Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Keep it Fresh: Performing & Teaching

All music teachers are musicians. Nobody picks up their first instrument in order to teach it. To keep your teaching fresh, keep learning — and keep playing. Consistency is important, but sticking to the same materials, same approaches, same routines, and avoiding risks, can lead to boredom and resentment on the part of the teacher, and an uncomfortable and less productive experience on the part of the student.

One of the nicest risks to reach for, one which probably has the most impact on teaching, is performing. Those teachers who are already active performers know what I mean, though even we can all benefit from stretching ourselves — trying new repertoire, new genres of music, new venues large or small, formal or informal, new ensembles, different accompanists, solo experiences, or participatory events.

The risks you take by performing improve your teaching because you find yourself grappling with questions of your own that every student also has to handle, such as: Why am I playing this piece of music? Should I think about my technique or my audience? How do I balance accuracy and musical flow? What combination of practice and attitude results in my most rewarding performance? How do I recover from mistakes? How do I convey the power or beauty of this music even in places I don’t feel I know well enough? Should I care how many people are listening or whether they know me? Am I breathing?

Those music teachers who are not active performers should ask themselves why. Are they perfectionists afraid of being embarrassed in front of the public, or perhaps worse, in front of their students? If so, this is problematic, because the worry about making mistakes is an issue all students contend with, and the teacher can’t be of much help if they haven’t been dealing with it themselves. (Also, take a look at my previous post about mistakes!)

Some teachers who avoid performing are afraid that they have no time or energy to gird their loins and go through some kind of gauntlet of grueling practice. But motivators that work today may be quite different from what motivated them back in their heyday. Experimenting with and understanding this can have a very beneficial impact on working with students, opening up more options based on personal experience and empathy, to help students learn and play with a more positive approach.

The word “performing”, just like the word “practicing”, can be full of unnecessary baggage. I often replace both words with the word “playing.” Performing could involve a huge variety of situations, but in the end, the word implies that somebody is listening to, or dancing to, your music. If you have rigid notions about performing, try to loosen them up! A performance could be in an auditorium, a cafe, a sidewalk, a festival, a birthday party, or a dance. It could even be a participatory event, such as playing along with others in a fiddle session where everyone is playing the same tune. It could involve reading music, playing from memory, just playing music you know well, or improvising on top of chord changes.

If you’ve never dared improvise, definitely try it. You may want to have some preparation (as long as it is not procrastination), but you may also want to jump in the deep end, amid some friendly musicians. And don’t be shy about showing your students that you’re out there too — you can even include some of your events on your teaching calendar!  Trying something new only improves and hones your playing when you come back to the music and styles you know best.

And when next you hear musicians, whether in concert, in the subway, at a festival, or just in the background at a restaurant, think about how you listen and what you listen for. How do your audience expectations match up with your goals and thinking processes as a performer? These kinds of thoughts will not only help free up your performing, but will enrich your teaching methods.

Not to mention the obvious — we all picked up an instrument in order to play it. So play!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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