What does a teacher actually do?

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching. Not only am I teaching regularly again, I’m also teaching students how to teach. That brings me to the question: what does a teacher actually do? The class I teach in teaching is called Methodik in German, a (to my ears) rather terrifying word which connotes a portable bookshelf of various methods to be applied to the student in order to promote correct [fill in the blank: technique, performance, behavior, reading, etc.] One of my favorite quotes about methods comes from Keith Johnstone, a playwright and ground-breaking improvisation teacher for actors from the 1950s to the present. In his book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, he says, “a good teacher can get results using any method, and…a bad teacher can wreck any method.” When I got this job, I found it ironic that I should be appointed to teach ‘methodology,’ since I’m probably the least methodical person I know. What I think I do know, however, is how to listen and observe.

I’ve been reading a lot about a variety of subjects from how children learn to improvisation in music and theater to the meaning of music itself. There’s a common theme in the writing and speaking of all the artists, thinkers, and writers I admire. Whether the topic is fostering creativity or finding a way forward for classical music, helping ‘problem children’ learn or improvising a scene with actors, the consensus among my chosen role models is that you have to play in order to learn, create, and understand. Playing is creation, in fact, and there are far too few opportunities for children these days – let alone adults – to play.

In his book How Children Fail, John Holt describes how children left behind by the educational system resorted to developing tactics to avoid being noticed, or even strategies to coax the answer out of a teacher waiting for the student to respond. They learned how to do this with teachers who were more interested in having answers repeated and getting through the curriculum than in the unique learning process of each child. Teachers of musical instruments are usually privileged in the sense that lessons are one-on-one. There is no place to hide and the teacher is focused entirely on the student; this can be a blessing or a curse for the student.

No musician likes to hear bad intonation, bad rhythm, or wrong notes on a regular basis. If you teach beginners, you have to have a high tolerance for all of the above and learn not to equate the blemish with the student’s character. Yet again and again, I see musicians of all ages who have obviously associated their imperfections with their own ‘goodness’ from a very early age; I have seen colleagues actually become violent over their own mistakes and at the very least, pull a face as if someone had just passed wind. I know very few classical musicians who can play something below their standards of perfection and still feel like worthy human beings. This tells me that our teachers and our environment are encouraging us from the very beginning to associate imperfections with general incompetence.

It can be done in the subtlest of ways; I’ve caught myself doing it to students time and again despite my vigilance. I start to demand from them what I want to hear from myself rather than letting them find their way to their own ideal, no matter what their age or ability. Our ideals change as we get older and hear more. I can challenge and try to expand their ideals, but I try never to impose my own on my students. Even more importantly, they should never be afraid to make mistakes in the lesson. I’ve never taught real beginners and haven’t spent very much time teaching young children, but I’ve often thought I should, because by the time they get to high school or college age, many music students are already so inhibited by having been told for a decade or so that this is wrong and that is wrong that they are unwilling to experiment at the risk of sounding bad.

If we learned to speak this way, we would all stutter, not to mention have very small vocabularies.

Music students find strategies for coping with fear and failure before a teacher all the time, even though there is only one student in the classroom. Shifting on a stringed instrument is one example. Many string players have been told by their teachers that they shouldn’t make sloppy, audible glissandi out of their shifts. For fear of letting any part of a shift become noticeable, a student will often lift up the bow between notes, creating a hiccup between two notes. I try to make them do the opposite: make it into an exaggerated, slow glissando, noticing where the left hand is at the beginning and the end of the shift, with the bow heavily on the string. It usually takes several attempts and demonstrations of ugliness on my part to get them to accept this sound coming from their own instrument. Then I tell them to make the shift a little faster, and a littler faster, and so on, until you hear the two notes more than the shift in between. It means starting from ugliness and proceeding to beauty, or starting from the point of least control and proceeding to the point of only so much control as is necessary.

I have known for a long time that classical music pedagogy is a realm of “no’s”: not like this, not like that, wrong, wrong, wrong. I know this and it makes me want to scream. Where is the play in playing if every imperfection is equivalent to a cardinal sin? Where is the room to experiment and improvise? I have long thought of my teaching as un-teaching. Most students come to me expecting to be belittled; usually they do it themselves before I can even open my mouth. They make faces, they say, “that was no good,” they tense up and get quiet. Often when I ask them what was bad about it, they say something very general and superficial, which only supports my theory that for most musicians, young or old, bad performance = bad person. I feel they are waiting for me to absolve them of their sins and prescribe seven scales and arpeggios and five Piatti Etudes.

My point is, students come to lessons in order to learn, but they are so afraid of making mistakes that the first thing they have to do is unlearn. Unlearn excessive muscular control, unlearn the association of imprecision with self worth, unlearn the idea of correct and incorrect. Then, and only then, are we ready to start learning how to play. And I mean PLAY. Fool around. Experiment. Try ten things that don’t work and one thing that does, learn how the instrument responds and how the body can make it respond. These are things a student can learn only from his or her own doodling and not from a teacher saying this way or that. So I guess I’m saying that a teacher should be there to help the student play in every sense of the word, and to get out of the way of the student’s own learning.

3 Responses to What does a teacher actually do?

  1. A very interesting article! It’s always an enlightenment when somebody discuses such “difficult” subjects in the Internet and gives also her/his inner thoughts about it!

    There is something that is occupying my thoughts in the last weeks and that is: how is the best way to teach at the very first music lesson a kid?

    I am a cello student at the beginning of his studies and one of the many auditions I attended this month was for the violoncello class in Saarbrücken. My profile was artistic-pedagogic due to my interest to become a cello teacher in the future and I have to admit that I was surprised that after the actual cello exam I was tested – and it was right what they did – in pedagogic matters. I was totally unprepared for it! Firstly, I was asked if I have teaching experience – a thing I have not and a matter that can also be discussed – and then they asked me how I imagine the first cello lesson with a beginner.

    I had to think quickly and answered that in the first-first lesson I would definitely not start with the actual technical basics. That lesson, in the way I imagine it, should be an overview of the cello playing and an inspiration for the pupil. With trying and actually, like you said, playing with the instrument, the student would have the motive to come the next time with full energy to start learning that amazing musical instrument! The technique is very important, but it can wait I think for the first time. It is the tool that allows us to express what we want, but we have to have something to express, don’t we? Maybe in that way, by putting in the first lesson just the fun, the pupil will also understand much earlier that she/he will only learn by trying. The teacher, I think, gives only the instructions for how we can teach ourselves!

    You said that you have never teached beginners before, but how would you do it?

    Best wishes,

    • Dear Dimitris, thank you for your thoughtful comments. A first lesson – especially a child’s first lesson – is a very important thing of course. I’m not yet the right person to ask (although I plan on taking a few beginning students soon), but my feeling is that your attitude, presence, and approach to making music (which happens to be on the cello) is of primary importance and the things you do and say of secondary importance. These details of course will grow out of your general approach to making music and your physical knowledge of your body and the instrument. One method of teaching beginners I find particularly good, both musically and technically, is Paul Rolland’s string method. He was a Hungarian violinist (who changed his name when he emigrated to the USA, as you might imagine) and he developed a very clever and efficient way of introducing fairly complex technical and musical ideas at a young age, making the steps to things like spiccato and vibrato very easy. His book is now out of print, but you can probably find it in some libraries. Good luck to you and all the best!

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