My goal as a teacher is to give each of my students the tools necessary to enable them to discover their own musical voice. I see my role as a facilitator, mentor, and guide who through example and instruction helps and encourages each student to reach his or her full potential, both as a musician and a person. In order to do this, I utilize particular strategies on the individual, studio, and class level to maintain an environment that is inclusive, promotes creativity and experiential learning, and is safe for all.
Establishing a good working relationship with each student is vital for creating the most effective learning environment. I need to understand the students’ personality, learning style, and ambitions well enough to know how to best explain new concepts, deliver information, correct bad habits, and maintain motivation. What works for one student will not work for every student and I must be willing to have flexible teaching methods which can be tailored to best help each student progress.
Each year I have my students fill out a goals sheet so that I can be a better advisor for them. We then determine a course of action – steps that can be taken every week and milestones to aim for – that will guide their lessons and practice sessions for the rest of the semester and course of study. Each step and goal work towards achieving their long-term objective. I like to end each lesson with the “doorknob statement” where I sum up everything we have talked about that session and what my expectations are for the next week. This is in many ways the most important part of the hour, as it reinforces what we have discussed and guides the student’s practice strategy for the coming week.
One thing I quickly realized as I was working with my students, many of whom identify as BIPOC or Hispanic, was that students learn best when they identify with the music. If I can find repertoire that resonates with them, they will be more willing to practice it. This might mean that the “standards” I was instructed on might not be the best fit for every student. Learning to adapt my curriculum to fit the needs and background of the student has led to higher success, retention, and (most importantly) enjoyment for my students in lessons.
My method of teaching is one that emphasizes musicality and individual expression. A successful performance in my opinion is one that shows nuance, musical maturity, and engages the audience emotionally. I teach students how to be musically expressive and develop their own interpretation by requiring them to play simple tunes by ear in a variety of styles. This not only helps with fundamentals and ear training (improving pitch, sight reading, technique, etc.) but encourages them to focus on the “tools of musical expression”: dynamics, articulation, vibrato, rubato, and tone color. As one becomes more skilled at playing tunes by ear, switching styles becomes easier and more convincing, as does producing a lyrical and nuanced performance. These skills then transfer directly to all other aspects of playing and assigned repertoire, be it the weekly Rochut etude, their solo repertoire, or ensemble playing.
Once a student is familiar with how to use the tools, I then show them how to apply it to the music. Aspects that I emphasize with my students are the history/time period of the piece, understanding the performance practice, using theory to interpret what the composer might want, etc. I encourage my students to ask questions about the music and also to seek out the answers by teaching them how to become musical scholars. By fostering musical curiosity, my students then feel a sense of ownership and pride in their musical endeavors, encouraging greater engagement with the text and also more self-confidence. This broader approach, I believe, creates a more well-rounded, balanced, musical, and successful player, and has been well received by my students. Once they have an idea of what they want to say, my job is then to guide them on how to say it (“use stronger articulation here, rubato into the cadence there” and so forth) and to create an environment through mutual respect and trust where they feel comfortable enough making mistakes and experimenting with their interpretations.
From my studies on musician psychology I have learned that students do best if they have clear and honest feedback and are internally motivated (intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation). With this in mind I aim for specificity with my comments, particularly praise, so that students know what they did well and more importantly how to replicate their success. This creates more confidence, which leads to better performances, creating a positive spiral and inoculating them somewhat against common problems such as self-handicapping and performance anxiety. For many of my students this is an entirely new way of thinking about performing music. The effect of this shift in motivational technique is a welcome relief to many and they often find themselves improving faster and performing better as a result.
We work hard to foster a spirit of camaraderie within our studio through a variety of activities such as informal chamber music sight reading sessions, weekly duet playing (I encourage all my students to keep a duet book on them at all times), assigning older students to work with and mentor younger ones, pairing up students with opposing weaknesses, and of course the occasional studio party. My expectations for their behavior both in and out of the studio are clear and once this positive atmosphere is established, my students become very protective of it and take pride in the fact that their studio is a special place to belong.
The process of learning is a joint effort between the teacher and student. Each partnership can lead to new discoveries and greater levels of understanding for both teacher and student. The end result, when successful, is a musician who understands how to make the notes come alive, who infuses the music with his or her own personality, ideas, and experience, and who can use music to communicate with an audience. College should not just be a place to absorb information and recite it back again, but somewhere to develop intellectual curiosity and the tools necessary to discover answers on your own. It should nurture the students as they struggle to discover who they are and how they fit into the greater world, and it should provide a sense of community and camaraderie. Above all, it should show students how to be their best selves and how to bring that out in others. This is what I strive for every day as an educator, and what I feel is the greatest success I can achieve as a teacher.