Learning is not linear

So, I'm now teaching middle school.

Following a calling is an incredible thing. I've found that it's best to not ask why I feel called to do something - I've just got to do it. Not that I'm impulsive, necessarily - I believe, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, that things grow within us without our awareness before they seem to spring up out of nowhere in our lives. The roots of this project go deep, even though a mere five months ago it was unknown even to me.

In order to best serve my students, I prepared. I researched curriculum. I reviewed the finer points of quadratics and quadrilaterals, colloids and covalents, appositives and apostrophes. I developed a daily schedule, put together a ton of IKEA furniture, and meditated on my vision for the school year.

Man, was I in for a surprise.

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On not giving people their money's worth, and also benevolent dictators

I think I know where my tendency comes from, as a teacher, to try to fill every moment chock-full with Productive Learning Experiences. When I was a freshman public school teacher, it was fear of the administration, and as a teacher of one-on-one piano and guitar lessons, it's the whole being-paid-by-the-hour thing.

Now, I'm the administrator of my own school, and I have a bunch of preschool kids attending a group "music camp" where the primary purpose is either:

having fun through learning music, or

learning music through having fun.

Whichever way you think of it, it's not appropriate nor effective to try to manage every second of the kids' time.

Instead, it's desirable to create an environment that has a strong framework, and then trust the kids to fill in that framework with their own choices, ideas, and actions.

I know that sounds like a concept you'd find in an education textbook that would never work in the real world. But student-centered learning really does work. I learned about it through Peggy-Jo Wilhelm, my amazing music education professor at the University of Maine.

I discussed in a previous post some of the specific activities and techniques I use with young children. This morning at camp, we incorporated the rhythm cards, resonator bells, and several other activities into our centers, where kids get to move from one activity to another at their leisure. Sometimes you will find three or four kids on one center; sometimes a child moves restlessly from one center to another; sometimes a child spends the entire time on just one activity, mimicking the way I did it and then adapting it into a different, equally valid game. I steal their ideas all the time.

Behavioral issues disappear (no "sitting still" is required). Other behavioral issues crop up, usually related to sharing. It is so fun as a teacher to sit back and witness the kids independently explore rhythm and  melody, sound and pattern. You become a facilitator not a dictator.

Of course, the dictator role is important, too.

"My turn is next!"

"Who's in charge?" I say.

They point to me. It is so important that I be in charge. It is vital that I have enough adult and teenage help so that I don't become frazzled, so I can maintain the benevolence in my benevolent dictatorship. It is crucial that I have the power, so that I can set the pace and foster the culture that allows me to share that power.

So I decide whose turn is next. But once that understanding is in place, we can go beyond turn-taking. I might present a new song, a new instrument, or new idea, and then just wait. Stretch the moment out. I leave little spaces where the kids can chime in, making suggestions, asking questions, relating the new thing to their own life in a way that often seems nonsensical to adults.

In classroom management, one of the first things I learned was to keep a fast pace. Don't allow any downtime, and the kids won't have a chance to get into trouble. Well...yes and no.

As a beginning teacher, a slower pace meant I was looking at my notes, or trying to remember the melody of a song, and generally creating a petri dish for mischief. But I've learned that activities need breathing room. Sometimes I can let the kids see me thinking, deciding. Sometimes I can try something new that I haven't planned out, allowing the kids to lead me. Sometimes we can take a few minutes to rest, singing a quiet song or having a quiet conversation. Doing that with a bunch of five-year-olds is incredible - it is such a different use of their energy.

Looking around Swiedler Hall, you might think the kids are running the show. No - at best it is a federation with the occasional illusion of democracy. And ideally, the ruler does not have to demonstrate her power.

Moments ago, a child of six came into the room, sobbing. Tara to the rescue: "Are you ok? What happened?" He could barely speak, so she went to investigate. She came back and said, "Uh...Smoothie King cleanup on Aisle One." Apparently he had dropped his smoothie all over the rug, and his teenage sister hollered at him.

his afternoon workshop was beginning, but the child was inconsolable. I led him away from the scene of the crime to a cool leather couch in the back room. "Here, this is a comfortable couch. Just relax, and when you're ready, you can join the camp. Here's some Kleenex."

