In this episode of the podcast, we discussed our ideas surrounding the philosophy of teaching. Joe has had many years of experience as a college professor, and I have been teaching private music lessons for over ten years. Through these lenses we explored the core values that we think are shared between all educational pursuits. We also got a chance to tell the many ridiculous and funny stories that we’ve encountered over the years.
I think in our current times of the “Trump era” (with blame from across the political spectrum), it is clearer than ever to me that we need to check in with the importance of education. It has a crucial role in creating a future world with competent, balanced, compassionate, and wise human beings. But it has to be done thoughtfully and correctly. I think no matter what kind of teacher you are, it is worth checking in with these core values that should unite all forms of education. Listen below to check out the episode, and below that I briefly go in some more detail about what these core values are.
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-Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast
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My Two Pillars of Teaching
Teaching private music lessons can sometimes be a surprisingly soul killing and energy sucking activity. I think any music performer who teaches lessons as part of their career can relate to this. While full time teaching is difficult enough, there is a certain difficulty in constantly switching modes between teacher and performer. Although the two modes definitely compliment each other, they are nonetheless separate modes. On certain days you might find yourself teaching for over six hours to unappreciative and unprepared students who don’t even pretend to try. Even if you are lucky, you will still probably have only a few kids who bring the energy to really connect with you. On top of this, while playing along with students your body can automatically pick up on their playing tension and you find that, along with an aching body, your playing is much worse than it was the day before. Maybe you even have to play a gig on that same night.
But on the flipside teaching can also be a wonderfully rewarding experience. This happens when you can see the positive influence you have had on someone (even if it is only a fraction of your total students). Not only do you feel good to see their improvement, but you can see that they feel good that someone took a real interest in them. I have also found that the act of teaching can secure concepts in my mind that aid in my own development. After all, music teachers are (or at least should be) music students as well. So how do we transcend the soul killing energy in order to be the best teachers that we can be?
Firstly you must be realistic. You cannot and will not be able to help everyone. Your body and mind only has a finite amount of energy, and unfortunately you do have to be deliberate about how you use it. Of my thirty or so students, I would say about five are consistently rewarding, and roughly another five are hit and miss. You must always be ready to deliver full energy to anyone who will genuinely work with you (even a student who has never done that in the past), but full energy can’t be wasted on students who are actively not trying. In other words if you try to be a hero, you run the risk of having no energy left for one of your hard working students. With the lazy students, I idle on my energy usage and continuously remind them that life will only get harder if they don’t learn the value of discipline. I also remind them that “we went to grandma’s house this week” doesn’t excuse their complete lack of practice. It is simple laziness that explains why they still can’t play a simple eight measure technical study after one month. So give everyone a genuine chance (over and over), but you must be wise with your energy.
Aside from that caveat, I think it is important to have some kind of zoomed out theory of teaching. Each specific teaching subject and situation will of course have its own subset of methods, tools, and tricks. This is certainly true for music, and even more specific for each individual musical instrument. The zoomed out theory, however, is something bigger that you can always reconnect to when getting lost in the weeds. It is what can help you transcend the local problems in order to keep your larger mission as a teacher in sight. Over the years, I have arrived at what I find to be the two main pillars of my teaching. They are:
1. Teach students how to think correctly (as opposed to only what they should think). By teaching students how to think and work through problems, you are basically teaching students how to learn. They themselves will be the teacher that they have to spend the most time with. Learning how to learn (or in music how to practice) is the most valuable tool a teacher can give a student. This is essentially a parallel to scientific literacy (how we interpret information that comes our way). It is a tool that you help to build, shape, and reshape over your time with a student.
2. Light a flame of passion within your students. I remember the light bulb moment of fully realizing this idea occured after watching this Neil deGrasse Tyson video. Humans are born curious, and if you can connect to that natural curiosity inside of your students, they will do more than half of the workload of learning. If you can convey passion to your students, at least some of them will develop the motivation (ie the flame of passion) to struggle through the hard work of self improvement. Other methods of motivation (like fear etc) might work in the short term, but only genuine passion for the subject has the chance of igniting the same passion in your students.
