November 2007

The point of teaching

November 8, 2007 12:20

"You teach; should I? I just really enjoy working with kids and with people, but I don't know where to start..."

Whenever my performing friends say this, I can't help but try to rope them into teaching. The world needs good teachers, and if you have studied fully the instrument and have an enthusiasm for teaching others, then you have what it takes.

So over the years, I've encouraged a number of my performing friends to try teaching, and also to get training in violin pedagogy -- Suzuki pedagogy, if they are interested in teaching very young children.

The problem is that sometimes I think people have found pedagogy training to be discouraging.

For me, having taught for about five years before, pedagogy training gave me a shot in the arm. It gave me more "tricks" for my bag. It also gave me a deeper understanding of certain techniques, particularly techniques that have been easy or natural to me for a long time. I've found that the technique you struggled with most very often is the technique that you teach best. Conversely, it's harder to see what's difficult about techniques that feel "easy" to you.

So why would pedagogy training be discouraging?

Recently a new teacher, an excellent violinist who is clearly devoted to the idea of teaching, was comparing notes with me, asking about my approach. She'd recently taken some Suzuki pedagogy courses, and she was re-thinking various approaches to her own teaching. Before the training, she'd been letting an older beginner use the music, and afterwards she felt she needed to make her learn by rote. Before the training, she had introduced the use of lefthand fingers one way, and afterwards she felt she should try the rather complex method taught in the pedagogy training.

"I don't really understand the point of what they taught me to do, actually," she said, "it's really confusing for my student, and for me. Do I have to do it that way?"

The answer? NO!

We study the means and the method, but what matters is the end result. Sure, explore all the pedagogy you can, observe great teachers, read books, go see what the V.commies are saying, but in the end, it's just you and your student, learning to play. Know what you want to teach, and teach it any way that works.

I told her that when I teach students vibrato, before I try breaking it down into 45 detailed steps and exercises, I try the following:

"Do this." I play a note, with vibrato. "Try it!"

Sometimes, it's there. Usually, something is there, however elementary, and that's our starting point for deciding which of the 45 exercises will work.

It's easy to be impressed with how brilliantly a pedagogy expert or experienced teacher can teach the "teaching points."

Don't teach the teaching points. Teach your students. Learn all you can, and then do it YOUR way.

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What real music education can create: The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

November 3, 2007 23:42

I missed something big last night: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at Disney Hall. This weekend the orchestra has been in Los Angeles, but they will also perform tonight in San Francisco and this week in Boston and New York.

"It was incredible," said my friend and Old Town Music Store owner Fritzie Culick when I ran into her this morning at the Farmer's Market. "They played Beethoven Five like you've never heard it before," she said. When they were loud and fast, it was amazing, and "when they were soft, it was the softest soft you ever heard. Then they played South American music. They turned out the lights and were twirling their instruments – they made it so exciting!"

I had not heard about the amazing system of education going on in Venezuela – called El Sistema -- until one of its brightest stars, Dudamel, was named the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic earlier this year. He will officially take the baton in 2009. Dudamel, 26, began his musical studies at age four in Venezuela's system.

LA Times writer Mark Swed described the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela as "the cream of a 250,000-student crop" in his review of the group's Thursday concert at Disney Hall. It was one of the most ardent reviews I've seen from Swed, ending, "..musically, Venezuela leaves no child behind, and the results are an inspiration to us all."

When it comes to music education, we have no "sistema" in the United States; we scarcely have it in the public schools at all.

When we do, it's most often at a very low standard, with little support. "At least they are getting some exposure to music," is how we remain satisfied with the disconnected, ad-hoc instrumental programs we set up.

Having "exposure" to music is a far cry from becoming literate on an instrument. Musical literacy requires daily devotion, an awareness of musical excellence, good teachers, parental support. Perhaps it also requires some joy in the endeavor?

At the moment I've got a little experiment going, I'm teaching 48 first graders at a public school, being paid from a city grant that I sought out after teaching the class as an unpaid volunteer for much of last year. All the kids are beginners, and I'm teaching them in groups of a dozen at a time, plus a larger group class, with a modified Suzuki method.

There was so much interest in the program; I had to turn 17 away because I didn't have enough room. I only wish I could clone myself so that I could teach every single child who wanted to do it, and so that I could teach them all second-grade violin, and third-grade, and all the way through until they've finished high school.

Because at this point I have no assurance that they will continue to receive instruction. At our school we have one paid instrumental teacher. She teaches all levels of violin, second-grade through eighth, plus all other instruments, including trumpet, clarinet, flute, trombone, etc., etc., you get the picture.

Playing the violin, or any other instrument, is not a miming game; it requires a set of skills that have to be introduced, perfected and drilled. Not just "introduced."

This doesn't seem to be a difficult concept for people to understand when it comes to, say, soccer. Children, with the support of their parents, willingly submit to long practices, running drills, kicking drills, ball dribbling drills....

But for some reason, despite Shinichi Suzuki, despite the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, people persist in seeing music education as a joyless endeavor, a pursuit for the elite, a "frill" of education. People persist in believing that some people are just talented, so they can play music.

I beg to differ. Take everything you ever learned in your education and roll it all into one endeavor, and that's music. Music is rhythm, it's motion. It's coordination and balance. It's counting, it's reading, it's a social system, it's a physics experiment.

The 150 kids from Venezuela, making all that joy and fantastic music together on stage, trained for years under a well-organized and brilliantly-conceived system. It didn't just come, it wasn't just "talent."

It was talent, cultivated.

The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela performs Shostakovich Symphony 10 II. Allegro at the BBC Proms 2007: Prom 48 Royal Albert Hall

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