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Don't Fix It

Part 2: The bad music teacher

And now for another Controversial Opinion — for what is a blog but a means of airing personal grievances?

For I have a likely controversial point to make, and in so making I shall air a personal grievance. Purely for point making purposes, of course.

Follow me back, back, back, to middle school, when I was a wee violin student and began taking lessons with a private teacher. Let us call him Mr. Worthless, because you’d be surprised how well it works.

I don’t know when the tide shifted. I don’t know when Mr. Worthless and I became wary sparring partners. I can only assume it wasn’t from the first moment we met, or we probably wouldn’t have committed to lessons. I can tell you, though, that I don’t remember a time when we did get along. We traded veiled barbs and I hated every lesson.

Look, I know what you’re probably thinking — I bet you were a little snot. I bet you were a brat, tough to teach. And you know what? You’re right. I wasn’t trying to meet him halfway. But hold with me just a moment.

I specifically remember the week in school we got Bach’s second Brandenburg. This is a nice piece, ubiquitous enough that many are sick of it, not exactly ground-breaking work. It’s pretty easy to play but it’s fast and has a lot of runs, and I became obsessed with it. I was not a happy practicer — I used to waste time adjusting the metronome and fine-tuning the strings to eat up the allotted our — but I remember spending that entire hour playing the Brandenburg over and over and over, trying to get through a completely perfect run. Eventually my mom came in and pointed out that I should probably turn my attention to something else, which I did, so I did time-and-a-half that practice day.

We went to lessons that week — I say “we” because my brother had recently begun playing the viola, the instrument in which Mr. Worthless specialized, and we had an hour and a half blocked out for both of us in total. I always made my brother go first as the first person in generally wound up with the longer lesson, the second left with whatever remained of the 90 minutes.

I was so excited about the Brandenburg that I almost — ALMOST — volunteered to go first. Luckily I squelched this urge. But I wasn’t dreading it as per usual, and I went up to the music room on the second floor willingly. Even though it was a school piece, I whipped out the Brandenburg, eager to show him how well I had mastered it. I had gone through this piece for hours, after all, and that was a big deal for a non-prodigy such as myself.

So I played the Brandenburg, pretty well. Not perfect, but he must’ve seen my zeal. Couldn’t he see my zeal? I had found — of course I found it in Bach! — I had found at last some passion. I had played something for him, for the first time, that I wanted to play, and I wanted to hear his feedback, to improve upon it, to make it truly my own.

And Mr. Worthless sat quietly in his chair, the usual fighting smirk on his face. He looked at me, and he opened his mouth, and he gave me a lecture. He reamed me out for working so hard on the Brandenburg for school instead of the etude and Suzuki he had assigned me. What I had done, he said, was disrespectful and inappropriate, like slapping him in the face.

Go ahead and argue it — he was right. I should’ve concentrated on his pieces. I shouldn’t have taken that surly attitude to begin with. You, too, are absolutely right on all counts.

But here is where I insert my controversial thought: in the case of teaching, it is up to the teacher, not the student. Or to say it in Horace Mann’s far more eloquent words: “A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring in the pupil a desire to learn is hammering cold iron.”

I was cold iron and he the hammer, but with the Brandenburg I handed him the coal to light the fire. I came to him and said here — here is something that has made me care. Help me shape it. But he wouldn’t help me shape it, because I wasn’t using the material he had given me. (You can relax now — the metaphor is over.)

Again — the argument is a valid one that I shouldn’t have been so difficult. And again, my argument is that as teachers, the onus is on you.

There are different styles of teaching. Some are gentle and kind; some are harsh. My mother knows a trombone teacher who uses agitated gestures and angry words as motivators, and for certain types of people this method works. This would not work on me. Mr. Worthless tried to fight me, but mine is the sort of nature that, if faced with negative reinforcement, will simply shut down all attempts — for why should I reward you with my success?

Point being, that no single teaching style works on every student. And as a teacher, it is up to you to either discover the way to get through to your individual student or direct them to someone who will. You do a disservice to the both of you if you do not.

Why is it not also the responsibility of the student to bend to you? Well, ideally they would too, but it takes another kind of personality. Fact is, you are a music teacher — I hope — because you love music and you love playing your instrument. Hate to break it to ya, but the same can’t be said for all your students. We are handed instruments as kids and told to play. (See: Eddie Izzard.)

I, for example, love music but hate playing, because I find it unbelievably frustrating to hear the wrong notes come out. Some kids don’t even love music. Some kids love both but are driven by other forces to rebel. Some are perfect and come in and play perfectly –lucky you. But if every kid deserves a fair shot at learning — and if you don’t believe this you aren’t meant for teaching — then you must seek out the Brandenburg in every kid and nourish it.

If a kid that had shown little interest and/or has been troublesome comes in with something that excites them, be it a basic scale or a piece you never assigned, encourage them. Follow them for just a minute. Release the freakin’ butterfly and just see where it goes for a minute. Then use that insight to gently head the kid in the direction he needs to go. If you can’t, give him to another lepidopterist who can better understand this breed of butterfly. (This metaphor is now also over.)

Okay. Go ahead. Rant about all the bad kids you’ve had to teach. Not saying you haven’t suffered some little hellions. But I’ll say it again and if you ask me it’s the truth: as the teacher, the onus is on you.


About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


5 thoughts on “Part 2: The bad music teacher

  1. Every student is a person, and therefore how is it possible to treat every person the same way? There are commonalities between folk, but it’s the subtle differences that make individuals inspired to learn (and not just music – we’d apply what we’re doing to life, the universe and everything, too!). I tend to be honest and open and we explore the fact that technical exercises are as important as musical ones which are as important as great pieces of music to play (whether I gave it to them, their school teacher gave it to them, or Aunt Mildred bought them a book for Christmas). I told many a student that I don’t care if they hate me, let’s just work together to get the best possible results. Most loved me, a few didn’t (and never will) care, and there were two (could’ve been more) that I know hated me. Hated me. Funny… after years of lessons with me (!) they both ended up in the top UK music colleges. With a limited roster of 100 students at any one time, I had a surprisingly large ratio of students switching majors to music – perhaps because they found a thirst for learning?

    Posted by Stephen P Brown (@Stephen_P_Brown) | August 17, 2011, 9:06 am
  2. Ah, so true!

    Posted by Ian Digby | August 18, 2011, 1:40 am


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