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Master becomes the Student

March 4, 2018

"When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the Master." --Darth Vader

 

By now, I think everyone knows my "story" of learning to play the cello. But if you haven't, scroll to the bottom to read up ***

 

When I first decided to try the cello in 2015, I thought it would just be a fun way to pass the time while I was healing from surgery. It would keep me entertained and make the time fly.

 

The most obvious results of studying the cello were that I became good at it and now find myself playing in an orchestra, a chamber music "society", and even teaching some beginners. What I didn't foresee was how being a student again would so profoundly effect my teaching style.

 

I think anyone who has been at a single job for as long as I have (24 years) starts to get comfortable with their abilities at that job. I know I did. I had the confidence to tell parents that I could fix any musical problem their child was having, or that I could help them get in to state festival orchestras, or that I can help them win an audition to a youth orchestra. It's a bit immodest, but I felt like any kid was teachable and I was the right teacher. You could say that I had the technique of teaching under my fingers.

 

As the years move on, I too move further away from my years as a student. There is a huge difference between being a beginner and high school student and a college student. And the further I moved away from being able to remember that feeling of being a beginner, the harder it was becoming to teach beginners. I actually started to panic before lessons at Oakwood where I'd have to face my beginners. My biggest anxiety centered on how to teach them to read music notes.

 

It's important to note that I learned to read music when I was 4 years old. Because I was learning to read and to read music at the same time at such a young age, my memory of how my piano teacher accomplished this is very fuzzy. For all the years that I've been teaching beginners, my actual teaching technique has literally been made up of advice and suggestions made by other teachers who share with me how they teach beginners. I already had a loose grip on how to teach beginners, now add to that a feeling that it was all coming apart because I felt I was failing my students somehow.

 

Stepping into the role of student in my first cello lesson in 2015 was weird for both of us to say the least. My teacher is a colleague of mine (we've performed professionally together since I moved here in 2010) so there's also that element of looking to a level peer to act as an authority. She had every reason to not take me seriously, but lucky for me, she has always taken my cello-education deadly serious! Of course, I don't do anything halfway: I'm an all-in kind of person. As a student at every level, I had always had a real sense of duty and responsibility to do exactly as my teachers said and I had a feeling that I didn't want to disappoint them at any lesson. If they wrote in my book "practice page 38" I would get through that page if it killed me. Anything less than an hour a day of practice was all me, not my parents prodding or my teacher lecturing me to do it. To this day, all these feelings persist.

 

Being a student again, and on an instrument that literally has nothing in common with playing any woodwind, has been quite the enlightening journey for me. I've had to relearn how to read "slurs" as "bowings" which mean completely different things from each other; I've had to become proficient at tenor clef which I'd never learned to read; and I've had to develop the new muscles (and calluses) necessary for a whole different instrument. The most obvious is the hit to the ego as I went from professional to beginner.

 

Let's go back to "learning to read tenor clef" because this is where being a student again has helped my teaching technique the most. I was being asked to learn to read music from scratch, just as my beginners were doing with treble clef. My teacher gave me the same advice that I have been giving my students forever: just learn to read it.

 

 

 

"Oh....kay?" is the response I get from my students when I say this. Just like with enharmonics (notes that sound the same but are written differently: ex. G#/Ab), I say "don't translate, just learn it." Memorize, absorb, then go for it. When kids take this advice, they succeed. When others try to do mental gymnastics, they're the ones who fall behind, become frustrated, and ultimately quit music thinking they "can't" and "never will."

 

Being in the student chair I decided to face the looming tenor clef specter head on. No excuses, no writing in note names, just good, old fashioned learning. When my own students show up in their lessons with every single note written in, I can almost guarantee they are not learning to read music. If I erase those letters and test how they handle just reading the music, then it becomes absolutely clear who needs extra help and who just needs to let go of the security blanket.

 

I'm a professional musician. No amount of "learning a new instrument" erases years of study, practice, experience or discipline. I am coming at this, obviously, from a much more self-aware position than the kids, so I am able to take a step back, assess, and accept my struggles. Which, let's face it, aren't that monumental. And guess what? They're not that monumental for kids, either.

 

When faced with a new skill, we all go through a process which usually includes avoidance, frustration and anxiety, but, if we take a deep breath and take a step back, we also realize there's a sense of anticipation, excitement and pride in learning a new skill. Not everyone can learn to do everything (we're not all rocket scientists and we're not all concert violinists) but we sure can learn to do something new and feel a sense of accomplishment at doing something unique.

 

The key to helping the kids progress is to allow them to sit with their anxieties for a moment. It's ok! We all worry when we start something new. But that feeling will eventually go away if you do this new thing in baby steps. I've been making it a point to tell all the kids "if you follow the instructions that I'm writing down, I promise you, you will be able to do this thing." I also reassure them that the first day at the new skill is going to stink! And maybe the second day will, too, but by the third day they will start to feel better and in a week they will see their own improvement and "guess what? In a month, you're going to be able to do this without thinking about it!"

 

Guess who was impatient as a child to master new skills and remains impatient to this day? This gal. Every time I sit down to practice (anything), I have this sense that "it has to be perfect before I get up" which isn't very productive at all. So I have to take my own advice. I also have a 20 year yoga practice that has also helped me recognize when I'm being impatient to do a thing rather than learn a thing.

 

When kids are impatient and expect to do something immediately, they will be disappointed. When they feel deflated, they won't practice. And when kids won't practice, they fall behind their peers, which amplifies the feeling of frustration and leads to giving up.

 

When they have permission to be afraid and to go at it slowly, they blossom. Learning to be patient with myself (while I learn the cello, or to read the tenor clef, or to learn a complicated yoga pose) has allowed me to dial down my teaching intensity and give the kids the space they need to breathe.

 

If you've opened your child's assignment book lately, you'll see there are less lines of music being assigned, but more skills listed that they need to practice. I've discovered that the best way to show the kids that they are capable of learning things they didn't think they could learn is to do it in small chunks. Instead of assigning an etude that takes up the entire page, I assign just 4 lines at a time, and a whole lot of time on the breathing skill. When they feel they can manage a certain volume of work on their own, they get a burst of enthusiasm and move forward with renewed energy.

 

If your child comes to you complaining that "playing this instrument is too hard" or you don't hear them practicing enough, just remind them this one thing I often have to say to them in their lessons: "of course it isn't easy! If it were easy, everyone would play the oboe."

 

 

 

 

 

*** During a concert in 2012, I suffered a hernia called ventral epigastric. It was a split in the fascia that runs down the center of the abdomen, this hole was between my ribs and belly button. I (stupidly) decided to ignore the hernia and continue to perform on the oboe for 3 more years.

 

But in 2015, it became too much to play through and so finally saw my doctor. He recommended surgery, and both he and the surgeon said that playing the oboe after the surgery was up to me. Doctors (and people in general) don't understand the air-pressure and physicality involved in playing the oboe. In fact, I don't think many people understand just how physically draining it is to play any instrument!

 

So I consulted with one of my former oboe teachers; his opinion being the one I would trust and upon which I would make my final decision as to whether or not I'd continue to play the oboe after surgery, based on what he said. Given the location and the tissue involved in this hernia, he said I should not play the oboe professionally again, but that he was confident I'd find a way to continue to pursue my career in music as a performer. This is when I decided to try my hand at the cello. 

 

 

 

 

 

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