Pedagogy appropriate to students’ level

I remember as a young college student attending a masterclass by a world-class musician. He was scornful of students spending a lot of time in practice rooms playing scales. He urged us instead to get outside and watch a sunset, and then “play the sunset.”

Advice like that has its place. But I was doing exactly as my teacher assigned: spending a lot of time in practice rooms playing scales. My teacher assigned that because it was what I needed at that stage in my development. I wouldn’t have had much success trying to “play the sunset” because I hadn’t yet learned the technique I needed.

I have my university woodwind methods students do an assignment evaluating pedagogical articles. They use a few criteria, including appropriateness for teaching beginners. The articles’ authors don’t always make that clear. In fact, I suspect many of the authors would resist the idea that their advice is level-specific. “Oh, no, my ideas apply to all students.”

I understand the appeal of that viewpoint, that good woodwind pedagogy is made of unassailable truths. But here’s a counterexample. With beginner and intermediate students, I teach that voicing is stable; you learn the “correct” voicing and then stick with it. But with more advanced students I teach that voicing is a tool to adjust tuning, response, and tone. Their technique, ear for pitch, and expressive requirements have reached a higher level, and they are ready. (I’ve addressed this two-phase approach to voicing previously.)

Masterclasses like the one I attended are often taught by very high-level performers. Their own teaching studios are filled with advanced, high-achieving graduate students. With those students, it may be productive to discuss heady philosophical or creative ideas. But the less-elite students really do need to hit a practice room and learn their scales. For them, high-level advice is pointless, frustrating, and condescending.

Consider carefully the needs of those you teach. When necessary, be clear that your teaching may be geared toward students at a particular level.

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