A gonga post by John Terrauds of Musical Toronto made me sit up and take notice last week. In it, he wrote about his experiences taking on a group of students for a teacher on leave. Working with these students caused him to reflect on lessons as toil, duty, and obligation through rigid adherence to a syllabus. You can read his entire post here.
How many children leave with a lifelong love and yearning for making their own music versus the number who walk away, never to touch their instruments again? If a piano or a violin comes to represent toil, duty and obligation, I suspect its status as a potential source of inspiration, self-expression and invention diminishes in proportion. A 45-minute-a-week lesson in a small studio, centred around the requirements of a syllabus, strikes me as an inadequate response to that conundrum.
These are questions fine teachers and caring parents ask themselves daily. I think that just asking the questions and acknowledging the fact that the answers are not easy is, in itself, a good thing. Students come in all shapes and sizes. They also grow and change at very unexpected moments. How could we expect one system to work for all?
Here are some of my own thoughts on the subject in no particular order:
- Over the last few decades, there has been a reluctance to single out students by level. In fact, there were active policies in place in many areas against it. This thinking also extended to sports and music. The clock has swung around but sill, in some teachers’ and parents’ eyes, everyone has the same potential in all things. I find this view flawed. If we are helping a person become their best individual adult self, how could everyone have the same potential? Are we teaching a thing or a person?
- Approaching learning from where a person is right now, may mean choosing to pursue theory through composition/improvisation rather than written work, or finding that perfect classical piece to partner with a student’s favorite pop piece, or deciding not to participate in yearly evaluations, or ???. Every person has their own combination of personality traits that make up their total learning style. For me, going with a student’s nature and experience has always been more successful than imposing a way of looking at music.
- Syllabi and evaluation programs generally have a certain flexibility built in. Our state program allows for up to 4 evaluation pieces and for memorized and non-memorized pieces. It does not allow for popular music or musical theater selections and the theory tests are mandatory. I do not require that all my students participate. Some of my best students don’t. Some are focused on improvisation/composition and others are learning late intermediate and advanced classical pieces. They absorb the theory and use it daily. Taking the test is just added busy work for them.
- Some teachers and parents feel that a yearly evaluation program is an incentive to keep up their practicing all year long. And, for some it is. I have had a lot of experience with the other lot though- you know, the ones who wait until the last minute to do everything whenever they have a deadline. I’ve found that if you don’t give these students a deadline, they can be quite happy to work faithfully at a task. There’s something about that deadline that makes them shut down completely.
- Teachers need to monitor themselves and decide whether their own teaching gifts are right for all their students. The teacher who brings up students in the classical tradition and regularly sends them on the competition circuit is not the right one for John’s student with the twitchy legs. A student who is at home discovering new things in a self directed manner is not right for a teacher who adheres rigidly to a syllabus. Teachers are unique individuals too.
- Music should be a joy and release from everyday life. If adhering to a syllabus is making someone miserable, why do it? My own priority in teaching is to help the student discover communicating meaning through sound. The flip side here is that in order to be able to communicate and take joy in making any kind of music you have to have some basic skills. These don’t always come from a syllabus however. I am constantly amazed at the whole and partially self taught young adults who come to me at the college. They often surpass students with traditional lesson backgrounds. Dutiful students don’t always become great musical problem solvers.
- Students who stop taking lessons for whatever reason are not lost causes if we have given them the gift of making music at their level. (Notice that I didn’t say the gift of knowing the note names or counting eighth notes in 3/4 time.) Thinking that they are lost causes is thinking that you as a teacher have failed. I have many adults who come back to lessons and succeed brilliantly. Some are completely amazed to discover a gift for improvisation, Bach, French music, or Fats Waller. I recently had a student, now in medical school, return who had stopped taking lessons in high school. (His legs had done some twitching of their own on certain pieces.) He wanted some help with figuring out the chords for Ain’t Misbehavin’. He was totally at home at the keyboard and he should be since he has played in a band, composed, and released recordings for the last 10 years. ”Of course you remember that I hate to read,” he said. Who cared? He picked up the meaning of those chord symbols in a flash and, on the spot, created a marvelous accompaniment to play with his singer friend.