Responding with the Service of Teaching

Since my graduation from Eastman in May, I’ve been doing a lot of teaching. I chose to pursue this area of work for a couple reasons: for one thing, it represents a much-needed means of stable employment, but for another, it also provides a unique learning experience. Having spent the past six years at two intensive conservatories, and several years before that as a young cello student, my transition from student to teacher has been both educational and rewarding. Although I’m nowhere near the level of experience as professionals like Credo’s venerated “P-Slo”, the couple years I have been teaching regularly have provided me with many invaluable insights, and so I thought it worthwhile to share a few of them here.

1. Lessons are NOT that big of a deal.

As a student, it’s very easy to consider every evaluation of your playing as some irrefutable judgement – but the truth is, most of the situations in which your playing is critiqued are not of the “make or break” variety. This may seem to be stating the obvious, but I knew some people in music school who treated every lesson like a performance – literally. They would dress nicely, get somewhat nervous, and walk into their teacher’s studio as if they were walking onstage at Carnegie Hall. (They would also proceed to take the next day off of practicing, since, after all, their recent “concert” had taken a lot out of them.) While it’s definitely admirable to be so prepared for lessons, from my point of view as a teacher, it really isn’t such a to-do. I’m just assessing where you’re at, and what needs to be improved. If you’re having a bad day and don’t play your best, I might comment on it, but I won’t think any less of you, unless weeks and weeks have gone by and your etude is still spectacularly out of tune.

2. The jury/audition panel is not an execution squad.

The same goes for auditions and performances. When I was at Eastman, I had an assistantship that allowed me to teach non-degree students from the University of Rochester. As a part of this program, the students were required to sit for annual juries, which happened to be scheduled right after my own Eastman jury – an event that incited quite a bit of nervousness on my part. I had reason for concern – not only was half of the Eastman string faculty in attendance, but my program included the entire Dvorak concerto….by memory! It ended up going fine, but I sure wouldn’t have wished the minutes preceding the examination on my worst enemy.

Sitting behind the adjudication table for my students’ juries a few days later, however, I acquired a much different perspective. As each person apprehensively came in and warmed up, I found myself becoming a bit apprehensive as well. I realized that I really wanted them to do well, and to have a positive experience. As they performed their repertoire, I was hanging on to every note, and was overjoyed when their performances were completed successfully. After that experience, it occurred to me that this was how my teachers must have felt during my own juries and auditions. We tend to equate the panel of adjudicating professors with an execution squad, but the reality is that, most of the time, they really are our biggest fans. After all, nobody wants to see a student crash and burn. That’s not why we have juries and auditions, and it’s definitely not why we teach.

3. We don’t expect students to major in music.

When I was growing up, I knew a lot of students who felt that they would somehow be letting their teacher down if they pursued a career other than music. After all, they’d invested so much time and money in learning an instrument – wouldn’t it be a shame to have that all go to waste? The truth is, the point of taking music lessons is not to become the next Yo-Yo or Itzhak or Lang Lang. Learning an instrument is a process that equips a student with skills applicable to many separate aspects of their lives. It instills discipline, perseverance, the ability to constructively critique oneself, and, when collaborating with other students, invaluable interpersonal skills. In fact, many individuals who pursue careers in law or medicine often have a musical background as well – or even a music degree. This is the underlying philosophy of many highly regarded programs and methods, such as Suzuki or El Sistema (or CREDO!)- that the primary goal of musical study is to create a beautiful person. This philosophy lies at the heart of my own teaching, and I strive to embody it in every lesson, whether the piece at hand is the Elgar concerto or “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” It is not about what you do with your music that really matters; it is what you learn from it.

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