To Leland Means
Early in my career I was teaching a high school student whose main interest was visual art. One day, her mother told me her daughter was worried that I was upset with her or frustrated because she didn’t practice enough and did not advance as fast as my other students. She was also afraid that I may not want to teach her the following year. I immediately replied that I understood that music was not her main interest but I still enjoyed teaching her and there was nothing to worry about. Just before she left, she said: “I would like you to know that she really loves the bass lessons and that she feels that she is taking much of it to other areas in her life.”
As she left, I asked myself what were the things she took from my lessons into the other things that she was doing. It is hard to know what the student takes, especially that some of it might unfold over time. I reframed the question and asked myself: “what are the things that I feel are important to give to the students, things they can use outside their musical life”.
What follows is a list I made at the time of what I thought I would like to teach to my students, things they may use in their personal or professional lives no matter in what discipline they find themselves.
So here is my list, not necessarily in the order of importance.
- Looking carefully and learning the facts as they are in as great detail as possible. In music it means learning the notes, the bowing, the dynamics and anything else that is on the page.
- Reading between the lines: looking at the inner connections, the symbols, finding what the piece reminds me of, what it means to me, and what I bring new to the piece.
- Asking questions about the piece of music they work on or about anything else they do : What can I do with it? What is different about it? What is special about it? What excites me about it?
- Working hard and devoting a lot of time to each task, much more than they think they need.
- The importance of “RE”: repeating, reviewing, rethinking and respecting.
I felt it was important for me at the time to try and clarify (or simplify) things for myself and I thought these are tools any student could use no matter what they end up doing in their lives.
As I am writing this now, I realize that what I learned from this event has served me ever since: I learned that I have to accept the student for what he or she is, but also to say it clearly, so they know that I accept them as they are. The second thing I learned was how important it is to encourage the student. This entire conversation wouldn’t have happened had I encouraged the student more, both about her playing and about pursuing her other interests. The third thing I learned was that I always have to find ways to facilitate, to make it possible for the student to do things in a way that is right for them. The fourth thing I learned from this event was that even though music was not her main interest and she only devoted little time compared to other students, my duty was to challenge her more than I did.
Those have become the four pillars of my teaching: accepting, encouraging, making it possible and challenging.
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Leland Means is an artist, an art teacher and a bass player.