Balance in Teaching Music

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Hmmmm... last night, I watched a movie about music teaching. Whiplash, is about a student and a teacher and their somewhat strange teaching relationship... well, as I was watching the movie, I was quite unsettled by it all... but it did have me really thinking a bit about the balance that we all try to strike in teaching, and for me, teaching music at conservatory or tertiary level.

So, to lay out the groundwork for the discussion... the movie, Whiplash, has a pretty hardcore "teacher/conductor" who honestly believes that stars and great musicians are forged from adversity... and so, he essentially torments students with the idea that they will be "forged" into greater musicians and that those without the perseverance and talent will just crumble and be forgotten.

Now, at a high elite level across many disciplines, this was quite a prevalent doctrine of teaching... think the sports in addition to dance and music. And there is definitely some truth to it... you need to be constantly challenged and not be completely comfortable. Being comfortable can be synonymous with stagnation and eventual decline.... or a lack of desire to achieve the greatest possible outcome.

However, the obvious downside is that it breaks many students... and the old paths to careers in music are littered with the shattered egos and minds of many fledgling musicians.

Anyway, in some ways, it does seem like the obvious way is to gently nurture talent... and that is definitely the dominant method and philosophy these days. It is much more prevalent in the teaching that I see around me these days... and there is some benefit to that. However, this approach is not without its own pitfalls as well. The music profession is cutthroat... and you will put yourself, your ability, and your ego on stage everytime you step out... and the audience are not going to be tame in their judgement of you. And it does students a disservice to essentially coddle and "lie" to them about their abilities or otherwise lack of it... there is going to be one job opening at a time in an ensemble/orchestra/faculty, and several hundred to a thousand people who think it should be theirs...

Of course, we are in the era of learning how to teach better these days... teh general education system is also learning to adapt and implement to these new philosophies. However, it is much much more difficult to do this at a society wide level across gigantic populations of primary and secondary age students whilst trying to fight an entrenched system and money making industry, whilst fending off parents and other "stakeholders" who all think that they all can do better!

It is somewhat easier at the tertiary music level where you are giving small group or individual lessons... and that means that you can try to strike the right balance between nurture and challenge. Even still, it is always an ongoing balance... as students from week to week will have different responses to the two extremes... and as a teacher, you can also quite easily misjudge.

Anyway, it was a movie that did get me thinking about my own teaching style. I had both "soft" and "hardcore" teachers in my past... and I did see that the eventual combination of different teachers has made me what I am today... would it have been different if I was more "nurtured" or more "driven"? Probably, different... but better? Who knows? What is "better"?

I tend to be on the softer end of the spectrum... I don't see the benefit in humiliating or yelling at students. So, I can still be quite strict in my expectations... but I will more likely send off students before time as a sign of disappointment rather than getting frustrated. Even more likely, I will try to figure out what is making them fall short... often, it isn't a lack of trying... it is more often, misunderstanding or inefficiency... or poor communication of my ideas.

In general, I do try to set up an atmosphere where it is more than okay to fail... I find that we learn and experiment more this way instead of trying to "perfect" the one true interpretation... or the "best" technique.

What I could do though... is to have more concrete/important goals at shorter intervals. Public performance deadlines that are non-negotiable. That sort of thing... I don't have that for my private students, and I do need to have that "threat" of public embarrassment to drive students... unfortunately, parents can sometimes try to "rescue" their children...

The university students though... they have their hard deadlines set in stone by the university. Although, there is always now the "allowances" for various situations... I'm not convinced that that is a good idea... but I'm open to hearing about it, but my fear is that these allowances too often shield the students from what the expectations and challenges that they will encounter in the real world.


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I am a Musician (Violinist/Violist) specialising in Early Music living in The Netherlands. I have a background in Mathematics and Physics due to an earlier tertiary level study... and so, I'm still quite interested in Science and Technology related stuff!

The Glamorous Life of a Musician!
The Glamorous Life of a Musician!

Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life! I'm a Violinist and doing what I love is often interestingly contrasted with the reality of getting to do what I love...

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