It struck me this semester – my summer semester just ended – just how much difference a good teacher makes and how often great teaching goes unnoticed. Don’t get me wrong, I know that there are “good” teachers and “bad” teachers. Just ask any student. But often those definitions relate to how “easy” or “nice” a teacher is, not how good they are. If nothing else, my time doing my masters degree is allowing me to be a student and observe teaching through a students eyes. But first, a very much related aside.
Every orchestral musician (and by orchestral musician, I mean any musician who spends the bulk of their working life in an ensemble large enough to warrant having a conductor) goes through a period in which they believe that the conductor is the most over-rated waste of oxygen on the planet. Conductors make no sound. They stand in front of a group, wave a stick, and take the bows (credit) at the end of the performance. There are plenty of ensembles that function well without a conductor and a many more that function very well in spite of their conductor. Then, one day, they experience a rehearsal or performance that is particularly moving in some way. Or they are in the audience at a performance where there are multiple conductors and the differences are clear.
That’s where it happened for me. I was at a conference where one conductor (John Paynter) was a guest with every performing group over the course of a weekend. Every single group experienced a marked change in sound whenever he stepped on the podium. The ensembles were darker and richer sounding and they ALL returned to their default sound when he left. What had happened in the rehearsals, I assume, is that Mr. Paynter had taught them how to listen so that the musicians could blend their sound in a “new” way. He taught them how to perform the music better.
I’ve also experienced performances where conductors mount the podium without a score. Now performing without a score is no great feat. Especially once a good ensemble has learned a piece, the ensemble can, at least mechanically, make it through the piece without the conductor. But what struck me was a conductor who had conducted with a score for most of the performance and then performed his last work scoreless. The change was significant, but the change was because he knew the piece intimately and could offer the musicians deeper information about the work even as they were performing it.
In both situations, the conductors in question were Maestros in the truest sense of the word. Maestro is Italian for teacher. These conductors had taught the musicians something significant and it effected their performances. It is unfortunately all too common to attend concerts where it feels like the orchestra is simply going through the motions. The notes are all in the right places but you leave feeling like another night at the symphony has just been eaten up and the orchestra has just put another nail in the poor dead composer’s coffin. These are situations where the conductor has failed to move the musicians. He or she has not taught the orchestra anything new.
How does all this translate back into the classroom? A good class is exactly the same. The students leave moved in some way. They are inspired because they have learned something of significance to them. They have moved from one place in their learning to another. A good teacher, a true maestro, takes a student from where they are, learning their needs and desires, and takes them to the next pace on their journey, leaving them with new needs and desires.
A Maestro knows what it is like to be in the position of the student. All teachers should take a class from time to time and all conductors should play under other conductors from time to time. It is the reinforcement of experiencing both sides of the learning equation that allows the Maestro to truly understand the student/musician.
I want to thank both of my profs this summer for teaching me about teaching. One is a maestro. He took me from a place of knowing little about the subject and instilled a deep curiosity in moving forward in that particular line of inquiry. The other is not a maestro. He took me from a place of deep curiosity about an area with the desire to explore much further and stopped it in it’s tracks. I left his course feeling like I don’t have the skills or desire to carry on in that line of inquiry despite the fact that I got a good mark in his course. Both teachers have taught me more about teaching and have inspired me to become a better teacher. Because of them, my journey to becoming a maestro is renewed.