let’s Play Music program whose founder Shelle Soelberg was also a past guest on the show.
We’ll have links in the shownotes to those episodes if you want to know more.
I was very fortunate myself to have some amazing music teachers and instrument teachers growing up – but looking back, the musicality side was terribly neglected. And now, when I’m making decisions about music education for my daughters I’m better informed about what will empower them in their musical life. So for example, I didn’t just choose a fun and entertaining music class for my two-and-a-half year old, I specifically sought out one that would be fun – and based on solid Kodály principles, so that she’ll be learning the “inner skills” of music along the way and putting an amazing foundation in place early on.
So clearly music teaching can take a variety of forms, but it’s all about transfering knowledge, understanding, and abilities. And I think it’s helpful to ask yourself: Is the teaching covering the big three, of instrument skills, music theory, and ear skills (or musicality).
Coaching is the least well defined of the three roles. In my experience there are two distinct types of “coaching” you’ll encounter.
The first is common in the worlds of sports or acting, where essentially the highest level teachers start to work on mindset and psychology as well as skill development and they are now called a “coach” instead of a “teacher”. For example a tennis coach may well be doing drills with you to fix a problem with your backhand – but also talking you through the mental game to prepare you for a big match.
This mindset side of things is getting into what I said defined coaching, that it’s about performance or effectiveness. Making sure you can actually follow through the best possible on the skills you’ve learned.
The value you receive from this type of coach is making sure that all the preparation you’ve done learning skills with a teacher actually pays off for you in the moment when it comes time to perform. And naturally there’s an extra dimension to that when the coach is coaching a whole team and doing both teaching and coaching to help the team work well together.
The second type of coaching is common in the worlds of business or personal development where it is very clearly defined by professional bodies.
The value you receive from a coach of this type is in reflecting back what you’ve said or done so that you can see it objectively, and asking powerful questions to help move your thinking forward or get you past sticking points.
I consider myself to be a fairly clear-thinking and self-aware person – but I know that when I’ve worked with a coach of this type it’s let me unravel confusion and spot new opportunities vastly better than just trying to work through it all alone.
So those two roles are both called “coaches” and the common factor is that it’s about performance. The first type, the sports or acting coach, will often be doing some teaching too. The second type generally won’t, they are there to draw information and insights out from you rather than providing them themselves.
Generally speaking, I think coaching in music tends to fall into the first category, where a coach will help you with the performance side of being a musician and the mental game of it all, but might also be acting as your teacher for advanced-level skills.
The final role is that of “mentor”. I think culturally we all have a rough understanding of what a mentor is: a person we see as a role model for us – and with whom we have a relationship, so that we can actually learn directly from them, not just admire from afar.
Often we assume they’ll be doing it for free, out of the goodness of their heart – and generally because mentors are substantially older than you and so may not be working any more. But paid mentoring is also common in certain arenas and can get you access to people who you don’t have any personal relationship with.
The value a mentor provides is in sharing their own wisdom and experience and offering their opinion on your best course of action. They’re probably not going to be telling you facts and explaining things the way a teacher does, or working through performance or mindset challenges with you like a coach. But by sharing their own experience or opinions they can help you see how to replicate their success in your own way.
In music mentoring most often happens for the career side of things. If you’re wanting to be a professional musician or you are already and want more career success, or perhaps you’re a recording artist wanting to break into the music industry, then often a mentor can help guide you based on their own experiences of becoming successful. But mentoring can happen outside the professional world too, for example many people choose to take instrument lessons with a particularly impressive performer, and that person is acting as a bit of a mentor as well as their teacher.
And one thing I should mention is that mentoring can happen sideways too – in the sense of peer mentoring. For example I’m good friends with other online music education experts, like Scott Devine from Scott’s Bass Lessons, the biggest bass guitar learning website in the world. Tim Topham, who runs one of the top online sites for piano teachers to become more creative in their teaching. Or Steve Nixon who runs the very popular freejazzlessons.com and who’s been a guest on the show before. And I wouldn’t consider any of them a mentor, as such – but we’ve certainly had conversations which fit that mentor model, where they’re not teaching me or coaching me but I’m learning a ton from their experience and wisdom.
So I just wanted to note that: don’t assume mentoring has to happen from an older, wiser, official “mentor” figure. Look for mentoring from anybody you admire, who might be right alongside you in their overall journey, but further ahead in certain aspects.
Teachers, Coaches and Mentors
All three of these roles can be impactful for your musical life. We’re all very familiar with the role of “music teacher”. But are they an “instrument teacher”, a “music teacher”, a bit of both? Where does learning “musicality” skills like we cover on this podcast fit into the picture? If you’re learning your instrument, music theory or ear training from resources rather than from a person in live lessons, how well are those resources filling the role of teacher? We said teaching was about relating facts, explaining concepts and giving feedback on what you’re doing to help you improve your skills. Are you getting those three things?
Is your teacher, whether a person or a set of resources, also providing some coaching or mentoring?
Do you want a coach at this stage, someone who can help you get your head right for performances, or help you keep your mindset strong while working through the challenges of building a music career?
Or perhaps what you need now is a mentor and it’s time to reach out to someone you look up to and see if you can accelerate your own journey with more success and less frustration by discovering exactly how they did what you want to do. And perhaps benefitting from their wisdom by asking for their opinion on your own plans.
Often it makes sense to progress through drawing on these three roles. Certainly in music, but it goes for other areas of life too, such as career or personal development. Early on you need a teacher to get the fundamental skills in place and begin your journey. Then once you’re up and running you probably need some help operating at the best possible level with the skills you’ve learned. And over time you find that you’re working fine within your own abilities but you could move further faster if someone else showed you which paths to follow or avoid.
I think there is a natural sequence there. But it’s definitely not strict! We should all be continually seeking to learn new skills from teachers, and sometimes good advice from a mentor or a powerful conversation or two with a coach can ensure you’re on the right track from the beginning so that the skills you’re developing and the effort you’re putting in aren’t wasted, and get you where you most want to go.
Hope these definitions help you have a clear mental framework for thinking about these things
For example at Musical U it’s really helpful for us to know that the core of what we provide is teaching.
Our modules provide information and explanation and practice material and feedback. And our team is on hand to provide the personal help to make sure that all works well for each member. Our teaching focuses predominantly on musicality skills – with a bit of theory included along the way, and with our Instrument Pack option to help with the instrument skills if you want that too.
Then coaching is something we offer as a separate service. We have a Platinum Coaching program providing high-level guidance for those who really want to improve quickly with the time they have available for their musicality training. It’s for people who are already members of Musical U with access to our teaching – but want coaching to help them be more effective and successful in that learning journey.
Actually if I’m being fully honest we blur the lines a bit there and do provide some teaching as needed. We’re not going to be sitting there running interval drills with you on your coaching call but if there’s something you don’t understand or want to know then our coaches are all Musicality experts and so can provide the explanations you need to keep moving forwards
And at Musical U we don’t do mentoring. Members are welcome to connect with each other and that may well lead to mentor/mentee relationships forming in the community. Especially of the “sideways mentoring” type I mentioned earlier.
But Musical U and the MU team are not there to mentor members. We offer teaching with personal support, and optionally coaching too.
And so that’s really helpful for us to understand and have be clear for our team and our members.
I hope that talking through this has helped you to understand what each of these roles could offer you in your musical life and how they each relate to one another. You will often find the words and roles being interchanged or overlapped – and that’s fine. But now you understand what each role can provide, so that if you are considering learning, being coached, or adopting a mentor – you’ll know what to expect and can get confirmation of that up front.
Of course if what you’re looking for is online teaching in musicality then please do consider becoming a member of Musical U, we would love to help you. And I mentioned our Platinum Coaching program there – that’s not something you’ll find offered publicly, it’s only available to existing members of Musical U. But if you’re interested to know more just drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Platinum Coaching” in the subject line and we’ll get you some more details on that.
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