I’ve written several times on this blog about both why I teach music and reasons why one might choose music teaching as a career. I’ve also wrestled with misconceptions across the performer/educator divide, finding myself alternately surprised, shocked, and intrigued about the assumptions each camp has about the other.
One woefully neglected and quite obvious point that I’d like to illustrate is how blurred these teacher/performer boundaries can become, at least in the world of high-level orchestral performance and pedagogy.
This is a good thing!
Music is both avocation and vocation, a field of academic study and a way to express the basest desires and expressions of humankind. It is an established and well-researched foundational element of any successful education–over 90% of Fortune 500 company CEOs were four-year members of their high school orchestra, choir, or band programs. It is also one of the most powerful and popular forms of recreation and creative release. Whether one plays in their school band, attends concerts (whether rock, jazz, classical), plays an instrument for fun, or simply enjoys listening to the radio at the gym or in their car, music is a pivotal part of the human experience, and it enriches daily life for most people across the globe.
For the professional musician or career-driven music student, however, music is a combination of art, craft, and trade, and knowledge in all three areas is passed down from teacher to student primarily in a one-on-one setting. The private lesson format of music instruction–typically one hour per week every week–has been the established routine for literally hundreds of years. Bach and Mozart taught lessons in much the same manner that we do today. But think about all that has changed in the world since that time! Nations have risen and fallen, the industrial age (with its factories and railroads), air travel, space travel, and the rise of computers and the information age have completely revolutionized nearly every facet of life. Most of today’s careers didn’t even exist 50 years ago (many didn’t even exist 10 years ago!), let alone from the time of Bach. Heck, formal music education didn’t even begin until the mid-19th century! Yet perpetuating the musical arts through private music lessons, with all the minutiae of the craft, remains largely unchanged. For me, there is both comfort and pride in participating in a process with such permanence throughout the musical generations.
I’ve taught private double bass lessons for many years, actually teaching my first lessons way back in high school. Retrospectively, these early lessons were a really valuable experience for me, and I often encourage my more advanced students to seek out their own students and do some teaching of their own. Doing so is an eye-opening experience, and I find that my students start to look a little more deeply into their own playing (reflecting on the reasons why they pull the bow a particular way, use a certain fingering, or execute a shift in a specific manner).
Though I taught sporadically throughout college, it wasn’t until I had completed my masters degree that I began teaching in earnest. During my last few months of school, I remember meeting with one of the music education professors at Northwestern University. I was sweating bullets thinking about my impending graduation (and the blank white spaces in my calendar after the beginning of June). Interested in building up a teaching studio, I inquired as to how I should go about doing so. These kind of practical skills were not a component of either my undergraduate or graduate degree programs (nor, for that matter, were the topics of freelancing, networking, or any of the other practical skills needed to survive by 95% of music performers….you can read my extended thoughts on that here), and, quite frankly, I needed some income!
This music education professor gave me some great advice, handing me a list of people I should talk to about getting going as a teacher around Chicago’s tony North Shore. I made a few disorganized and half-hearted attempts to make some contacts (in my typically disorganized music performer fashion), but quickly gave up. There were some extremely well-known and established teachers in the area, and I was some Northwestern doofus grad student with no experience or credentials. Why would anyone study with me? What did I have to offer?
I practiced a lot, landed a whole mess of part-time gigs, and began my career of driving like a fool all over the country.
Ironically, I am now the “go-to” guy for double bass in that very same North Shore Chicago area, with a dynamite private studio and a healthy waiting list.
How’d that happen?
Really, I have no idea. Like most things in my career (and this is the case for many of the musicians I’ve interviewed for the Contrabass Conversations show), sort of fell into what I’m doing through a dizzying string of contacts spanning a number of years. I’ve detailed some of my early teaching experiences before on the blog (as well as some uncomfortable early moments being thrust on the podium!).
Looking back on a younger and dumber Jason making those calls around the North Shore, I smile. I was right to wonder why someone should study with me. Though I do think that young Jason had a lot to offer as a teacher, I’d have a whole lot more to offer a few years later as crusty old Jason, once I had racked up a great deal of professional orchestral experience and some years of teaching. That, of course, is the irony of the situation–it simply takes time to build some teaching chops, but the only way to build them is to find someone willing to give an inexperienced teacher a chance.
