This is the second of a series of posts on the teacher-student relationship. If you haven’t seen Part 1, it’s below.
Your Energy Level
It’s been said that a performer uses as many calories on stage in an hour-long concert as a runner does in ten miles. Any performer can tell you this must be true. What about teachers? Many people don’t realize that prolonged concentration and speaking will burn calories. That means teachers do well to prepare as though they were training for marathons; not only eat right and always get enough rest, but exercise regularly. The stamina and the mental clarity you’ll gain will make you a better teacher.
I used to joke about getting all my exercise hauling my instruments and baggage through airports, but it was actually true. It was hard work and it was aerobic, and it made me physically strong. I did it often enough to equal regular workouts at a gym. Also, for a few years I lived about three blocks from the grocery store, bank and post office, and walked to them almost every day, carrying home my groceries without the aid of a cart. I did this on purpose because it was great exercise. If your usual activities don’t include some form of strenuous exercise, invent one!
I don’t schedule students during the hours when I am least bright (for me, that’s late afternoon and evening) because they deserve my best. It’s no fun to teach when you’re tired, hungry, or worn out. And it’s unfair to your students when you’re not at your best.
The same is true for students; it’s respectful to your teacher to be awake and aware at your lesson. Also, never, never, go to a lesson if you’re sick or think you might be coming down with something, or if someone in your family has a contagious illness (you can carry germs even if you’re not sick yourself). Exposing your teacher to any illness, even a cold, is terribly unfair; private music teachers are self-employed and don’t get paid sick days, so when they’re sick, they can’t make a living, and you can deprive your teacher of substantial income if you pass your illness along to him or her. Teachers, likewise, should respect their students enough to refrain from teaching when sick. Sure, you need the income, but it’s just plain mean to pass illness to anyone.
Teachers need to know and use our technical terminology correctly and comfortably. We have to be able to spell and pronounce all terms correctly. This makes our teaching credible. But beware of using technical terminology to sound like you “know a lot”. It’s much more kind to your students to use language they already understand than to use technical terms when they aren’t necessary. One cannot teach a subject using language that is part of the material to be learned (just as the dictionary definition of a word never uses the word itself). You can explain key words and terms that are important, but constantly using unfamiliar technical terminology can cause eyes to glaze over.
Students, if your teacher uses any term you don’t fully understand, ask what it means. There’s no such thing as a dumb question. It does make you look dumb, though, if you can’t follow an instruction or grasp an idea because you’re missing a definition. Don’t let a teacher make assumptions about how much you know. No one is smart enough to understand lingo they’ve never heard before.
Many people make the mistake of assuming that everyone should already know what we know, and that if they don’t they are ignorant. This is our own self-esteem issue. Most of us have a tendency to think that the sum total of what we know isn’t much beyond what any normal person knows. That’s a mistake. Everyone knows different things. Assuming that everyone should already know, for instance, what a diminished chord is, would be like believing everyone speaks Sanskrit.
When I was new at my very first job, I learned how prevalent the above attitude is. I had been a college-prep student in High School, but found myself working temporarily at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s. I had no idea how to make fries or how to fill the coke machine. The other employees thought I had no brain whatsoever, and treated me like an idiot. They didn’t remember that at one time they had to learn those things, too. The pain of that experience has led me to be very careful to never treat anyone that way.
Be Prepared but Flexible
For private lessons, I found out early in my career that planning each student’s lesson in advance doesn’t actually work very well. And that when teaching adult students, requiring a specific amount of work to be mastered between lessons is unrealistic. Young students make progress at different rates, and this not only varies from person to person but from week to week, depending on what else is going on in their lives. Adult students require even more flexibility, as they often have more responsibilities that supersede practice time.
It’s good to have specific goals and assignments, but since you can’t guess how much practice someone has actually had between lessons, it works well to allow them to continue from wherever they are. I simply say at the beginning of each lesson, “Play for me what you’ve been practicing.” Then we take it from there. Progress happens at their speed. Of course, if no progress is made for a long time, I might have a talk with them about the benefits of regular practice, or perhaps ask if they need a break from lessons. But there have only been a handful of students (in over 30 years of teaching) with whom I’ve had to have those discussions.
Continued next time…