I went back to work, keeping my eye on the boy. His sister came and went. Tara came and went. In the meantime, the kid stretched out and took a twenty-minute nap or so. Presently, he came to, and went of his own accord to join the session in progress.

My mind went to that neurotic place ("His mom is paying for this camp! He shouldn't be napping! Too much downtime!"). But as I continue to detox from all that school- and work-related baggage, I'm uncovering the sweet truth: the joy of leadership is to build the trust that allows the sharing of power, and the joy of sharing the power (i.e., teaching!) is to go beyond time, lesson plans and even subject matter to the core: discovering and celebrating our mutual humanity.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clean up the remains of what appears to be a strawberry smoothie, and then teach a piano lesson or four. Thanks for reading.

Those who can't do...

Two things kind of stink about teaching music: The first is that when a student fails, it's all my fault, but when a student succeeds, it's because of talent. Bummer.

The second thing that stinks about teaching music is the topic of this post: Spending time helping other people develop their musicianship means I'm not spending my time developing my own. What is the relationship between these two activities?

There are six-year-olds playing way harder stuff on their YouTube channels.


It takes time and focus to get good at something

Gladwell, in Outliers, talks about how research suggests that a person needs ten thousand hours of practice at a skill in order to get good at it. I can tell you that I've easily put 10,000 hours and then some into teaching music lessons. I've probably amassed another 10,000 hours or so on music in general, but since I spent that time listening, singing, songwriting, recording, and playing a few different instruments, I do not have any serious musical chops. Yeah, I can play, but I'm no Jimi Hendrix (or Keith Jarrett, or Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney, or George Martin for that matter).

The past few years have been particularly painful in this regard, because I'm spending most of my time being the administrator of a school. But to use that as an excuse for not going anywhere as a musician would just be rationalization, so I'm working on a couple goals: playing more music and refining and sharing my teaching methods.


Doing two things is not focus, in case you were wondering

Ugh! Why can't I just have one goal instead of two? That is how you become successful, right? Well, I really do feel like I have to have both in my life. My teaching is at its best when I'm actively pursuing my musicianship (playing in a band, writing songs, performing, etc.) and my playing...well, without the teaching, my playing would really suffer because I'd have to sell my guitar to pay my mortgage. Teaching has always been the foundation of how I make my living; however accidentally I may have landed in this profession, it seems to be what I'm good at.

So if I've been spending a disproportionate amount of time teaching and not playing, at least I've really learned how to do it well. Meanwhile, those of my peers who spent the past decade in grad school and then practicing six hours a day? They are excellent players, and they are not automatically good teachers as a result. In fact, some of the best instrumentalists I've known are also the worst teachers I've known. This is not a coincidence, the same way that it is not a coincidence that I cannot play Fantaisie-Impromptu: There is only so much time in the day. Corollary: We focus on what we're already pretty good at.


Those who can't teach, do

So that old saw, "Those who can't do, teach," has some validity. But! I take issue with its implication that a) teaching is easy; or that b) I have to be able to play like Glenn Gould in order to be qualified to guide a student through their first several years of study on the piano.

I had lunch with Katie Baughman today, and we talked about how our colleague, Jennifer Christie, is such a gifted piano teacher precisely because piano is not her first instrument! This unique perspective gives Jennifer an insight into the mind of the beginner (and people stay beginners for a long time, so this is very important). Also, Jennifer has made the choice to invest in learning how to teach well, since she can't rely on dazzling her prospective students with virtuosic abililties on the piano.

It's funny: every so often, a parent wants the teacher to audition. I absolutely believe that regardless of the specific repertoire a teacher has mastered, he or she should have excellent technique and artistry. But in listening to your teacher play, you might miss the point, which is that being able to play Fantaisie-Impromptu does not mean you have the tools to teach someone else how to do it. Really, they are separate professions.


George Martin was a rock star, too

The performer gets the glory - his work is breathtaking, memorable, inspiring. And great teaching exhibits the same level of elegance, grace, and ease that great playing does. It's less flashy, but just as vital. That student who gets props for his talent? I'll let him take the credit. But I'll also take the warm fuzzy feeling.

