We are all teachers and we are all students, whether or not we realize it. We are each an example to others whenever we play, and whatever we say. And we are constantly learning. Sometimes we teach or learn on purpose; sometimes just by being who we are. Learning requires as much integrity as teaching.

A bit of background on my perspective: I grew up with several influences, listening to many kinds of music including classical, pop, folk and ethnic styles. Each has its own way of being passed from player to student. In the folk tradition, a person learns their skills from as many people as possible, and pretty much everyone is willing to share their knowledge with newer musicians. In the classical world, a master teacher bestows technique and the knowledge of music-reading. In traditional and ethnic music, children grow up constantly (daily) exposed to the music of their culture and participates from earliest childhood.

I learned a great deal from people who weren’t formal teachers, and picked up a huge amount through observation and “osmosis”. For various substantive reasons I could not study formally until I was an adult. I was already a professional musician by the time I finally had access to professional instruction, which was immensely satisfying.

As a child whose family automatically followed certain cultural traditions, I was exposed to music all day every day, except when I was at school. In older cultures in almost every country of the world, most people grow up with good music as the atmosphere, the sound-track, the background and the foreground of their lives. We modern Americans may be the only ones who don’t  –  we get ads and MTV and AM radio. Without the high-quality and live music influence, it can be harder to develop a musical brain.

Because of this, many musicians who are completely self-taught often lack important skills and are unaware that they do. How can you know that you lack something you don’t know exists? There are exceptions, of course; I think, for instance, acoustic fingerstyle guitarist Steve Baughman is an example of a self-taught musician who, because he wasn’t influenced by limits, and was willing to spend all his free time practicing as he was growing up, and who had good musical influences to develop his musical brain, became an amazing musician. In fact, since he was self-taught, he didn’t know how good he was until he started playing in public and quickly became famous. But this is very rare!

There are many ways to learn and many ways to teach, and the person in a teaching role can influence the learner profoundly. As I’ve said before, I think all musicians do best when they learn both aurally and formally. It’s a teacher’s responsibility to see that their students are aware of that, and to teach ear-learning and music-reading skills, or at least refer to other teachers so the student has access to both. Learning from as many teachers as possible is optimally beneficial, and if any teacher says theirs is the only way to learn, they are mistaken. I’ve met students who have been told that playing without sheet music in front of them is “cheating”, and I’ve met new musicians who get upset when sheet music isn’t handed out at folk or traditional jam sessions. What a shame that they didn’t have the influence of responsible teachers.

In addition to the above, every teacher has a style all their own, related to their personality. Among the variants of teaching styles, let’s look at a few:

  1. Sharing or Showing?

We’ve all had teachers who gave us a sense that their subject material or their instrument required special talent to learn, and we have emerged from the classroom or lesson thinking, “I may never be able to do that”. Hopefully, we have also had teachers who easily took us to new heights, and we emerged saying, “I can do that!” and we felt eager to deepen our skills.

What is the difference between these teaching attitudes? The former is show; the latter is share. When the teacher is in his/her head instead of his/her heart, you get show. When the teacher is fully present in the moment, connecting with the students, and coming from his/her heart, you get share, the inspired and inspiring kind of teaching that is full of life. If we are to assist students in touching souls with their music, their own souls must be touched first.

It has been said that a teacher can only verbalize 50% of what he or she knows, that a student can only understand 50% of what he or she hears, and can use only 50% of what he or she understands. I think this is a fair assessment. Given this dynamic, a teacher’s job is challenging; one must put forth a great deal of energy to present the material in a way that is exciting enough to capture the imaginations of students with different personalities, abilities, and attitudes.

I’ve had some brilliant teachers and some dull ones  –  the dull ones taught me how not to teach. I always wondered why they were teaching at all; if they didn’t enjoy it, how could the student? Perhaps they thought knowledge was not for enjoying. But the brilliant teachers were full of life, genuinely cared about my learning experience, and presented the material in interesting ways.

  1. Aloofness vs. Making Friends With Your Students

IMHO, being aloof and unreachable does our students no favors. I think one of the most helpful things a teacher can do for a student is to become a friend. The student-teacher relationship is based on trust and respect, and what better way to gain it than to be a good friend? As you develop a friendship with a student, you come to see aspects of their lives and personalities that help you to teach them better. And of course these friendships are rewarding on a personal level. Being friends doesn’t mean your students will have less respect for you. It means they will enjoy their learning experience more, and that you, like the music they are learning, will be a part of their lives in deeper ways than just the notes they play. A student’s relationship with music is intimately linked with their relationship to their teacher. If you don’t connect with the student on deeper levels, they may never connect deeply with their music. Being a friend to your students can actually make them better musicians.

     3. “Coyote Teaching”

Among the wise teachers in American Indian traditions, there is a style of teaching referred to as Coyote Teaching. Coyote is a character who is considered clever yet fun-loving, and one does not always understand his actions until one sees the results. Coyote Teaching means leading the student to learn through their own innate wisdom, bringing that which is intuitively known to the forefront of their awareness to be recognized, so that learning can take place easily.

I once attended a workshop with Jon Young, a master naturalist who runs the famous Wilderness Awareness School in Washington State. He took our group to a field on the edge of a woodland, instructed us to listen quietly, and asked us what we heard. “A bird”, said one man. “What is the bird saying?” asked Jon. “He sounds agitated”, said the man. “Yes. Why?” asked Jon. “Because we are here”, guessed the man; and as Jon’s questions went on, we realized that the bird was warning other birds and animals of our presence. Jon could have told us that, but instead he asked us. He asked us a lot of questions that day, and as a result, we learned a great deal, and it was easy, exciting, and not at all a lecture.

Jon could have put us in a classroom and just told us what he knew. But he made it real for us by pulling it out of us, by putting us in the environment, by letting us have successes right from the first minute of our class. He is a Coyote Teacher.

Have you ever noticed that many people think that if they know about something, they know it? Have you ever experienced the difference between reading a cookbook and the reality of what really can happen in your kitchen? How can people really absorb something, rather than just intellectualize it, if not experiencing it while learning? Teaching by asking is a skill that makes students think, absorb, and remember.

How does one teach by asking? We don’t need to ask trick questions or begin with esoterica that no one has a clue about. We can, however, ask questions that lead the student into the subject material in a thoughtful way. Let’s say you are teaching, for example, music theory. I like to start by saying there are no wrong answers, and asking, “What is music?” After a bit of discussion, groups usually decide it is a combination of tones with specific pitches. Through that process, they get to discuss what tones and pitches are, and whether or not the combination must contain rhythm, melody, and harmony. Then we move on to “What is harmony?”, “What is an interval?”, “What is a chord?”, and so on until we have covered basic theory. I always have them do whatever we talk about on their instruments. Through continual discussion and application, they see all the relationships and aspects of music theory. It’s great to see the lights turn on, the “Aha” happen again and again. And they never forget their theory.

Continued next post…