Meaningful. Interesting. Enjoyable.
These are the three words at the crux of my teaching philosophy. Our lessons and interactions with our students must be meaningful, interesting, and enjoyable in order for us to get the most out of our students, and for them to get the most out of us. For our lessons to be meaningful, the elements of playing being addressed must have a pertinent reason for being taught. Explaining the reason for an exercise and how it is applicable in a practical sense provides meaning, and in turn the students approach it with more thought, care, and a deeper understanding. Lessons in which students are active learners as opposed to passive learners are naturally more interesting. By engaging students in the learning process and having active participation in creation, critical listening, and self-evaluation, they become more interested. As a result, our students build a sense of confidence and independence that is easily applied to other facets of their studies within and separate from the realm of music. It fosters the development of critical thinking, and in turn, problem solving, planning, thoughtful preparation, attention to detail, and creativity. To truly make a lesson enjoyable a teacher needs to connect with the student while maintaining productivity. It is essential to discover how to motivate and maintain high standards while continuing to make lessons enjoyable. In order to accomplish this, each lesson must be approached in a unique fashion, tailor made to their learning styles and personalities. No relationship between student and teacher will be identical. It is necessary to gain a thorough understanding of our students needs in order to make our lessons enjoyable. This philosophy facilitates a positive learning environment where students can thrive.
As an instrumental teacher I pass on information gathered from the musicians who came before me as well as my contemporaries. It is important to provide a full explanation of the skills being taught. I explain all exercises and techniques with empirical justification of their effectiveness. For example, it is not enough to simply tell students to practice their scales. Without a thorough explanation it can be hard to comprehend the value and the role scales play in the construction of music; that practicing scales thoughtfully and carefully will not only make the scales easier but also makes learning music easier because all music is based on scales. When we justify what we are teaching them it deepens their understanding and motivates them to focus on exercises that might otherwise be uninteresting because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. They understand the reason and value of the exercise and how it will ultimately make them a stronger player. Understanding the end goal is motivating. Explaining the “why” encourages them to start asking why on their own. Being curious and inquisitive supports learning and as musicians we are lifelong learners. We can always improve, we can always strive for more, and learning to ask why is a critical skill.
The Goal is Independence
The goal with my students is to get them to the point where they no longer rely on their teacher. After the transition from student to professional our former students begin teaching their own pupils. It is important that they have developed independence in order to effectively teach. Independence means a sense of confidence, strong problem solving, critical listening and a thorough comprehension of the fundamentals of music. My goal is for my students to no longer rely on me; for them to know the questions to ask, the things to listen for, the steps to correct issues, and the resources available to achieve this. I want them to be able to stand on their own as a musician and to experience the joy and confidence that comes with that. Independence allows them to be self-guided in the pursuit of their musical career so they can follow what brings them the most interest and satisfaction. Too often students can look to their teachers for all the answers in times of struggle; my goal is to make them realize they have the ability to conquer those challenges themselves.
How to Practice
Practice is a very specific thing. It cannot be effective by merely recording minutes spent with the instrument. I firmly believe that
there is a correct way to practice and we need to put more effort towards teaching our students how to accomplish that. Practice
includes many different things, and depending on how the student learns and what they are trying to improve upon there are a
variety of methods they can use to achieve their goals. As teachers we must maximize our time with our students. The majority of
what they are able to accomplish on their instruments will depend on how they spend their time in the practice room. We are
merely guides; we provide a map for them to follow to bring them from point A to point B. It is up to them to take themselves
there, but we can help make their journey easier. By breaking down not only skills particular to their instrument, but also explaining
specific practice techniques, addressing time management, and different forms of practice we help them to make the most of their
time and abilities so they are able to go as far as they are willing. How to practice is the most valuable skill we can teach.
Leading By Example
Leading by example is of value not only to ourselves as musicians but also to our students. It makes us better teachers. We are
more equipped to empathize with our students. Our daily practice can aid us in helping our students overcome difficulty managing
their schedules, or struggles in the practice room. It makes it easier for us to help target problems and find solutions because we
have overcome those same difficulties. When our students see us practicing, performing, and otherwise staying current they are
more inclined to follow suit. In us, they can see the fruits of their labor. In addition to motivating our students, music is a constantly
evolving field, and in order for us to provide the most effective and current instruction we need to be constant learners. Leading by
example is the ideal way for us to inspire, motivate, and be the most effectual teachers we can be for our students. My most
inspirational and effective teachers were those who were active performers.
I always emphasize fundamentals, even after more than 22 years of studying the clarinet. While practicing I always bring it back to
the basics. Many of the difficulties we encounter as we learn repertoire are due to a deficit in one or more of our fundamental skills.
A weak link in the chain can be detrimental. Strengthening our fundamentals gives us a solid foundation to work from. Identifying
which fundamentals are weak and how this impacts our performance allows us to rectify those issues immediately. Working on the
basics as part of a daily routine allows you to isolate and improve upon specific problems we encounter.
This deficit in our fundamentals often leads students to believe something is “hard or difficult”. No piece of music is hard, no
technique is difficult, it is simply unfamiliar. I do not use the words “hard or difficult” when teaching. I believe that vocabulary like
that sets our students up to fail. It immediately invokes unnecessary stress and tension which impedes their performance. If
something is perceived as hard, I encourage my students to take a step back, recognize that it is simply unfamiliar and search for
which fundamental skill it is tied to. This allows them to work it out through existing exercises or by creating new exercises
Carol Dweck has done inspiring research on developing a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset believe that their
intelligence and ability to succeed changes with the effort that they make in their studies. Since students believe that they have
control over their abilities they put in extra time and effort which can lead to higher achievement. This is something that has
resonated strongly with me ever since I first stepped into university 13 years ago. I felt like an underdog. For all my passion, my
time spent practicing in preparation for university, I didn’t expect there to be so much that I didn’t yet know. Since childhood my
life revolved around music, how could there be so much left to learn? Little fish, big pond syndrome is real, and it can have a
serious impact on the education and ability of new university students.
Perseverance is a huge factor in student’s success and in a musician’s success as a whole. I have known peers who had excelled in
the university environment but then when things got difficult bridging the gap from student to professional many of them left music
and went into other fields. I have also known those who absolutely loved music, couldn’t picture doing anything else, and then
because of frustration left music after only their first year in university. We need to find a way as educators to instill grit in our
students, not just so they succeed in educational institutions but also in their careers.
In order to instill grit in our students we have to understand their beliefs about themselves and their goals. There are a variety of
things we can do to build grit and resilience. The first, is watch our language; we need to praise our students for their effort not
their ability. We can encourage our students to connect with people who have passion and perseverance and we can demonstrate
that we have those same qualities as well. As educators we need to adopt flexible thinking patterns; when challenges are met with
excitement and creativity our students will see themselves as capable. We can help our students set achievable short term goals; it
gives a sense of purpose and increases their likelihood of success which keeps them motivated to persevere. Lastly, we can
encourage our students to talk to us about how they feel about their progress. It gives students a chance to reflect and bring
awareness to their accomplishments and gives us as educators a chance better understand how to help them.
By focusing on these points and learning from Dweck’s invaluable research we can learn how to best help our students by instilling
them with a sense of perseverance that is internally and positively driven.
My philosophy revolves around giving. What can I give to my student? What can I do for them? What do they need from me? What is most beneficial for them? How can I present it in the most accessible way? When a student comes to me I have a very serious responsibility. I owe this student the finest education I can provide for them. I need to be in their corner, encouraging and pushing them. I owe all of this to them because they have come to me with their dream of being musician, in whatever capacity that might be. They put their trust in me to help realize this dream. They need me to be available, communicative, receptive, and above all positive. I need to be adaptable to what their needs are and prepared to meet them. I strive to be the absolute best version of myself because these students have trusted me with their dream, and I am there to help them achieve it.