My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Discovering what teaching is all about

It's been a quiet year here on my blog.  As teaching is becoming more and more prominent in my life, I'm finding it more challenging to find the time to write here.  But hopefully that will change one of these days.

Since teaching has found its way (finally!) into my heart, I thought I'd share what I've been discovering about myself as a teacher.  Perhaps jotting it down and receiving feedback from others will help me to get back into writing.  So here goes.  My current teaching philosophy, as of today.  If anyone has any comments by all means, chime in!  I'd love to hear what you have to say.

After teaching as a graduate assistant in college I vowed never to teach in a classroom again, not because I felt I had not succeeded – a teaching award and the support of my students and advisors showed me otherwise, but because of the realization of the intense responsibility involved.  Being the perfectionist that I am I found it difficult at the time to teach knowing that I wanted to teach better.  I should have known then that my reticence meant that I was destined to become an educator many years later and to fall in love with it.  My first experiences back in the field confirmed what I had suspected all along – that yes, teaching is incredibly challenging but that it also pays one back ten-fold in the inspiring and self-propelling direction that a student’s life can take with thoughtful teaching. 

As a teacher I believe in approaching each student as an individual, not only exposing the areas that need improvement, but also discovering each one’s strengths so that I can help them find ways to utilize and highlight them.  I have found that students are much more open and willing to work hard if they first feel good about what skills and natural talents they already have.  I feel it is my role to be an honest but sensitive mirror of who they are and what they are capable of. 

In the classroom I direct the students’ attention to the process of learning rather than focusing on end products.  The norm with preparing projects and assignments is for students to delay working until the last second.  The attitude is that as long as it gets done, they will receive a grade – in their mind, this is often sufficient.   Yet how often is it that we, their teachers, see how much better a project could have been or how much more learning could have taken place had the student been working with consistency?  In an effort to curtail this approach I spread projects out over extended periods of time, breaking them into smaller components that require the students to live with the concepts for longer.  This also gives me more opportunities to give constructive feedback, encourage creativity, and assist with problem solving.  By the time they have a finished product they have learned about planning, process, and the mastery that can come from such an approach – all things they can carry with them into every aspect of their lives.  Since I’ve shifted my focus from product to process I have been amazed at how much more initiative the students have to go beyond what I have asked of them.  Excited and encouraged, students respond by taking their education into their own hands, and taking more pride in what they accomplish.

Related to process-oriented learning, one of the teaching tools I regularly use is the asking and answering of open-ended questions.  New students regularly respond to them with looks of bewilderment – they are there to get answers, they seem to think, not to answer them.  Rests in the music are a great opportunity for such a question.  “What is happening in that rest?  Is it a pause after a question?  Is it a moment for a change of mood?”  Or another favorite of mine is asking what’s different about musical material that appears in multiple places in the score and then asking why the composer chose to present the material differently.  “Does he go up the octave this time because he wants to change the timbre and create a different atmosphere?”  “Can you believe what key she has gone to here?  Why would she do that?”  Sometimes I feel they fear giving a “wrong” answer to questions such as these, a side effect perhaps of our test and grade oriented education system.  Having them come up with answers to open-ended questions, where there aren’t necessarily “wrong” answers, gives them the opportunity to start thinking for themselves and helps them to start enjoying the process of learning and exploring.

One of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, penned the following words -“If the Angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her, not by tears but by your humble resolve to always beginning; to be a beginner.”  These are words that I live and teach by.  If I focus on the process of gaining whatever I am trying to achieve I am claiming that status of being a beginner and with this acknowledgment I am free to talk and collaborate with colleagues with a sense of open-mindedness and curiosity, I am inspired to write about topics that are of interest to me and to receive feedback from others, and I am motivated to learn and perform new repertoire.  Growth is just as important for educators as it is for the students that we teach.  I believe that by sharing with students the journey I am perpetually on to keep improving as a musician, teacher, and person, I am inspiring those that I teach to approach life and their studies in a way that helps them to take ownership of their own education and lives. 

Teaching is about more than teaching my field.  It is about helping students approach life in a way that will keep them engaged, curious, and passionate in all that they put their hands to.  Every time I am approached by one of my students that is excited by something new they've discovered by him or herself I count that a success for each of us.  It is a thrill every time and a motivator for me to stay put in the classroom.  


  1. It's like the "teaching them to fish" metaphor. You're trying to turn them into teachers, of themselves. Not just how to answer your questions, but how to figure out which questions to ask of themselves before you ask them.

    Your opening sentence reminded me of why I pruned the possibility of being a teacher from my career tree: I wanted mental downtime after I got home from work. Now of course, I don't often get it. I'm a workaholic and EVERY job I've ever had has gradually swallowed up my off time to some extent.

    But teaching seemed to swallow it ALL -- it really is a vocational 24/7/365 thing in a lot of ways. I admire people who do it, and especially who manage to find a way to do it with the thoroughness with which it needs to be done AND successfully cordon off some little quiet part of their minds for just themselves at the same time. That's a balancing act I never managed when I taught.

  2. Right, Janis. I like the fishing metaphor although I know nothing about fishing. And worms? Ewwww...

    Anyway, so I have to chuckle here. You decided not to teach because you wanted "mental downtime" after work? Yet you go home regularly and compose your own music. And practice? And write? You amaze me! Something tells me you would be a fantastic teacher. But you're right, it is all-consuming which is why I feel I never have any more brain cells left at the end of the day to try to communicate effectively over the computer via this blog. Sigh...someday perhaps.

    Thanks as always for reading and for chiming in, Janis!

    All the best,

    1. The composing etc. is my mental downtime, though; my job is not at all musical. If I'm continued to teach the subjects I'm qualified to teach, I'd be either in the classroom or grading and have no time for the things I'd like to do in my own private time. Teaching really is a way of life.

  3. Great teaching philosophy Erica! This answers a question I was going to ask you about being stuck "going through the motions" of practicing. I haven't been practicing with intent for a while now and feel like last semester I scraped by and didn't grow. This reminded me about how to practice diligently and a reminder to always be asking questions about the music and discovering its inner clockwork.

    Often times I get caught asking too many How questions: How do I play a sfz, How will I make a soft entrance work. To me, these How questions are like asking yourself "how will I pronounce the word Mississippi today?" We all know how to pronounce it. I know how to achieve the musical nuances, I just need to shift the focus from how. Any thoughts on how (haha!) to do this?

    1. Isaac,
      As always you are asking good questions! I've been thinking of how I might answer you and here's what I've come up with. It's nothing fancy but it's a mode of thinking/practicing I am constantly engaged in.

      Yes, I think we need a good share of "How" questions but I like to balance them with the more creative "Why" questions. To my the why takes us out of analytical land which at least for me can cause me to lose touch with the music behind what I'm trying to do. I think I've talked with you about "practice performing." It's when I intentionally throw thought out the window and try to just live the music as I try to do when I'm performing. This can be hard to do but when I tell myself to "sing" along with the music that tends to cut out the analytical/critical chatter that can throw my right back into a more detail-oriented, technical place. When I'm practicing, for instance, I might spend a good 15 minutes doing detailed work, asking a lot of questions, figuring out what I can do physically to make the music I hear in my head happen. As soon as my mind starts to drift, however, I switch gears for a few minutes and put myself in "Practice Performing" mode for that spot I just worked on. It's a good way to ensure that I don't get stuck in analysis and lose touch with the music.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if I'm not making sense.