Stuff bad music teachers say

June 10, 2016

We can all stand to improve our teaching. Here are some things I’ve either said or heard said that are symptomatic of gaps in pedagogical knowledge.

“I’ve been doing it this way for years and I’m very successful.”

Nobody is arguing with your success. But success isn’t a reason to stop improving, nor is it evidence of a perfect approach. Be open to new ideas. Choose to accept or reject a new approach based on its merits, not based on inertia.

“My famous and well-respected teacher taught it to me this way.”

The craft doesn’t progress if your let hero worship blind you to new ideas. Would your teachers want you to cling to outdated pedagogy out of loyalty, or to further your knowledge and advance the discipline?

“Well, those scientific results don’t matter, because this is music and it can’t be studied in that way. I think musicians know a little more about music than scientists, don’t you?”

Sound is a phenomenon very observable, measurable, and understandable through empirical study. Don’t worry, more information won’t ruin the magic. Take the example of high-level athletes and embrace careful, systematic scientific method as a means of achieving more.

In woodwind teaching in particular, I hear a lot of vague, contradictory, or fantastical ideas that fall apart after even a cursory study of anatomy, acoustics, or fluid dynamics.

And, just like you wouldn’t expect a stodgy old scientist to fully grasp the finer points of your musical performance, recognize your own limitations when it comes to scientific rigor. The Wikipedia article or a blog post you read probably aren’t very solid sources, and the experiment you did with different mouthpieces in your living room probably wouldn’t pass muster with a scholarly journal.

“It’s not a contradiction.”

If your teaching is making you and your students experience cognitive dissonance, getting defensive and brushing past the problem doesn’t help. Watch out for this kind of nonsense: “You have to increase the breath support as you go up to the high register. No, no, don’t reduce the breath support as you go back down to the low register.”

“No, I haven’t read it.”

Music teachers should be active readers of pedagogical materials new and old, and should be actively questioning what they read. (Attending masterclasses, watching videos, etc. is also good, but you will find someone’s clearest, most organized thinking when they have to commit it to paper and/or digital text.) Proliferation of small publishing companies, self-publishing operations, and, of course, the internet, have made the bar for “expertise” very low, but have also made it possible for conscientious readers to consume more and to police what is written. Readers shouldn’t take anything at face value, and authors shouldn’t expect a pass on low-quality work.

Have the courage, conscience, and dedication to pursue deeper, broader, and more accurate knowledge of the concepts you are teaching!

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