I have run the gauntlet of the modern music education system, from Suzuki, traditional lessons, and summer programs, to big name conservatories, small graduate schools, and post-graduate work. Throughout all of this I have been struck by a few major themes. Most important of these is that the conservatory system is an inflated and incestuous institution that seems to serve little purpose but to provide job security to a small number of famous performers for salaries that couldn’t possibly be sustained if the school wasn’t reliant on too readily available loan money. Considering the size of the student loan bubble, I don’t imagine this will be sustainable for too much longer.
While I would certainly enjoy writing on how I imagine the new, extra-academic performance education would be molded, I’m starting this blog with a much less complicated topic: Pointless Things Your Teacher Tells You That are Technically Accurate.
One of the biggest issues in much of modern day teaching is that it is dominated by very natural players. Of course, it would seem obvious that those most inclined to playing are also those most likely to have a booming career. There is less for them to work out on a technical level and they are likely to start their careers younger. This allows them more time to build up a reputation within the music world, as well as experience performing and connecting with influential players in the classical music business. Of course, this is all well and good. These people are certainly deserving of all their status and their success. Only a resentful fool, haunted by his own mediocrity, would begrudge them their positions. However, this does become an issue in teaching, as there is a split between implicit knowledge and detailed understanding.
The aforementioned natural performers are full of implicit knowledge. They know, within their very bodies, exactly what it feels like to play at the highest level. Their nervous systems are finely tuned in. In violin, this can result in nearly nanoscopic differences in movement and bodily understanding that result in either truly great playing, or just passable playing. Because of this implicit knowledge, they don’t often have a detailed explanation of proper technique they can give to others. They give simplistic cues to their students that work for themselves but are useless for the student. These students are far too many rungs down the ladder of understanding for such cues to work. So many students, however, are studying with such teachers. The brilliant light of their performing careers so often lures schools to hire them, and students to pursue them.
You do find, on occasion, someone that can make a career purely through their reputation as a teacher. Typically, they do not have very active performing careers, and were much older by the time they were noticed for their abilities. Often these types do not posses the natural, implicit understanding most of the great performers have, even if they became very good players themselves. Instead, they were very intelligent, inquisitive, and determined to truly understand how to play correctly and beautifully. If it doesn’t come as naturally to you, you have two options: either you quit, or you buckle down and figure it out – and when you do, it’s in explicit detail.
When one spends nearly a decade of their life agonizing over exactly what it is that the greatest performers are doing naturally, they have a greater mental understanding of the mechanics of playing and the mindset of performing. This allows them to help their students with greater efficacy. They don’t rely on simple cues, patting themselves on the back when they get a student to sound mildly better in the lesson, only to willfully ignore that the poor youngster will forget how the moment he steps back across the studio’s threshold. The true pedagogue ensures he explains in such a way that the student can solve his own problems through the whole week, for during that time the student is his own teacher.
In this series I will be looking at the various cues and platitudes that have been said so often and by so many people they are basically memes in music education. All of these are technically true, but are so widely misunderstood or inadequately explained that they become nearly useless. My aim is to explain them properly, so that you, dear reader, might be able to take full advantage of what you are being taught.
The first entry: “Relax,” will be up in a few days.