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
My Two Pillars of Teaching
Besides being an obvious energy drainer, teaching private music lessons can also be a surprisingly soul killing activity. Most music performers who also teach private lessons — certainly the many with whom I’ve shared a lamenting beer — have agreed with me on this point. Full time teaching is probably difficult enough, but constantly switching between teacher and performer has always been particularly difficult for me. Although the two modes definitely complement each other, they are nonetheless separate modes. On certain days, I might find myself teaching for over six hours to unappreciative and unprepared students, many of whom don’t even pretend to try. On a good day, there are still only a few kids who will bring the energy to really connect and improve. There are also physical problems 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 flip side teaching can also be a wonderfully rewarding experience. Even if it is only a fraction of your total students, you can witness the positive influence you have had on someone. It is definitely enjoyable to see someone improve at their instrument, but it is even more enjoyable to witness the larger personality transformations that your influence can help to create. And the discoveries go both ways because 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. As I reflected on these types of experiences over the years, I kept asking myself this question: how do we as teachers transcend the soul killing energy in order to be the best teachers that we can be?
Firstly, I learned that I had to 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 have to be somewhat deliberate about how you use it. To this end, I have learned a kind of idling mode while teaching. Of my thirty or so private students, I would say about five are consistently rewarding, and roughly another five are hit or 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. 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 simply laziness that explains why they still can’t play a simple eight measure technical study after one month. So each week I give everyone a genuine chance, but I have learned to be smart about how I use my energy.
Aside from that caveat, I think it is important to have some kind of a zoomed out theory of teaching. I began teaching during my undergraduate years, and this experience of constantly switching between teacher and student gave me an advantage. Although my professor in college was primarily developing my performance skills, I also got to pick his brain about teaching. For a while, there were too many data points floating around in my mind. But after some time and reflection, they seemed to reduce down to some core principles.
Of course each specific teaching subject and situation will have its own subset of methods, tools, and tricks. This is certainly true for music, and it gets even more specific for each individual musical instrument. The zoomed out theory, however, is something bigger that you can always reconnect with when getting lost in the weeds. It helps me to keep my 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. It is also a tool that you can use to help shape your own mind.
2. Light a flame of passion within your students. I remember that the light bulb moment of fully realizing this idea occurred 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 (i.e. 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 something worth discovering 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 (most often 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 (a geeky and specific example for brass players is an embouchure change…). But having passion will be enough to keep you pushing forward and moving past these temporary setbacks. Committing to these principles as a teacher has also forced me to commit to them as a student. When I feel that my playing is struggling, I try to follow my own advice and do something to spark up my passion for music. If I am at a road block, going to hear a beautiful concert can remind me of why this path is worth traveling. I wrote further about the fact that struggle is part of the path 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 (I still occasionally catch myself doing fake practicing). Students constantly give me fake answers by just saying 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 music sound more flowing and connected?” (I’m hinting at slurring the music first to get a long flowing and focused air stream, something we do at least 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 risks being just empty words without any concept or explanation behind it)
- 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? Try pretending that you yourself are teaching and you have to explain it to your own student”
- Student: “uhhh air support makes the sound better”
- Me: (silently thinking to myself: okay stay calm, keep trying…)
I’m not necessarily 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. High school students, because they have had more years at developing their language, might even mask the empty thoughts with lots of words and complex sentences. But it doesn’t change the fact that 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 think we are all guilty of occasionally speaking empty thoughts like this, and this is definitely an example of how teaching has helped me to tidy up my own thinking. I also 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. Although the value of discipline doesn’t fit neatly into my two pillars, it is nonetheless a crucial value to instill in students. I think music is particularly beneficial in teaching kids the value of discipline because being unprepared is so obvious. Discipline in music can also develop a momentum that spreads 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 video clip here). It is really a reminder to us that laziness almost never leads to places that we actually want to go; true freedom and enjoyment of this life exists as the counterpart to true discipline. How many big lottery winners — people who essentially have the freedom to do anything— find lasting meaning in their life if they don’t balance it with responsibility and discipline? I expect that most of us won’t be able to 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 use the process of learning an instrument to showcase this relationship between discipline and freedom. Especially with unmotivated students, I ask them: “why not start with some trumpet practice and see where it takes you?” I first learned real discipline through music, and it certainly has continued to generally keep my lazy tendencies at bay.
Yes, passion as a motivator is my primary goal, but I also remind students that they will enjoy their TV or video games (or whatever else it is that they do for fun) much more when they can honestly say they worked hard. It is a bargaining chip I use with my own mind all the time, and comes down to a phrase my dad would always 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. This is perhaps the biggest lesson that has transferred from my teaching life into my performing life. Even with a lot of passion for a subject, you have to find a balance. If you never reward yourself for your discipline, resentment can slowly build up and you risk putting out the flame of passion that 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”. This advice also applies to ourselves, since as adults we are our own primary teachers. While this sounds simple enough in theory, I have found it to be an extremely difficult mission during the day to day grind. These two pillars, along with some of the related values, 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