As a violin teacher, I am acutely aware of the inherent difficulties in teaching a difficult instrument to children and adults with various abilities, learning styles, and motivations. As it is said, “There are many ways to skin a cat” and this is one of the challenges teachers face in any subject. I would like to take this opportunity to outline my teaching philosophy and, perhaps, if you are contemplating giving the gift of music lessons to your child, you will find these words useful.
The website of our new Maestro Musicians Academy states that “our students become self-sufficient learners who, inspired through a love of music, regularly practice their instruments at home”. This broad and possibly haughty statement requires some dissection!
There are three claims that represent a classical music teacher’s dream come-true here:
1. Our students become self-sufficient learners
2. Our students become inspired through a love of music
3. Our students regularly practice their instruments at home
What do we mean by all of this?
It is my belief that we are all born with a natural inherent capacity to learn. Just look at any healthy six-month-old baby. He or she is already studying his or her hands and feet, putting toys into his or her mouth, and reacting to the environment. No one has to teach the baby to to do these tasks. Eventually, as a child grows, due to a complex mixture of nature and nurture, one many claim that he or she becomes “good or bad” at certain things. As I see it, what really happens is that the child develops a predisposition to or fondness for various subjects and tasks. One might say that he or she is inclined to pick these subjects and/or tasks over others. So, in reality, children don’t really choose music. Music chooses them! What I mean by this is that the complex interplay of events in a child’s life will naturally incline him or her toward being musical. One can say the same of any other subject. An observant parent will pick up on these cues and, if possible, will help the child develop his or her own natural abilities through lessons, tutoring, and coaching. Ultimately, of course, as the child matures and grows, he or she will be left with the task of deciding what to do with his or her many talents and interests in life.
A good music teacher knows how to channel the above predispositions in such a step-by-step way that the child feels compelled to build upon his or her natural curiosity. Aided by the natural curiosity of the student, the teacher knows how to challenge him or her just enough so that the lessons and necessary practicing feel like a fun game. After all, learning any subject is supposed to be fun, much like the baby who finds his hands so exciting every time he or she discovers a new way of using them.
I can now hear the voices in your head asking the following questions: “What happens when a student becomes frustrated? What happens if he or she just can’t do something, no matter how much Dr. Broniatowski has repeated himself in the lesson”? This is where a successful teacher will shine if he or she is so inclined.
Our daily lives are filled with potential frustrations, stresses, and reasons to be impatient. A good teacher of any subject recognizes that we cannot always understand everything all the time. In order to truly teach “self-sufficiency” in learning, a teacher must teach with patience. Most of us (teachers included), upon encountering a problem get upset. We WANT to solve it NOW. Many of us then play the blame game. “If only Mr. Jones was easier to understand”, “If only Eric would listen!” or “I am not good at violin so I might as well give up”.
A teacher can only teach patience if he or she cultivates patience from within. For instance, when my students get frustrated or confused, I do not yell at them and expect them to “get in line”. I do not tell them to try practicing the difficult musical passage harder. Instead, I stop, think for a moment, and then say “Let’s try it this way”. This constant mentality of perfecting patient trial and error is what ultimately creates a self-sufficient learner. Without harmful pressure, as long as the student will be still inclined to learn, he or she will unfold like a flower, no matter how long it takes. Does this mean that everyone will play like Itzhak Perlman? No, and that’s not the goal. More important, it means that Little Johnny will play like Little Johnny. In other words, my students develop themselves to THEIR full potential.
Suddenly, the question of how much to practice every day becomes less relevant. Yes, I do teach that one must be consistent, and I do teach that daily practice is a must, but I do not make a big deal about following the clock. I know full well that if Little Debbie wants to practice 3 hours per day because she is so in love with the instrument, she will do it anyway, and it will come directly from her. This is a violin teacher’s dream! Yet, if Little Johnie only wants to practice (or only CAN practice) 15 minutes per day, as long as he is consistent, he will improve and develop his potential. This is also a violin teacher’s dream.
So you can see that all three points above are met when there is a healthy interplay between channeling a student’s natural ability and desire to learn, a patient teacher who helps him or her navigate difficulties, and a healthy nurturing environment that allows the student to develop steadily at his or her own pace.
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Maestro Musicians Academy, Brookline, MA
More entries: April 2013
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