Friday, September 11, 2015

Nasty Habits - Teaching Yourself

"When the Student is ready, the Teacher will appear."

This Zen koan goes right to the heart of the learning process. As students engage with teachers at the beginning of a new semester, it's helpful to investigate how students can best ready themselves for learning and growth. Teachers can also take much wisdom from contemplating this statement.

You may wonder who or what is the Teacher referred to above! As with most pithy sayings like this, I suppose there's no single correct answer, but here are two that occur to me:

1. The "Teacher" is actually a state of mind that exists when the Student embarks on a journey towards learning, e.g., lesson, with a receptiveness, humility and eagerness to be inspired and to be changed by engaging with great works of music, guided by someone who is farther along on this journey than they are.

2. The "Teacher" is an actual teacher whose effectiveness is enhanced by the Student's receptiveness and preparation for learning.

There are certainly other possible interpretations, but these fit my purpose for this post.

Grouchy Old Man

I'm going to sound like a grouchy old man when I say that young musicians today have many more resources for learning than I did when growing up. After I was done with school came the explosion of the market for CDs, then came the internet and YouTube, etc. Students today are actually overwhelmed with choices when looking for musical sound or style to model.

Combine this with the obsession with testing in the schools and you have a generation that often seems confused and unable to think for itself. Teachers teaching to the test often feel pressure to take short cuts and provide answers for students instead of introducing ambiguity that might delay an answer but provoke deeper, more critical thinking.

I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to "spoon-feeding." Indeed, there are often times when this is necessary -- fixing a reed for a student before an important audition instead of letting the student flounder while searching for themselves for the right solution, for instance.

However, I believe the old adage, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime", still holds true.

Sometimes, I'll challenge my students this way: "Make me really earn my pay by coming into the lesson so prepared and executing the material so convincingly that I scratch my head trying to come up with something to say."

If I have to point out wrong notes or spot something that a machine could register such as bad intonation or pulse, I'm not earning my pay and you're not getting your money's worth out of me!

Dan Silver, Professor of Clarinet at the University of Colorado shared the checklist below with me a long time ago. I think it's a great run-down of what must be taken into consideration when perfecting an etude, piece or excerpt.

In my experience, most students struggle to master the parameters of the "Fundamentals" section and grasp just a few things in the other sections in the practice between lessons. And that's in a good lesson!

 However, in a great performance, the listener is inspired by the performer's mastery of an interpretation. All the other areas must be mastered, but must remain invisible (or inaudible) to the listener. If any difficulty in these other areas becomes audible, the magic of the performance collapses like a house of cards!

Ideally, the weekly lesson should not consist wholly of spoon-feeding by the teacher or the student coming in with issues to the point such that the lesson is derailed. For at least part of an ideal lesson what is practiced is performing what has been learned during the week.

"Progress occurs between lessons." - Dan Stolper, oboist and teacher

Check this list before your next lesson. Challenge yourself to see how many of the areas listed you can master in the material you're learning. Share it with your students.

Musical Artistry              

·         Command of rhythm, pulse, ability to subdivide
·         Technical accuracy
·         Pattern recognition in reading music (scales, arpeggios, etc.)
·         Beauty of tone
·         Accurate intonation
·         Control of dynamics, large dynamic range
·         Control and variety of articulations


·         Variety of tone color
·         Seamless legato 
·         Even passage work
·         Appropriate vibrato


·         Playing exactly what’s on the page first
·         Clarity of the aural concept (what does the inner ear hear?)
·         Sense of style
·         Points of tension and release in the musical line
·         Control of line, phrasing
·         Use of rubato, if appropriate
·         Knowing context of specific piece
·         Performance practice
Physical and Mental

      • Mastery of the "Inner Game"
      • Body awareness and use
      • Stage presence, presentation
      • "X” Factor

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