I love teaching music. I love it for the way it makes me feel when a student discovers the simple logic of the circle of fifths. I love it for the way a little girl and a middle-aged stockbroker light up the same way as they learn how to play their favorite song for the first time, or hear Louis Armstrong playing the blues, and realize they have music in them too. I love it for the lessons it has given both me and my students about life – its purpose, its beauty, and its rules.
It’s been said many times that teaching is either a calling, or something you do to make a living when you can’t succeed professionally on your own terms. In my experience, teaching is a deeper experience and if it isn’t a “calling” it can certainly become one if you let it.
Teachers are faced with a unique opportunity – that of being able to grow while helping someone else to grow. Whether it be a wide-eyed five year-old child with fresh ears, a socially challenged teen with a spark, or an adult who’s finally started after a lifetime of excuses, teaching music combines many elements, many skills, and many rewards.
Teaching music seems to come down to a few basic tenets:
- Relating to and communicating openly with an individual on a personal level
- Respecting yet challenging a student’s apparent and self-perceived limitations
- Willingness to re-evaluate your methods based on student performance
- Observation and sensitivity to a student’s individuality and potential (this of course applies equally to children as well as adults)
- Most of all, PATIENCE, PATIENCE, and more PATIENCE.
When a student feels comfortable at a lesson, usually when all of the above are in balance, magic can happen. The scope of the job of a music teacher extends way beyond music into the realms of psychology, philosophy, sociology, and anywhere else students need to go to reach the heart of their musical soul.
A student in his late twenties recently shared with me some traumatic events of his youth. They were subconsciously occupying his mind to the point of distracting him from everything he wished to do. He was unable to practice, or to focus on anything long enough to feel any sense of fruition. Ready to quit his lessons, we discussed his situation at length. Though I am far from a licensed therapist, my willingness to openly share my own experiences and views seemed to comfort him. I reminded him of his love of music, that music was the innocent party in his struggles, and that in my life it had been a source of empowerment and healing. I told him that music, the one unquestionable constant in his life, could also be his sacred space. He seemed relieved by my ready ability to step into his shoes and surprised at what a piano lesson could offer. Seeing how far I had come under my own circumstances, he told me he wouldn’t give up and hasn’t missed a lesson since.
Another student, a child of six who couldn’t concentrate on his lessons, tearfully confided in me he was being overworked by his parents who loaded him down with so many afterschool activities he had no time to play with other children. The solution was simple. Rather than add to his distress, we made a deal. He agreed that after being allowed ten minutes of pure unadulterated silliness he would sit at the piano and play for me. This arrangement left us a half-hour of concentrated lesson time worth far more than the forty-five minutes his parents were paying for. An outlet for his youthful energies was all he truly needed.
A middle-aged, learning-challenged student with an IQ of 70 had been abandoned by at least three previous teachers. Though she loved music, she had no idea of her shortcomings and, because her teachers sped her through her music books, was never given a chance to absorb the content of her lessons. In this case, it wasn’t that she couldn’t learn, but that the lessons needed to be adjusted to her learning pace rather than her teachers’ need for steady progress. One year later, a lot of patience, repetition, and hard work on her part have allowed her to truly finish her first book. She now plays accurately, enthusiastically and in tempo.
Another issue that comes up often with students concerns the value of practice time – both as a means of musical growth and as a way of achieving moments of flow and focused learning. The value of slow tempos during practice, as well as an overall individually-paced methodical approach to the study of music, are intrinsic to the process of learning. These concepts are often overlooked, even dismissed, by students in their quest for technical mastery or desire to save time or money. Often during my lessons I use metaphors to reinforce and connect these concepts to other areas of their lives. As a student myself, I still go through this process and benefit enormously from it. In the end, the student sees the parallels between life and music – that they are inextricably bound – and receives guidance in both simultaneously.
I’ve learned a great deal from my students, about myself, and about my relationship to music. I’ve learned that behind every weakness lies strength and behind every failure waits achievement. I’ve learned that the role and responsibility of a teacher is to help students discover these things. Any problem will offer a solution if one takes the time to understand why it is there in the first place. Sometimes you have to dig a little but usually a solution will reveal itself. In this case, it lies somewhere in the connection of two people who can lead each other closer to themselves – student and teacher.