Having a few music degrees under one’s belt is no guarantee of quality teaching ability. Though music performance students were required to take some string pedagogy classes at my undergraduate institution (and I certainly learned skills and strategies from these classes that I still use to this day), there is really no way to develop that long-term private teacher skill set without actually doing it.
After a year of teaching electric bass (and vowing that I would never do that again), I began teaching elementary, middle, and high school students at a school district in north suburban Chicago, and my teaching chops began to be honed in earnest.
How did I land that job? Through friends from college. How did I get future contacts in the teaching biz? Through the contacts I made in my first teaching job. How do I continue to get both teaching and performing opportunities? Through the contacts I’ve made throughout the business. Be friendly and don’t burn your bridges. Even if you land a full-time gig (whether teaching or playing), your contacts and colleagues will continue to be your most valuable professional asset.
In addition to learning how to manage lessons on a microscopic scale (gauging and adjusting the pacing for each individual lesson) experience teaches you how to direct lessons on a macroscopic scale, which is a skill that I believe I have honed quite well over the years. Macroscopic lesson planning refers to the broad curriculum that one must develop as a teacher for both technique and repertoire–in short, who gets what and when they get it.
Over time, I have developed a multi-year curriculum for private lessons that starts with the basics and ends with the most advanced solo and orchestral repertoire written for the bass.
How did I develop this curriculum? Through my own training, advice from other teachers, personal research (I’m a big fan of doing string pedagogy research – have I mentioned that I’m a big geek?), and simple trial-and-error. In my early years teaching I would sometimes throw material at students that was too complicated or too easy, but I like to think that I pretty much have it worked out by now.
Private teachers start by attempting to build students in their own image. Asking questions about one’s own early musical development guides choices in pacing and repertoire. What skill set should this student ultimately end up with? What skill set do I possess, and how did I learn this skill set? What exercises, method books, and repertoire choices made me the player I was? Retrospectively, were these good choices in my own development? If not, what choices will I make differently for my own students?
The experienced teacher eventually moves beyond building students in their own image and tries to build students beyond their own image, combining various schools of pedagogical thought in the hopes of moving the student past the point at which the teacher arrived on the spectrum.
The truly enlightened teacher (and this is a difficult thing that only comes with time) tries to build students into a future musical ideal for that particular student. What do I mean? Well, I like to think that each student has a particular ideal way of playing the bass based on their own particular physical, mental, attitudinal, and emotional makeup. My goal is to help the student achieve that goal, not to either make them a mini-me or my ideal representation of what every bass player should sound like.
Finally, I am a huge believer in keeping an open mind, in not adhering to one single way of doing anything. I am constantly reevaluating everything about bass playing, and I am constantly trying new approaches and ideas. I don’t let this open-mindedness dissolve my core curriculum–it is all too easy to let lessons dissolve into a disorganized and directionless mess without a long-term educational backbone guiding things–but I am constantly trying to bring new approaches and ideas into the lesson, and I encourage students to find their own way. Bass players are a hugely diverse bunch with a wide variety of approaches to every single aspect of playing, and while I certainly have my own likes and dislikes (you can read my analysis of the Simandl and Rabbath techniques for more on this topic), I try to keep an open mind about everything and make pedagogical decisions based on that particular student and not on my own personal preferences.
With that attitude as a backdrop, I try to be completely non-possessive as a teacher. At an early stage, studying with more than one teacher can be confusing, but after a certain amount of time on the instrument I strongly encourage my students to play for other teachers. I give them a list of people I consider to be great minds in the field and encourage them to schedule some lessons with them, making it (hopefully) clear that I want them to get some other perspectives. To me, being possessive of a student is nothing but an ego trip for the teacher, and maybe their pedagogical foundation is a little shaky if they can’t stand to have a student hear some other ideas!
Also, sending students out to get lessons with other teachers has a side benefit for me. If they come in with a great new fingering, bowing, phrasing, or concept from one of these other teachers, you’d better believe that I’m adding it to my pedagogical toolkit!
My teaching attitude can be summed up as follows: let’s explore this vast body of material together–I’ll just be your guide.
Does this approach work? Well, it has for me; my students have been accepted at most of the major music schools across the nation, and my students consistently rank first at regional and state All-State Orchestra for my area (Illinois Music Educators Association). And I like to think that it has a lot to do with keeping an open-minded approach and drawing from a lot of sources while keeping to a core repertoire and technique curriculum.