It is not necessarily an easy task to always be doing both of those things, but they are what I fall back on when I am totally lost or out of ideas. Even if I spend a whole lesson talking about something unrelated to music, I am okay with that as long as I have conveyed concepts related to these two pillars. If music doesn’t seem to be lighting their eyes up, maybe astrophysics and space travel will at least get their mental gears turning. I also try to regularly check in and make sure that the specific things I am teaching can be nested inside of those two pillars. Sure you could just do a technical warm up on the trumpet and move on, but why not also include the goal of a beautiful, flowing, and expressive sound. If they see your eyes light up when talking about sound, they might actually be convinced that there is a there there.
In music, so much time gets wasted on fake practicing. This “putting the time in” practicing is usually the type of practicing that people do to satisfy someone else (like a parent). With internal motivation (passion) and the skills of real practicing (knowing how to think/learn), a student can actually improve each day. In music this improvement will almost certainly have moments of reversal that leave us stuck at a road block ( for example I’m thinking embouchure changes brass players…). But having passion will be enough to keep you pushing forward and moving past these temporary set backs. I also wrote about this concept of struggling along the path a bit more in my blog post about craft and creativity.
When it comes to learning how to think correctly, I remind students that our brains are constantly in a struggle against laziness. Even if they are putting some time into practicing, real thinking takes effort and it is way too easy to get away with fake thinking or fake practicing. Students constantly give me fake answers as they just say words that they think I want to hear. If I ask them to explain it in a full sentence from their own thoughts, they’ll often just convert the question into statement form and give the same empty answer. A common dialogue with students looks something like this:
Me: “Okay good good, now what practice tool could we use to make the sound more flowing and connected?” (I’m hinting at slurring the music first to get a long flowing and focused air stream, something we pretty much do five times a lesson)
Student: “uhhhh a good sound”
Me: “Well what specific practice method have we used many times to help make the sound more open, flowing, and connected?”
Student: “uhhh air support?” (like so many clichés it is partly true but not so helpful without the explanation)
Me: “Well yes air support is involved but can you put it into a complete sentence, can you explain how it works and what practice tool we use to help develop it? Pretend that you are teaching and you have to explain it to your own student”
Student: “uhhh air support makes the sound better”
I’m not referencing elementary students in a dialogue like this. This is often late middle school or even high school students that try to get away with this. Sometimes high school students (like politicians hehe) can bury the empty thoughts behind more words and complex sentences, but it is still an empty thought. In these moments, a teacher must have the energy to call this out and demand a real and thoughtful answer. After all, the reason they try to get away with these empty answers in the first place is because too many other teachers (or parents) are not demanding real thinking. Many of them have just never been taught how to do real thinking before. I remind them that thinking is like a muscle, and as you use it more and more you will be able to engage with it more easily.
You can use this same muscle metaphor when talking about discipline. I think music is particularly beneficial in teaching kids the value of discipline, and this discipline develops a momentum that can spread into other aspects of life. I love the phrase that I picked up from former Navy Seal Jocko Willink: “Discipline equals freedom” (check out a short clip here). It is really a reminder to us that laziness usually doesn’t lead to places that we actually want to go, and true freedom and enjoyment of life exists as the counterpart to true discipline. How many lottery winners, who have access to complete freedom and enjoyment, find lasting meaning in their life if they don’t balance it with responsibility and discipline? Sure we are all different and most of us probably can’t find discipline at the level of a Navy Seal, and for me that is not really the point. The point is that we can all definitely identify areas in our life where more discipline will give us more long term freedom and happiness. As a music teacher I can use the process of learning an instrument to showcase this duality of life, and ask my students, why not start with some trumpet practice and see where it takes you? This also reminds me of something similar that my dad would say when I was a kid: “Work hard, play hard”. In other words, discipline is important, but you have to balance it with free time and enjoyment. If you never reward yourself for your discipline, resentment slowly builds up and you might put out whatever flame of passion you had burning inside you.
Lastly, every student is starting from a different place, and I believe that as teachers we must find them where they are in order to guide them along “the path”. While this sounds simple enough in theory, it is a difficult mission to accomplish during the day to day grind. These two pillars help me to keep this larger mission in sight.
Thanks for reading/listening, and if you have time I’d love to hear about your thoughts on teaching as well.
-Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast