Monday, January 19, 2015

The Dilemma of Teaching Music

Throughout my career as a musician I spent part of my time teaching. Sometimes it felt like most of my time! Teaching music is immensely rewarding and immensely draining. I just ran across an essay that highlights some of the dilemmas of music education. Part of the essay is about the composer Marie Incontrera's studies with Fred Ho and part is about a recent movie, Whiplash, about a similarly challenging teacher, described like this:
Whiplash chronicles the teaching career of Terrence Fletcher, a man whose desire to make his students great leads to what can only be described as abuse: name calling, slurs, physical force. Commentary focused on male dominance and gay jokes runs rampant throughout, but it’s an accurate portrayal of the jazz culture at large. Fletcher’s intent behind the whole thing is highlighted in his story about how Charlie Parker became “Bird” and one of the most important musicians of the 20th century: Joe Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head because his playing wasn’t up to par. So Parker went home, practiced, and came back one of the best saxophonists of all time—all because he got a cymbal thrown at him. Fletcher’s career can be summed up by this simple act: he goes around throwing cymbals at people’s heads, hoping to hit a Bird.
 I find it ironic that a very progressively minded (politically) artist like Marie Incontrera should have such a antediluvian attitude toward teaching. I know where she is coming from and there was a strain of it in my teaching over the years too. I was frequently tough with my students, telling them they were making a poor sound ("like a truck going uphill") or had soggy, lifeless rhythms, or poorly balanced chords and so on. "Where's the magic?" I would ask. But I never threw a cymbal at anyone's head (wouldn't that get you fired from any music school in the world?)--wasn't even tempted!

The idea that you can and should go to any lengths to "catalyze greatness" in your students is a tempting one to anyone who is deeply committed to music. As Incontrera writes:
Where is the fine line between motivating someone and abusing them? Will this movie make young jazz musicians think that all you need to do to become the next Bird is work really hard, get yelled at, and practice till you bleed? Is this portrayal of the teacher-student dynamic helpful or harmful?
I don’t agree with Fletcher’s extremism, but I see in him the same intent as Fred had with his students. There’s a scene in which Fletcher tells Nyman that there’s no phrase more harmful in the English language than “good job”; what if Joe Jones had just said good job to Charlie Parker? Fred had a similar rhetoric with me and his other students. “It’s my job to push you,” Fred would say. “I want to make you great.” In a rare and vulnerable moment toward the end of his working life, Fred once thanked me for seeing the larger picture of this and never complaining about his demeanor or intensity.
After many years of teaching music to students of enormously varying potential my conclusion is that the line is not so fine after all. A small amount of challenging treatment of your students is extremely valuable. A large amount is pointless. You can be a vicious son-of-a-bitch all you want, but that is never going to "catalyze greatness". The nastiest teachers I have known have produced very little in terms of talented students. I have been astounded at the kind of negativity some teachers exhibit and often suspect it is because of their own frustrated ambitions. Like stage mothers, some teachers try to live vicariously through their students. With little success.

The best teachers I have ever encountered were quite the opposite. Yes, they would sometimes make some tough points and deliver hard truths, but the vast majority of the time they were leading the student towards greater sureness and confidence, not beating them into submission. I once knew a student of Julian Bream's (who taught almost no students) and he told me that Bream's method was like Marine boot camp: first beat the student down until they were nothing, then build them back up. I doubt this works in music, though it seems to in the military. This player was a neurotic mess his entire career, never becoming a strong, confident player. The best teacher I have ever worked with was Pepe Romero, whom I never heard abuse a student, nor even utter a negative word. Everyone that worked with him came away a better, more confident player.

Here is why I think that music and the military are different. In the military the goal is to take people who have the potential to be tough and push them to their limits. The ones that fall by the wayside need to be eliminated from the mix. In music we are looking for something that is truly rare: musical greatness. Or perhaps, more realistically, musical talent. I can attest that while nearly everyone can learn to play an instrument at a modest level of ability, to become a master or even just a good player is far rarer. Out of a thousand music students perhaps one hundred might become good players and one a really fine player. Most will either lack talent or be mere mediocrities. You can yell at them all you want and even throw cymbals at their heads and it will not give them greater potential. Yes, you can motivate them to work hard, which is important, but despite all that crap about the "10,000 hours", just working hard will not increase your potential, though it will enable you to access the potential you have.

You can't "catalyze greatness" if there is no greatness there. And greatness is astonishingly rare. Let me give a small example. I had a student who was intelligent and hard-working and really loved music. I worked with her for a couple of years and she really had the potential and fingers to be a fine guitarist. But she just had no sensitivity to timbre. I would work with her for an hour on cultivating a warm, expressive tone. Then she would come back the next week with the same harsh, naily sound. She just didn't hear it! This kind of spotty, uneven talent is pretty common. What is really, really uncommon is the kind of student that has potential and ability in all the necessary areas.

I also suspect that most people who really have the talent also find the motivation pretty easily. Talent tends to motivate itself. Those people who really have to play or compose, tend to do it.

I don't want to diminish the role of a fine teacher: what they do is absolutely essential in guiding talented students away from blind alleys and towards productive ones. The other essential role they have is in introducing and cultivating the love of music in those students of ordinary talent, because they will form the core of the audiences of tomorrow. It is an appalling misunderstanding of reality to think that there might ever be an occasion to throw a cymbal at someone's head!

Incidentally, there is a story that Andrés Segovia once taught a young Narciso Yepes in a master class and was so infuriated that he threw a music stand at him! But I very much doubt that that had a positive effect on Yepes' musical development.

Let's listen to a little Narciso Yepes. Here he is playing his transcription of Asturias by Isaac Albéniz:


Anonymous said...

Throwing a cymbal at someone's head can also be understood as a figure of speech. Some teachers can sound more terrifying with a single soft-spoken utterance than the hurling of a chair.

In that sense, virtually all of the great musicians I know have had a teacher like that. I suspect Marie Incontrera is on to something.

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, in the article, it just didn't sound like a figure of speech!

Anonymous said...

I know. What I am saying is that the worst form of violence in teaching may not be physical.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah yes, well that is certainly true!