It’s a moment tailor-made for a TEDx talk (and, indeed, features in one). A music student is asked to play a minor scale in a key they haven’t learned. And they rattle it off, without hesitation.

Duncan Lorien says we’re learning musical instruments the wrong way. Instead of laboriously rote-learning scales, he teaches patterns. No matter where you start, you can play a scale from that note as long as you know the pattern of jumps from note to note.

Music teacher Duncan Lorien.
Music teacher Duncan Lorien.

He’s forged a lucrative career from this idea (and others), flying around the world from his adopted Boston home selling seminars that promise to jump-start your musical dreams, whether you’re a kid or retiree. He’s been running them in Australia since 1993.

But they’re not the same lessons they were 28 years ago.

“Attention span has dropped, there is no doubt,” he says. “A teacher in a school today has to cope with kids that are basically used to 30 second soundbites, and that’s an ongoing problem.”

It’s partly why these days he only teaches students aged 13 and above. And he has settled on ten-minute lessons, he says: his research suggests that after 9 minutes a child’s attention tails off, so by 45 minutes there is a seriously diminished return from effort.

Instead, he says music learning should be done in bite-sized chunks as “an integral part of their day-to-day life”.

Lorien is a Scot who grew up in London. With his portly frame and cultured, breathy voice, you could add a moustache and he’s the doppelganger of Uncle Monty (or Uncle Dursley, for later generations).Advertisement

He’s also a very smooth salesman, with an astonishing backstory: he says he started learning piano age three, and four years and 17 exasperated teachers later decided he was better off teaching himself (oh, and by the way the first book he ever picked up was the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

By his mid teens he was teaching 165 students a week and had “isolated 23 basic confusion points” in students struggling with learning music, he says. One was “Middle C”, a standard starting point for musical tuition that makes no useful sense: it’s a historical relic from a time when there was “a lowest note considered acceptable for a monk to sing, and a highest note above which it was unacceptable for a boy to sing”, Lorien claims.

The pandemic has changed his business: he used to do two-month tours through Europe. Now he’s taken a leaf from the video generation that learns everything from internet videos: he has a studio with overhead cameras, close-up cameras and professional lighting, and runs online seminars that incorporate live exchanges with slides, diagrams and movies.

“It’s actually been a huge boon,” he says: his students can see what he’s doing more clearly on a screen than 10 metres away in a room.

He had hoped to run a “hybrid” model, with some students attending live and others over the net: but in Melbourne this time round it’s likely that can’t happen.

But at 67 he thinks he might be over the jet-setting lifestyle, anyway. The next step is an entirely online project: little workshops, YouTube soundbites, the full 21st century package.

In a way he’s taking a leaf from his own book.

“Motivation is based on setting a target that’s achievable,” he says. “Then you set the next target.”

From The Age: