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Teaching Music (2): imperfect curriculum

Posted on November 30, 2014

Teaching, to me, involves breaking down the subject into it’s simplest most basic pieces, and finding an efficient, straightforward way to explain those basic pieces in a logical order that builds on itself so that the student eventually understands a complex concept. Basically my goal is efficiency, and it leans on a cumulative approach to explaining concepts.

I think that I came up with this idea while tutoring economics to my peers as an undergrad. Several students depended on my digestible concepts approach to explaining macroeconomics to get through their weekly problem sets (apparently the professor was terrible). I found pride in being able to decipher their homework problems, and then guiding each student logically through what they needed to understand. Students needed to understand supply and demand curves separately before they could find where they intersected. Then they could understand what it means to shift the supply or curve, and from that the concept of elasticity.

I discovered pretty quickly that my ideal of hyper efficient teaching, where the student grasps and understands each concept perfectly before moving on, was impractical in reality (as it turns out, teaching music to complete beginners is very different from teaching the second course of economics to highly motivated Berkeley students). Beginning students, especially children, may not grasp these new concepts immediately. Trying to make sure they understand each one before moving on can get frustrating, not just for the teacher, but for the student (more importantly). Even if this isn’t an issue, most students will not begin with the perfect technique to demonstrate their perfect grasp of musical concepts anyway. Slow perfections have to take a backseat to simply pulling music out of fingers, keys, and strings in any way possible. We can always go back and fix any particular issues… or not. Not everyone is going on to be a highly trained musician, and even if they are, a few mistakes at the beginning are not going to throw them off the path.

Looking back on my musical education, I made several missteps. I would say that I practiced incorrectly and operated under misguided ideas about technique and practical theory among other things for years at a time. It is a painful thing to think about, one that took me a long time to learn not to regret. Now I feel I’ve come full circle. While I am not encouraging my own students to learn “incorrectly,” I see now how it is an inevitability in the process of learning, if not almost essential.

Teaching Music (1)

Posted on November 2, 2014

I remember as a kid feeling that I never wanted to be a teacher. I once tried to teach my friend to play a melody, and I got so frustrated when he did not get it immediately that I swore off teaching as a career choice. I decided that I simply did not have the patience. Even as I finished college, I looked in dismay at my resume, which was loaded with my volunteer work in schools and education, and work as a tutor. By then, however, I was already beginning to enjoy the process of taking a concept apart into its most basic explainable pieces.

Of course, I’ve since changed my mind about teaching. At some point I realized that patience is a virtue that I very much wanted to have if I didn’t already have it, and that a lack thereof would be a terrible excuse not to try something. And it is true, patience is a great tool to have, especially as I have been learning how to be an effective teacher for every kind of student.

The experience overall is gratifying. Nevermind that I’ve become incredibly busy and still am not making a lot of money. Nevermind that I am still learning how to teach effectively, and how to control students and their ever expanding varieties of listlessness, impatience, lack of focus, and aversion to things that are not immediately easy. Turning around and finding one week, that your student suddenly grasps the concepts that seemed as impossible as an elephant doing a backflip is one of the most viscerally exciting experiences that are possible to have on a weekly basis.

That all being said, teaching is such a strangely idiosyncratic experience. More on that later.