You Are Musical! Too Many Students Come to Me Having Been Told the Opposite

There is a myth that either you’re born with an artistic gift or you’re not. Here's how music teachers can break down that misconception and un-do the mantra of "you're not musical."

By Lissa Schneckenburger | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine

It happens all the time. An adult student will approach me after a workshop or show up to a lesson and say, defeatedly, “My childhood music teacher told me to just mouth the words in chorus.” Ugh. There it is, the burden that they’ve been carrying around for decades: confirmation that they are not musical, a barrier to all their creative desires and impulses, laid out in the open. No matter how many times I hear this, I am always filled with the desire to both hug the student and pummel their terrible teacher, who did so much damage instead of teaching and nurturing music. 


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Of course, some student-teacher relationships click right away, and some don’t. I realize that my teaching style might not work for everyone, but I most certainly believe that there is a teacher out there for anyone who wants to learn. Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy—that everyone can learn to play music and gain access to their creativity as long as they have a good method and teacher—has always resonated with me. We all show up with different skills and deficits, but with proper instruction, we can learn to do difficult things! 


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When a self-described “tone deaf” student first shows up at my door, the first few lessons are part therapy and part detective work. I try to gain their trust, hopefully showing them that it’s OK to make mistakes in front of me, and I try to gather as much information about their learning style as I can. Do they have difficulty with pitch recognition, or do they have trouble with memory? Can they repeat back rhythms but not pitches? Can they sing pitches but not find them on their instrument? Sometimes a student can hear music well, but no one knows it because anxiety gets in the way, or they put in minimal effort without immediate results and think their ears are “broken.” I get pretty excited trying to figure out how each person’s brain works and trying to discover what unique method will give a student access to information that they might previously have been missing. 

There is a myth that either you’re born with an artistic gift or you’re not. I’m sure every musician has had the experience of someone coming up to them after a performance and saying, “The way you play is truly magical—I could never do that” or “You are so lucky to play so well!” Or they ask if your parents are musicians, thinking there’s a music gene that some people are lucky enough to get. 

I bought into that mentality for many years and just worked on honing the skills that came easily to me. After a particularly disastrous singing performance in high school, I thought, “Oh well, I guess I’m not a singer. Good thing I love playing the violin!” And when I sat in the middle of the second violin section in my high school orchestra pretending to read music, it never occurred to me that someday I might actually understand what everyone else was reading. But over time, I began to notice my friends working on the things they weren’t good at—and getting noticeably better. I started to question the myth of the gifted musician, and this motivated me to tackle a few seemingly impossible hurdles myself. 


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We all want to skip ahead to the finish line, completely forgetting that this is music, not a track-and-field event.

Learning to read music turned out to be one of my first, and biggest, hurdles. I faked my way through years of orchestra rehearsals and even lessons as a kid until I got to music school in college and was finally exposed. It was there that I had to buckle down and learn to read music so I could pass my freshman year sight-singing class. And it was hard. I had to go way back to the basics and actually work on the stuff that I’d been avoiding for years. It was infuriating. It was bewildering. It was seemingly impossible! But the idea of failing a class terrified me, and I kept plugging away until eventually the cloud of confusion started to part, and it began to seem slightly less impossible. 

My method for learning something new was (and still is): 


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  1. Break things down into really small pieces. (I mean really small.) 
  2. Repeat, repeat, repeat! 

I’m surprised to learn that some folks think they’re terrible musicians simply because they gave up too quickly. Did you practice this 100 times? How about 500? OK, now we’re getting somewhere! I have to remind myself to have persistence as much as anyone else. When I’m working on a new technique, it’s so hard to have the patience to break it down into tiny steps and go through each of them in order. We all want to skip ahead to the finish line, completely forgetting that this is music, not a track-and-field event. There is no finish line, and each step along the journey is itself a reward. 

Sometimes when I’m working with a student, I feel a lot more like a therapist or neural scientist than I do a music teacher. (Do all string teachers keep a box of tissues at the ready and regularly think they should have gotten a degree in social work?) It’s hard to know at first which method or explanation will click and which will overwhelm someone. Some of the ideas you sow and water will sprout roots and take hold, and others won’t. I’m grateful for the hard lessons I’ve had to learn, which help to give me perspective on my students’ struggles and faith that we can overcome them together. Helping a person access their creativity can be a deeply personal, delicate endeavor, but in the end, it’s always worth it. 

Lissa Schneckenburger is a New England fiddler, singer, and teacher in Brattleboro, Vermont. Her Learning By Ear video course is a 14-part series that students can start at any time, available for all instruments and levels.