I fell backwards into teaching, making it one of the core components of my professional life without even realizing it. If I had been more perceptive, in fact, I probably would have resisted, kicking and screaming every inch of the way.
Well, I come from a family of teachers. My mom is a teacher, my dad is a teacher, my brother is a teacher, many of my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family are teachers. Some kids have cartoons on over the weekend. My memories were of “In Search of Excellence” from PBS, with my dad highlighting passages in educational journals as he prepared for his classes. Maybe some kids want to follow in their parent’s footsteps, but I certainly didn’t. My goal was to move out of the bleak tundra that is South Dakota and become a big city musician with a big city career.
Now that I’m in my thirties, with several degrees under my belt, years of performances with groups like the Lyric Opera of Chicago, lots of experience as a ‘big city musician’, and a half-decade of running a university double bass studio, guess what I want to do?
Move back to small-town South Dakota and teach!
For me, teaching is definitely in my genes. I started doing it while I was in high school, foisting my crude theories on poor, unsuspecting middle-school students. I’d give anything to have a videotape of one of those first lessons of mine. Truly cringe-worthy material, I am sure. I did this off-and-on (more off than on) throughout my undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and I can’t say that these experiences made me change my mind about wanting to be a teacher. In fact, I think that it reinforced my desire to NOT become a teacher. I began to equate teaching with defeat in my mind, the easy path, the default occupation for a Heath. I practiced even harder, making it into the finals in major symphony orchestras, chasing that performing career with every ounce of my being.
As I finished my graduate studies I began to develop a perennial knot in my gut. What was I going to do? I kept getting close to a full-time orchestra job but getting axed without winning the gig. At the same time, I landed a handful of local gigs and began to assemble a career of my own.
My worries ended up being unfounded, and my performing career took off, although this performing career of mine did not contain that idealized full-time orchestra gig. I arrived at all of my rehearsals an hour or two early, made sure to practice every note of the part, and spent the drive to the gig listening to recordings, fully immersed in the process of music performance.
I got a call one day a couple of years after getting out of school from one of my former university colleagues. He had landed a high school orchestra director position in a prestigious local school district, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in becoming the ‘bass guy’ for that district. I’d teach the high school, middle school, and elementary school bassists lessons, plus run sectionals and coach chamber music.
I had to think about it for a day or two. Up to this point I was basically a full-time performer, and every free minute was spent practicing, taking lessons, playing for colleagues, and gearing up for the next big audition. Did I want to make a move into teaching?
Another consideration—I was a full-time performer, but I was a BROKE full-timer performer. Classical music performance was providing me a living, but nothing more, and my shabby car and nasty little Chicago apartment were testament to this fact. I certainly could use the income.
I decided to take the teaching gig.
The first trip out to my new high school job was a rude awakening—literally. My alarm started blaring at 5:30 a.m., startling me wide awake with a pounding heart and an aching head. I would quickly learn to deal with late night gigs and early morning teaching, but I was one cranky bass player as I headed out to the donut shop to fill myself with ‘teaching fuel’ (I like my coffee and donuts).
I made it to the school just as the bell rang, cramming my way with my bass through hordes of jabbering high school kids. My heart sank—this was what I had been spending my whole life trying to avoid. I hooked up with the orchestra director and was escorted to a coaching room for my first class.
I took the four your but quite solid bassists in that first class through the technique routine that my teacher at college had taught me. Even from that first class I remember what it felt like to create a class of my own, dividing it into technique and repertoire, gabbing with the students, fixing technical problems, and tuning chords. I may have been bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, but I was also having a lot of fun.
I taught one more class that day as well as some private lessons. At the end of the day I was exhausted but also pleased with how the day went, and I had an odd feeling of satisfaction both similar and different to the feeling that I got after a great performance.
As the weeks passed, and I kept up my trips out to my high school job, something amazing happened:
My students started to improve!
This was evident in both the group classes and the private lessons, and although the rate of improvement varied from individual to individual, the overall increase in quality was obvious.
This was quite cool to me, and I began to enjoy it even more.
I also began to teach more, getting hired at the other high school in the district. Before I knew it, I was spending four days a week in this district, teaching four bass classes, coaching chamber music, and teaching around 20 students.
My practice time had taken a major hit, but I was happy about doing all of this teaching. I like being busy, and the life of a full-time performer usually includes some pretty significant down-time. My professional performance engagements continued to pour in, sometimes cramming out my teaching for a week or two as I spent time in various cities across the country.
My students started to succeed in demonstrable ways, securing the principal bass chairs for both the district and state All-State Orchestra (Illinois Music Educators Association) as well as principal spots with the Midwest Young Artists Orchestra and the Chicago Youth Symphony. I began to get a “rep” as a teacher, and the students began to flock to me like geese to stale bread. Before I knew it, I was teaching around 40 private students a week, filling all seven days with students and gigs. I landed a position at one of the University of Wisconsin campuses and began a life of crazy commutes on rural roads for hundreds of miles a day.
As my students began to get into big music schools (Eastman, Cleveland Institute, Oberlin, Peabody, etc.), I began to fully realize the impact I was having on these young people. I remember one of my students out of the original four from that first class I taught asking me if I thought he could make it as a musician. I told him that he absolutely could (and he could—he was good!), and his practicing doubled. He is now a student at the University of Michigan and touring the nation as a jazz musician. Another student from that original class of four asked me for a list of schools to which he should apply. I wrote half a dozen names down on a sheet of paper, and those were the schools to which he applied. He is now student at the Eastman School of Music. The significance of my simple act (offhandedly writing down a bunch of names on a piece of paper) on this student’s future hit me later, and I began to realize the power and responsibility involved with being a teacher.
The better part of the last decade consisted of me slowly, organically transforming myself from performer to performer/teacher to teacher/performer. I will still always be a performer at heart, but over the years I began to understand the deeper satisfaction that teaching brings to me. The life of a performer, to me, is an inwardly focused and somewhat nerve-wracking lifestyle, while teaching involves an outwardly focused and social lifestyle. This, simply, is a better fit for me, and it is something that took me a good decade to realize.
The life of a performer is and it is, for me and in the particular (long distance) gig sphere which I inhabit, a somewhat destructive and bleak lifestyle. Perhaps things would be different for me if I had landed a position in one of those major orchestras I kept auditioning for, but perhaps not. Endlessly analyzing past decisions is ultimately of limited value, and I now find myself embracing that which I so strenuously avoided during my younger years.