On Teaching

March 31, 2020


I begin this month’s essay with an anecdote that will lead to some further reflections and questions arising out of my recovery from shoulder surgery. I am writing in mid-February, and yesterday I needed to go to the bank. Because of a student cancellation I had about an hour free for a ten-minute errand, without anything else on my schedule. As I turned into the bank parking lot I got a jolt of pleasure from noticing that the lot was empty. Maybe I would be the only person there! Maybe I could do what I needed to do quickly and get it over with! But, as I fished around in a compartment in my car for the papers that I needed, I realized that I was getting into a mild but real panic that someone else might drive up before I had a chance to go in. Why? I had a lot of time, it was too cold to take a walk or to do other errands. Yet, I was not aware of any other errands that I needed to do.

My arm still will not permit me to practice—no reason to rush back to the studio. If anything, it would make sense for me to want the bank errand to take a bit longer. I was experiencing impatience for its own sake: just manifesting a habit of being impatient or maybe behaving as if being impatient were something that I actually needed to practice. The latter is, unfortunately, not remotely true. I am habitually impatient, and I have trouble putting that aside. Increasingly I notice that most of the time when I am upset or having trouble with something, the underlying source of that trouble is impatience.

My long-term goal is to rid myself of impatience, which will in turn improve my character and temperament. It takes time, and that is difficult.

I have no idea where I stand on the human impatience scale—maybe no worse than average. Impatience is something that is woven into the fabric of our world. The desire or need to get a lot done can lead to impatience—although that connection is, I believe, illusory. Fervor, efficiency, commitment, concentration: those all can lead to getting more done; impatience cannot. Impatience may be a natural, or at least common, human feeling. But there are things about modern life in particular that seem to nurture it—commercials, for example, or the approbation given to multitasking.

Thankfully, this impatience does not manifest itself when working with students. Encouraging students to work fervently, efficiently, with commitment and concentration is important and good. Becoming concerned about a student’s productivity is appropriate. But impatience just clouds thought. Directed at others it can give rise to unhelpful and unnecessary interpersonal problems.

My own tendency towards impatience is directed at myself. For example, once in a while over the years I have thought it prudent to try to get my weight down. If I am lucky, I experience a day on which I eat lightly and healthy and maybe take a walk or play a round of golf. So far, so good. But if the next morning I have not demonstrably lost four or five pounds (and I have not) then I immediately decide that this is not working, and that I might as well give up. Or I should say that I experience the impulse to decide that. Once or twice over the years I have been able to fight against that impulse successfully. (I know that I am not the only one who has had this experience!)

So all of the above ties in to my current round of physical therapy, which in turn ties in to practicing and other aspects of musical life. When I wrote my March column about a month ago I had not yet started therapy. I wrote that the kind of patient, one-step-at-a-time work that I imagined it to be seemed like something that went against the grain of my temperament. This was in spite of whatever success I have had in making myself carry out similar tasks that add up to learning pieces of music or learning to be a performing musician. But I also thought that in this circumstance I would have a fairly easy time of overcoming any problems with impatience, distraction, or boredom due to the obvious high stakes. Here are a few observations from three weeks into the process:

1) There is an element in my physical therapy that resembles good systematic practicing—exercises that should be done on a consistent, regular schedule and that allow progress to happen. This progress has, in both situations, the quality of sometimes being difficult to see day to day. Some days are different that way from others. Sometimes you think that you can feel the small increments, and sometimes you can experience the progress sort of “catch up.” I have done what I would say is a “B+” job of complying with the home exercise schedule, maybe “A–.” It is not quite as easy to make myself do it as I had expected, even with an awareness of the consequences of not doing it. I believe that I am doing enough that my progress is what the therapist expected.

2) And speaking of that, there is an important element here of the need to put faith in the skill and (perhaps even more importantly) in the judgment of the physical therapists. There are levels to this. The first is faith in the knowledge, judgment, and experience of the establishment and of everyone involved in creating the program. The second is faith in the overall skill and judgment of my particular therapist. Third is faith in my therapist specifically to know whether what she sees happening is right.