What do you think? Is teaching the ugly stepsister of music? Do I sound defensive?

The worst mistake a music teacher can make

The worst mistake a music teacher can make:

Deciding that a student "just doesn't have it."

"Alas, this poor soul was born without the talent necessary to become a musician. I'll collect my fee, but I really can't do anything with this one."

This is such a depressing idea. If this is where you begin, why even bother being a teacher? And if this is where you end up, you are seriously burned out and should take some time off.

There have been times in my career that I've struggled in finding the best way to reach a student. There have been times when I was frustrated at a student's lack of practice or progress. But instinctively, for self-preservation as much as compassion, I've avoided thoughts that allow me to take myself off the hook and blame the student.

Once you go down this road, it's very difficult to find meaning in the work of teaching. All of a sudden, you're deciding the destiny of a student based on your assessment of ability. You become a judge, rather than a teacher.

This is an incredibly destructive attitude. For many teachers, "None of my students has the dedication and talent I had," becomes a self-satisfied, self-fulfilling prophecy that stunts their own growth as educators and musicians. Obviously, the student herself suffers as well, since she's put her trust in a mentor who doesn't believe in her.

Photo by Erik CharltonIf you are a teacher who is tempted into this thought process, it might already be too late for your student. However, you can work on it. Consider that the student might have a unique learning style that you are not tapping into - for example, he can learn very well by ear and has trouble reading notes. Or he might have certain personal qualities, such as determination or a great attitude, that will make up for a supposed lack of talent.

While it is unfair to blame failure on the teacher and credit accomplishments to the student, neither is it acceptable to blame a student for lack of aptitude and at the same time claiming faultless teaching methods. Focus on yourself and not the student, and do what you can to improve your own work. 

Whatever you observe as weaknesses on the part of the student, figure out how to strengthen their underdeveloped ability by breaking its necessary elements into achievable steps. Many things that people dismiss as innate talent (sense of pitch, sense of rhythm, expression, "feel") can be explicitly, systematically taught by a teacher who is able to calibrate her expectations down to very tiny increments of forward progress.

In acknowledging that anyone can get better at music, you might have to confront some uncomfortable realities about your own talent, accomplishments, and weaknesses. You don't have to be stuck where you are, either.

Somewhere along the line, you might have encountered a judge masquerading as a teacher. It's time to silence that critic, and in so doing, let a more compassionate, creative voice speak up. Instead of, "maybe she just doesn't have it," how about, "I charge myself with the responsibility of awakening this person's musicianship."

Harder, and worth it. If you can't do that, maybe you just don't have what it takes to be a teacher.

Beware the Song Machine

Along with learning things in the same spirit in which they were created, I believe in teaching things the way I learned them (while of course allowing for different learning styles). When working in pop music (i.e., anything that is not classical or jazz), this has some counter-intuitive implications.

Most guitar teachers (and those piano teachers who teach in pop/rock styles) learn the drill pretty quickly: student wants to learn Song X, teacher transcribes Song X after having spent a few minutes working it out by ear. Student goes home, dabbles with Song X, brings in Song Y, and the cycle continues.

Some teachers are especially enthusiastic about creating professional transcriptions for their students. They spend their own time outside of the lesson working out every detail of the recording.

This works - to a point. The student is learning songs. However, the teacher is actually the one learning the instrument. How's that for counter-intuitive?

Randy Pausch, in The Last Lecture, talks about the "head fake," in which students think they are learning one thing but are actually gaining something deeper. In this case, the teacher has set up his own head fake. He thinks he is teaching the student, but in reality, through the process of working out a song by ear, assimilating it, transcribing it, and then teaching it, the teacher is the one who gets the benefit. The student just gets the by-product!

Through the process of working out song after song, the teacher's musical ear gets ever sharper, his transcription skills get quicker, and his facility on the instrument increases. This, my friends, is how you actually learn how to play an instrument: by teaching yourself songs. That's how the teachers themselves learned (and continue to hone their abilities).

