Thursday, 14 May 2009

On teaching.

That last post seems to have gone down rather well. I've been wondering what to say next, and knowing I'll not be able to match it.

One of the things I spend time doing is teaching music. I've done other bits of teaching--volunteering with Cub Scouts, small amounts of academic tutoring on a fairly informal basis--but teaching music comes most naturally to me.

The last few weeks I've been doing a bit of music coaching via e-mail, which has been an interesting exercise. It has forced me to think carefully about what I do when I teach, because at one remove I cannot operate on instinct. That in turn has lead to some refinement of technique, I think, and some ideas for further distance learning tools.

I often say to people that I don't just teach how to play the notes, but how to be a musician. This is true on some level: learning the notes alone does not good musicianship make. Or I tell people that I don't just teach music, but how to learn. Again, this is true on some level: the strategies I teach my students to use in learning music can be applied in many other situations, and the habit of attentive learning is a useful one to build. Sometimes I tell people that what I teach my students is confidence, how to perform well under pressure, and while that's often a useful skill in music and their experiences in musical performance often have a lot to offer in terms of transferable skills (for most people school exams, job interviews and public speaking are a relative walk in the park after music exams), that's not really the point.

In a world where most of my students are under immense pressure to do things perfectly, I try to show them that perfection as they conceive of it doesn't exist. There is always something, in singing or playing music, that could be done differently, and some would say better.

In a world where living up to external standards is emphasised as the only route to success and even survival, I try to show my students that the world won't fall in on them if they play a wrong note, that doing things well to jump through a hoop isn't nearly as much fun as doing things well just for the sheer joy of it.

In a world where literalism and adherence to written instructions reign supreme, I try to teach my students to use their imaginations, to create something more than just what the dots say.

In a world where tests are things to be passed and then forgotten, I try to teach my students that being able to play a piece well once doesn't mean they'll be able to do it every time; that consistent results require ongoing input.

In a world where pleasure is associated with instant gratification I try to teach my students that tasks or projects which take hours, days, months, years can be worthwhile and enjoyable.

In a world where inherent ability is far too often conflated with worth, I try to teach my students that no matter what their starting point, they can improve and this can be fun.

In a world where regimented, dedicated hours of hard work are required even of children, I try to teach my students that no matter what they've done during the week, no matter whether they've had a chance or the inclination or energy to practise, as their teacher I will meet them where they are and help them go from there in learning. I won't shout at them for making mistakes or for not practising enough, or for anything: they get enough of that from others.

Yes, you read that correctly: I do not tell my students off when they haven't practised. I start where they are. I teach them how to practise, I teach them that practising works by working with them in lessons, and I find that when they are ready they will start taking the time to do it on their own, unless there are barriers in place.

All this is a lot harder than just teaching them how to read music, how to play the right notes, but also more rewarding. And some of the time I do seem to get it right.

It is a privilege and a very deep joy to have the opportunity to work with people on these different levels.

(It was late last night when I wrote this, so coherence may not be wonderful, and I've almost certainly missed some things out. But I'm going to post it anyway.)


8thdayplanner said...

I wish you had been my piano teacher. She would smack my knuckles with a ruler if I allowed my hands to droop even slightly. Sort of took the joy out of the playing.

Song in my Heart said...

People who teach that way make me very angry and very sad. Thankfully there isn't quite so much of it about these days.

Grandmère Mimi said...

(It was late last night when I wrote this, so coherence may not be wonderful, and I've almost certainly missed some things out. But I'm going to post it anyway.)

Because perfection doesn't exist. Good for you, Song. You practice what you teach.

Nevertheless, you sound like a wonderful teacher, the kind of teacher who builds up rather than tears down confidence.

Song in my Heart said...

Thank you, Grandmère Mimi. And yes--building up confidence, rather than tearing it down, is a good summary of what I try to do. The children I teach, and especially the adults I teach, have had so much of the other way around that they don't know what to make of it sometimes, but I've had experience on the other end of both types of teaching and I know which I found more useful in the long run.

Kathryn said...

As I think I may have mentioned before ;-) - your students are very thoroughly blessed...Thank you for writing about this important part of you.

Song in my Heart said...

Thank you, as ever, for your support, Kathryn.

Writing about teaching is a little odd; unlike many things, I find it easier to do than to explain. But one thing that has become clear to me over the past few months (and which I cannot write about here in any great detail) is that I need to get better at communicating my philosophy and purpose in teaching to some of the parents I deal with; I suspect I have quite a bit more writing and reflecting to do before I get there. A lot of that writing will probably happen here, because it's so tied up with my beliefs about kindness and empathy, and those have a lot to do with God.