Teaching and Learning: Developing Your Skills

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had in recent years, when, upon describing that I teach music lessons for a living, have involved some version of the phrase “You must really have a gift for teaching.”

It’s usually at that point that I explain a little bit about my past as a teacher and player to illustrate that no, I didn’t have any particular innate talent for it, but I did and do work very hard to develop my skill as an educator. Like anything else we go about doing in life, teaching is a learned art.

My first life as a private music teacher was a crash course in being effective that I can’t say I ever truly took to heart. I was 24, living in Dallas, TX, and managing my first ever studio of 20-30 kids who mostly had ZERO interest in private lessons. They were mandated by the band program and the band program had nearly impossibly high standards to maintain. On top of that, I was inexperienced, and uncertain about my own future as a professional player. Once I started grad school at UNT, I steadily decreased the number of lessons I taught and told myself that it wasn’t for me. I was going to focus on performing and just accept that I didn’t have the necessary qualities to teach young musicians.

I told myself that for years.

Some time after moving to Minnesota, another musician I had met at a gig called me up and asked if I would teach his grandson trombone. He was in 8th grade and really struggling. A bit strapped for cash, I agreed, even though I felt a pit in my stomach wondering if I could make this work and not screw this poor kid up. I was 30, had done a few cruise ships, and was finally starting to see the path forward for myself as a professional. On top of that I’d had a quality pedagogue as my professor at UNT (Jan Kagarice) and was starting to develop my own version of her method for my use.

The time was right. Kyle flourished as a trombone player and later a doubler- he now plays sousaphone in the University of Minnesota marching band- and I started to see what fun it could be to guide students to musical proficiency. I got hip to new materials, starting talking shop with my fellow educators, and eventually began to add more and more students. With performance not making me the money I needed to subsist, and tired of working part time jobs, I put myself to the task of becoming a full time educator.

So what, besides a little maturity (both emotional and trombone-al), changed for me? The biggest thing was what I said above: I had to realized that I had to LEARN to teach. I had to apply myself to testing strategies, doing research, and being patient for experience and inspiration to kick in. I had to take time to find the right materials for each student, and correct course when they weren’t working. I had to stop getting frustrated because kids weren’t practicing, and ask myself what I could do to change that reality. I had to stop talking, and listen.

It’s important to acknowledge educating as a learned skill. In the US, we undervalue our teachers, in any capacity, at any level, both financially and as professionals. Much like with performing musicians, treating education as an innate capacity can lead people to expect those ‘blessed’ with it to offer up their services as though they could do nothing else. If we gave teachers and artists credit for the long, arduous work they’ve done in becoming their best professional selves, we would not treat them so poorly in our society.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about teaching music:

-Be accessible. Build rapport with your students, and respect them as human beings.

-The student will tell you what’s working for them. Maybe not with words, but with their attitude or their level of practice. Maybe they’ll really smoke some phrase and you’ll think, aha! they like this.

-Spend less time talking, more time listening and demonstrating. My overarching philosophy here is that I can’t teach technique. I can teach musical ideation with a goal of adding technical skill to the process, but I can’t sit with a student and tell them a bunch of jargon and then expect them to be successful at it. They need a demo, and that’s easy enough. If it was something I couldn’t do, I’d find an example of someone who could. Remember: “The body learns by doing.”

-Keep your own skills sharp. If you’re playing well, and invested in your own development, you can share that energy with your students. Sometimes if I don’t have much on the stand I need to work on, I’ll practice what my students are learning.

-Sometimes it’s going to be frustrating.

-But it will get better, if you’re patient.

-Make time for yourself, to recharge your spoons. Teaching is high in emotional labor cost, and it will wear you down. Make sure you have a day or two each week when you don’t teach, and pamper yourself.

What have been the most valuable lessons for you as an educator or learner? How do you incorporate those into your pedagogy?

2 Replies to “Teaching and Learning: Developing Your Skills”

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