Yet, instead of teaching the student how to figure out songs, the teacher functions as the student's Song Machine: bring in a recording and the Song Machine will spit out a transcription, teaching the student nothing but the superficial details of how to play the song. This is the opposite of teaching something the way you learned it.

This whole idea dawned on me when I started getting annoyed at a couple of students who were bringing in songs each week, but never following through by learning them well. I felt taken for granted because they weren't even mastering the songs I was giving them. "I ain't yer Song Machine," I grumbled to myself. "I never had anyone to work out songs for me."

Hey! Wait! That was not a grievance: that was my secret weapon. I'd always been my own Song Machine. And after many years of playing and teaching, it's become a well-oiled machine.

At first, a student doesn't have the skills to work out a song by ear, so we usually start with a few simple songs. But right from the beginning, I'm going to show how those songs were built. As I model the protocol for figuring out a song, I will also explain what I'm doing and why, and get the student doing the heavy lifting as soon as possible. Teach a musician to fish, if you will. 

I hate just being the Song Machine for my students. There's no depth to it. The student gets the song, but the Song Machine gets to keep all the quarters.

Playing an instrument: a mixed-hemisphere activity

One of the great things about playing an instrument is that there are so many different strengths one can bring to the table. Some students are great with pattern recognition, spatial visualization, and music theory; some have a natural musicality in their physical technique; some have a great tonal memory and musical ear; and some have a tenacity and that allows them to make up for any deficits in other areas with sheer dedication and a great attitude.

I have never, ever, worked with a student who "just didn't have it" - everyone who puts in a bit of effort improves. Part of what allows everyone to have success with music is that playing music uses both the "intuitive" right brain and the "logical" left brain. Part of my job as a teacher is to observe which hemisphere appears to be dominant in a student and adjust my methods accordingly.

While I believe in building on strengths, there is often a need to compensate for a weakness in a particular area in order to improve overall musicianship. Right-brain, intuitive thinkers tend to see the whole and rather than the part. This means that they on an attempt to play a new song they will "feel" their way through it, looking for larger patterns rather than getting stuck on small details. While this relaxed ease is the eventual goal, the challenge is then to learn how to break things down and read (i.e., decode) individual notes when necessary. On the other hand, a left-brain, logical thinker will focus on decoding the notes individually and incorporating every detail. While this is important, this student will need to learn how to begin to let go and listen to where the music is going, without needing to control every note with a conscious thought.

Try this informal test to see which is your dominant hemisphere. For my part, I am evenly split between right and left brain dominance, which I think is what has helped me to work with and relate to a wide range of learning styles. I'm a strange bird: equal parts artist and administrator.

The most common mistake most piano teachers make

I have had many students transfer to me from other piano teachers over the years. It's always the same story - they can't play anything well. Why? They've been pushed too hard, too fast.

See, the average piano teacher was her own teacher's star student. And the average piano teacher takes a star student and pushes. That is what was modeled for her, so that's what she does. The thing is, what about the other twenty students who aren't going to go on and be piano teachers? They are being pushed just for the sake of being pushed.

I take things a step further, and argue that even the students who show initial talent should not be pushed. Why should they be? They are already learning faster than the average. Give every student appropriate, incremental challenges and encourage their progress. They all have the potential to learn to play music well.

What is the main way that teachers push their students? It's not by being demanding in terms of technique or artistry. It's by giving them repertoire they are not ready for.

Inexperienced teachers do not have the ability to see tiny advances in a student's skills and understanding, or the tiny holes in a student's skills and understanding. These teachers leap forward in the level of difficulty of the pieces they assign without realizing it. It's kind of like those who complain that type is too small instead of acknowledging that they need glasses. And when a student's momentum falters, it's easy to blame the student for lack of effort instead of seeing that the situation was created by the teacher. The effect of this can turn a thriving student into a quitter in just a few weeks.

The thing to do as a teacher, if you're prone to this common mistake, is to err on the side of giving material that is too easy. If you do this, make it up in volume: give several easier pieces for the student to play. This builds fluency in reading music, builds confidence, and, of course, gives the student more music to enjoy. Resist the temptation to "see what this kid can do." If you sequence the student's material correctly, you'll have years to find out.