Saturday, August 30, 2008

Getting rid of your students.

In the long run, the ultimate aim of any high level music teacher should be to get rid of his students. You can only consider yourself successful as a teacher, if your student becomes independent and doesn't need you anymore. If your students are clinging to you long after they should be professionals, then there is a problem.

There are two essential skills any music teacher should pass on to ensure that his students attain some independence. They have to be able to read a score by themselves and they have to learn how to practice. It sounds simple, but teaching those skills is really hard to do.

[caption id="attachment_142" align="aligncenter" width="454" caption="That's not the trainer doing the push-ups, it's Rocky. You show the students how to practice but they have to do the actual work."]rocky[/caption]

Reading a score doesn't just involve reading the notes, it involves a whole body of knowledge that the teacher passes on to a student. Questions of style and interpretation, and how that relates to everything one learns in harmony, counterpoint and musical analysis. A student has to be able to make informed interpretative decisions about how he is going to play the score. He has to be able to tell when a more literal reading of the score is appropriate and when it is necessary to take liberties with different elements of the writing. In the same way as in reading a book, one must read between the lines and into the context. A musical score is a graphical representation of a whole musical microcosm inside the composers head. One must learn how to read the intentions behind it.  Sometimes the writing in the score is in the form a direct step by step instruction manual one must follow, other times it is only an outline or an approximation to a specific interpretation understood only through a knowledge of the composer's style and place in history, in the same way as some concepts and higher meanings are represented in writing through the use of allegory, simile and metaphor.

Knowing how to practice is attained by learning the process behind solving a problem. For a teacher, it is more important to show a student this, many times letting him solve it by himself rather than just giving him everything on a silver platter, ready-made. This sometimes requires a very high level of integrity from the teacher because, on occasions, the student might make the teacher look bad. It is tempting to just tell a student what to do from the very first class because his performance in a class recital or exam will probably be much more polished and give the teacher prestige. However, a student gains a lot more in the long run by exploring and finding solutions for himself. I am very grateful to one of my teachers because of this. It was obvious that she had the solutions to many little problems in my playing, but she would hold back and never come out and tell me directly how to solve them until only a few days before a concert (sometimes leading to disastrous results in the concert). I am sure that she could have taught us in a different way, like a bunch of mindless automatons, and had spectacular results in the class recitals but instead, she chose to lets us bump our heads into the obstacle until we found our way around it.

[caption id="attachment_143" align="alignleft" width="283" caption="Mr. Miyagi doesn't tell Daniel-san how to defend, punch and kick from the very start, he shows him how to wax-on, wax-off. Daniel gets to make all the conclusions and apply by himself the skills he was taught."]kk[/caption]

By understanding the process through which one must go to solve a problem, a student gains much more in the long run, leaving him prepared for when the teacher can't be there anymore to hold his hand.

The teacher's role is similar to a trainer's in most professional sports. It is important that the student understands this. A student is largely self-taught. A competent teacher will show him the process, give him examples and steer him through his training, but can't do the actual work for him. To really get a student to become independent, one must stress the importance of being self-sufficient, always pushing them to work things out by themselves. Encourage them to choose their own repertoire. Have them take a bigger part in organizing class recitals or making schedules, encourage them to organize among themselves how to make up for missed classes. From the very start, encourage them to come up with their own little exercises and etudes for studying hard passages.  Encourage them to learn music by themselves. I tend to work music with my students in pairs of similar pieces (two Bach inventions, two similar etudes, etc.), working on one of them very intensively while letting them work the other one out mostly by themselves, applying what they've learned from the other one. The Socratic method of teaching works wonders, always ask them questions about everything, leading them on to whatever conclusion you need them to understand.

Most of all, you have to constantly push them. I try to get my students to understand that it is not enough to just do things right. I need them to start doing this right without me having to tell them. With the advanced students, doing something right after I have to tell them to do it that way is not a good thing at all. The ultimate objective is to have them do things by themselves so that they can start being colleagues instead of students and I can finally get rid of them, hoping that they won't need me again.


  1. How do you get rid of them? I mean there are people out there with teachers that say "look, that piece you learned was the last I learned with a teacher ... I think you should find a different teacher." Or some say "I think its time you changed teachers" ... any suggestions

    P.S I'm not a teacher ... just a curious student

  2. From the very beginning I set goals for them, I get them to understand that three years down the road, I want them to be in a specific place, maybe at a music school they want to audition for, or doing some kind of master's degree program, etc. The point is that, from the very beginning, they know we aren't going to be working together forever (I am talking about students that are headed towards a professional musical career).
    I personally try to get them into better schools, or to the next level of their education. In the case of a more advanced student, I try to encourage them to enter competitions and to play recitals so that they can be independent. It just comes natural when I teach, over time I have less to say about how they play, until I can tell them that I really can't help them anymore. When they are just starting I work with them 3 or 4 times a week, for short periods of time. Over time we settle on two sessions each week of one hour. As they get more advanced, we get to a point where maybe I just need to see them once a month to polish what they are playing. It's pretty much all in the hands of the student. I just make it clear that I am not going to be "hurt" if they go somewhere else, and that I personally consider it a failure in my teaching if after a few years, they still need to rely on me for everything.