Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Lessons from the Movies

When you teach music you’re teaching skills that are physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.  The same could be said about other activities, such as kung fu or karate.  OK, I don’t do martial arts, but strangely enough, I’ve gotten some ideas about teaching music from seeing a few movies like Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda.

In Karate Kid, the master teaches the student first by making him wash a car, paint a fence, tend to the house.  Why?  Because the student learns efficient physical motions that translate perfectly into karate moves.  If he first tried to learn those moves as karate moves, he would have preconceptions about what they were for, and might learn them incompletely.

This made me think of similar ways to teach about bowing.  The basic idea, of course, is to imagine an everyday physical skill that approximates something necessary for learning your instrument.  For example, I suggest for students a bowing exercise that uses a kitchen sponge.  The student holds a large sponge in one hand, so that the hand is flat across the sponge with the fingers curved over the edge.  Then they wipe down the kitchen counter, making sure that the edge of the sponge is kept parallel to the edge of the counter.  This is a perfect bowing exercise!  It gives the feeling of bowing, of wrist movement, of steady pressure, and without any preconceptions about playing notes.  I have never actually done what the teacher in Karate Kid, which would be to make my students clean my kitchen!  But I do suggest to students that they try this at home, and open up their mental and physical experience of bowing motion to something new and yet very familiar.

Another such movie is a silly old Jacky Chan movie called The Drunken Master, which we picked out as a free pick from the video store.  My wife likes dance, and this one had fight scenes by the fight choreographer who worked on the Matrix movies.  A lot of this almost slapstick movie was really a commentary on the teaching of kung fu.  In one scene, the young man is made to do physical basic exercises for a long time, hanging by his feet and dipping water from a pot on the ground into a pot up by his feet, making for a long haul of fancy sit-ups!

And what did the teacher do while the young man struggled with his challenging exercise?   Joke, laugh, coax, cajole, but above all, the teacher stayed with him.  Isn’t this what good teachers do?  Stay with the student, coax, cajole, and above all, provide company as the student works to build strong basic skills.  This is one reason why no book, video, online or self-teaching method could ever replace a good teacher.

Then there’s Kung Fu Panda.  Remember the Scroll?  If you haven’t seen this movie, you should know that the esteemed Scroll is said to contain all the secrets of kung fu, and can only be revealed to the best fighter of all.  All the students work hard to become the best, but Panda wins.  This reminds us how motivating it can be to offer prizes, awards, and the affirmation of placing in a competition.

But the irony of the Scroll is that once Panda gets the Scroll, he discovers that it is blank.  He realizes that all the hours of hard work he put into becoming the best fighter gave him the knowledge he needs to know to go forward.  The secrets by that time are within the student, not in a book, or a scroll.

It’s true of music as well:  once musicians are good enough, they chart their own course, create their own career, practicing and teaching methods, and performance opportunities, ensembles, and arrangements.

And yet, the existence of that Scroll made the kung fu students work hard.  What would it have been like if they knew all along that the Scroll was blank?  Would they have bothered?  They would have needed a different motivation.

But certainly they had the motivation, Scroll or no Scroll.  Each task was a challenge.  Each skill they learned was a triumph.

The same can be true in music, and it’s up to the teacher to provide the challenge, the fun, the humor, the praise, and even just the companionship, through the journey.

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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