Around the dinner table we had a conversation about music teachers. Here’s a sampling of what people regarded as their best teachers.
One person remarked that he was never prepared for lessons with his first violin teacher, and was often afraid to go his lesson. And yet once he was there, his teacher was always friendly, always engaging, and he left feeling happy to have been there, and determined to do better (which he often did not, because next time he was again unprepared!). This musician is now quite well known in his style, tours constantly, and runs several music camps focused on encouraging students to express themselves through music.
Another person at the table plays violin but noted that two of her favorite teachers had been piano teachers. One was a lot like the teacher we just discussed: any time the student came to a lesson, the teacher took her from where she was, gave her lots to try during and after the lesson, and left her feeling energized, and never guilty about not having practiced enough. Another of her favorite teachers used to take significant time to teach musical expression, and in so doing, revealed her own passion for the music, and left the student with a tremendous respect for the spiritual importance of music.
The same young woman commented about her least favorite teachers. One had been just out of college; the other had been quite experienced as a teacher and orchestral player, but both tended to make her feel bad, as if this might successfully shame her into working harder or learning and remembering more. However, it seemed build resistance rather than cooperation.
A young man told of his first teacher, who was grandmotherly but a good player and confident in the abilities of children. Although he was learning classical piano, his teacher also performed Gershwin and exuded a contagious energy about the music. Who knows if this early experience contributed to his later study of jazz and incorporation of that into his playing style? In any case, he now tours and teaches, as a successful professional.
I read one study which found that in examining the first music teachers of a number of famous performers, the common thread connecting them all was not the level of musical knowledge they had, but their enthusiasm and ability impart a love of music. The main thing seemed to be quite simply that all of these great musicians liked their first teachers, not that they learned everything perfectly at the beginning.
As much as we may feel anxious to convey the right skills and material, and to keep students on the right path, it’s clear that keeping them engaged and feeling good about music is one of the major factors in whether they carry on playing, enjoying, and improving on their instrument over the long term. Of course, this is not about a formula or about false praise. Mostly, “feeling good” about music has to do with making progress, solving problems, mastering skills, and caring about the music.
But we can keep in mind that having a student leave a lesson with a good and hopeful feeling will help them respect and internalize what we teach, and can help them to better enjoy playing music. Even in the face of frustration or even disrespect, we can soften our tone, and put the student’s feelings first. Over the long haul, the more a student plays, the better they get. And the more they enjoy it, the more they’ll play.