When we do various exercises, there is often pain involved. (There is a big difference between this and practicing organ or harpsichord, by the way!) I have discovered that when I am doing exercises at the facility or having my shoulder worked on by my therapist, I can relax about the meaning of that pain. I trust her to know for certain whether any given pain is what has to be expected or if there is a problem. (So far there has been none of the latter, I am glad to say.) When doing exercises at home I do not feel that I can trust myself to make that same judgment. So it is nerve-racking. I do these exercises more cautiously than I need to. As the repair to my shoulder heals and I know that the risk of re-injury is fading, I am less worried. But early in the process the fear that I would do something to set the whole process back had a tendency to constrain my work quite a lot.

Trusting in the judgment of the professionals is one of the parallels between physical therapy and music lessons. I muse about whether this experience has changed my thinking about teaching. I believe that it has clarified something for me. Physical therapy is analogous to the part of music teaching in which we try to guide our students toward learning the notes reliably, as to one piece or as to gain general skill. But it does not include anything about interpretation, rhetoric, or style. I have realized that I do want my students to trust me implicitly and thoroughly about note-learning techniques but that I specifically do not want them to trust me about interpretation, and so on. This is a slightly different lens through which to view what I have always said about not wanting my students to play like me or to copy me or anyone else.

If a student does not believe me when I say that a practice protocol will work, or that it is acceptable to work on this “difficult” piece if (and only if) we approach it in this specific way, or that if you do this exercise you can learn to play 5/4 trills comfortably, then the whole process becomes inefficient or ineffective. Just as I have no idea what works and what does not work in physical therapy, the student may not know what does or does not work in note-learning.

Why do I trust my physical therapist, and why should a student trust me? It is partly about institutions and partly about individual experience. I assume that if I go to a reputable physical therapy establishment, I will find that the therapists there are good at what they do. This kind of reasoning is often valid, but sometimes trips us up. We also trust training and education. My physical therapist has certain degrees and certificates. I do not know anything about the schools and programs that she attended; again, we are largely trusting institutions. This often works, yet sometimes does not.

(It occurs to me that if anyone assumed that they could trust me as a teacher specifically because I am the director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center, then they would be falling into a circular trap. I founded PEKC, and it is a small operation. If PEKC vouches for me as a trustworthy teacher, then I am just vouching for myself!)

The next step is the experience itself. If we discover that we were wrong to trust someone’s judgment and expertise, it is likely that we will find out too late. In the physical therapy situation as well as other medical situations this could have terrible consequences. It is difficult not to see any choice other than to do the best we can in making that judgment. I should say that as far as I can tell, my therapist is extraordinarily good and everything is proceeding exactly as it is supposed to.

(It occurs to me that if I could trust my students not to trust me about interpretive matters—that is, not take anything I say as authoritative—I would probably talk to them more about such things than I do. That seems to be a fruitful idea about which to muse further.)

3) The interpersonal side of the physical therapy process has something in common with that of music lessons. It is a partnership and a kind of artificial friendship. I am not at all sure that I am putting this particularly well, as it is something that I am in the midst of experiencing and just beginning to think about. By artificial I do not necessarily mean false, but rather forged by circumstances that are not themselves about friendship. It is of necessity hierarchical. It is time-limited—it is likely that after another month, I will never see my therapist again, nor any of the other people at the office whom I have gotten to know. This happens all the time with business or practical connections. But it seems like more of a “thing” in this case perhaps because the business at hand is important and personal, perhaps because it is time-intensive while it is going on. I have had a previous bout of physical therapy in my life. I remember being quite sad, even briefly kind of forlorn, when it ended.

This makes me ponder the time element of music teaching. I have rarely had a student who came for lessons as often per week or for as long each time as I am going to physical therapy now. But on the other hand I have had students stay with me for a very long time indeed. As best I can figure it, I have had students whose study has been as short as one lesson and as long as twenty-five years. The former has occasionally (rarely) been a failed connection—always determined by the student, not by me—but more often been a planned one-time consultation. Decades-long study needs to be thought about very carefully and conscientiously by the teacher. Is the lesson process still useful for the student? Is the balance between the interpersonal and the pedagogic successful?

To be continued.

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