Be a Student Again

It will help, and it's fun.

Today, I would like to encourage all teachers to look for an opportunity to be a student again. Not just by attending an upcoming summer conference, whether online or (maybe?) even in-person. I mean to be a student of a subject you know little about, at the hands of a skilled instructor.

I have been reminded of the importance of doing this over the last two years, as a student myself - of the piano. When one looks at a piano without knowing how to play, one might think: “it’s 88 keys in two colors, how hard can that be?” It turns out that it is devilishly hard, particularly as an adult learner.

First, let me explain a bit about why I chose to be a student of the piano. I sang in my church choir as a boy, some pretty complicated stuff on a rigorous schedule (for anyone, not just a 9 year old). But they never took the time to teach us to read music, much less play an instrument. They do better now, but I am not complaining - I had some amazing experiences there, such as singing with Mitzi Gaynor on the Kraft Music Hour,* and with Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall. Since those heady days, I have sung on and off in three church choirs, and was singing regularly before the pandemic brought an abrupt end to that. My wife is a singer too - it is something we discovered in common on our blind date 28 years ago.

So I have been around music essentially all of my life, but was always a bit embarrassed that I do not know how to play an instrument. So in January 2019, I signed up for group lessons at my University’s music school, in a digital piano lab they have there. I found myself, once a week, as a training ground for the students who were studying for the Master’s degree in piano pedagogy. Right. There’s a degree for that. People still study that.

It was fascinating. Not only because I was learning something I have always - as long as I can remember - wanted to know. But because, as a teacher, it was immensely interesting to watch the students of teaching piano teaching me. The pedagogy was not exactly on the surface, but it was observable by someone who is a teacher and writes about teaching.

The theme of the first set of classes I took was Boogie-Woogie (a genre of Blues popular in the 1920s). What? We should figure out the keyboard, and chords, and the pedals before we can delve into a musical genre, surely. Nope. Start with music, use the music to teach those things through. A simple thought, but not that easy to carry out when most of your students barely know where Middle C is located on the keyboard.

One evening, they put lines of tape down on the floor in the form of a musical staff, and had us stand where the notes they called out where located. Aha, I thought, that’s a kinesthetic exercise! (But of course, most of learning piano is kinesthetic). Another time they played a Miles Davis riff, from Kind of Blue, and we tapped it out to get the rhythm. And then they brought percussion instruments to class and we each took one and made thumping noises in a series of progressions they devised.

I have since hired one of those students as my piano teacher, after she graduated with her Master’s degree from the program, and am taking weekly lessons - now over Zoom. A few months ago, she said, “hey, try some pedal on this piece when you are practicing.” No dreary instruction on how to read pedal markings at the bottom of the staff, no repetitive exercises to do first, no (virtual) rapping on the knuckles when I do it wrong. Just add it. Listen to the sounds. It is pretty obvious the pedagogy (or more accurately in my case, the andragogy) involved: if you are excited by the sound first, you’ll make an effort to learn the other stuff.

So it has been interesting and instructive to watch the teaching, as well as receive it. I realize not everyone wants to - or has the bandwidth to - take on a major project like learning an instrument, although doing so has been apparently quite popular in the pandemic. But there are many smaller classes we can take, with less long-term investment. The Smithsonian has an Art History certificate you can take at your own speed (and fully online). Your local community college has one-off courses you can take.

On the most basic level, it is good to just take a break from our own teaching and let ourselves be taught. It wouldn’t hurt any of us to have the experience of being told what to do some of the time. Putting the shoe on the other foot so to speak. It helps you see - at least a little bit - what it is like to be a novice, like our students, and what it is like to be in the position of being told, like our students. At a minimum, it should help us build empathy for them, which is never a bad thing.

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Letters of Recommendation

On the subject of being a student, I can recommend the new book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, by Tom Vanderbilt. In it, the author describes experiences he had while learning Chess, Singing, Surfing, Drawing - and my personal favorite - Juggling.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Question:

After becoming a teacher, when was the last time you were a student, and what did you learn?

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* If you can pick me out in this awful video, you will get your name in next week’s newsletter!