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Musicians as Educators: Reflecting on Learning Experiences

0 Ruth Cahn
ruth_kahn Editor's Abstract

How should you go about designing your personal teaching style or your orchestra’s educational programs? What of your early music learning experiences should you carry over to your own teaching?

Ruth Cahn, Director of the Eastman School of Music’s Summer Session, percussion instructor in their Community School, and former member of the Rochester Philharmonic for over 3 decades, presents some fascinating questions for you to consider when contemplating your personal educational plans.

Ruth describes several different styles of teachers that helped formulate her own musical passage, and details some methodologies she recommends. She then presents a list of quotes about inspirational teachers, made by the students in her Arts Leadership Course, and discusses the importance of sharing this inspiration with symphony Board members.

Ruth’s article will help you remember that “understanding and reaffirming our musical roots is a powerful step in connecting others to music.”

Ann Drinan

“the personal is political and leads us to action”

- Kate Millett in Fear of Flying

Personal Experience

Personal experiences are a key determinant of our present and future actions and preferences. As professional musicians, all of our previous musical experiences and accompanying skill development lead us to an ongoing engagement with particular forms of music. Indeed, many musicians indicate that the very power of these experiences led them to a career in music, almost without conscious choice! This is a very strong testament to the power of music learning in one’s life.

We have all heard the old remonstration to teachers, “Do not teach the way you were taught.” In teaching people how to listen to orchestra music, this may be translated into “Give the student the unique tools he/she needs to listen.” These may be very different tools than those we as professionals acquired in collegiate theory and music history courses. They are often different than those tools used in collegiate “music appreciation courses for non-majors.” The very effective pre-concert lectures given by The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director, Christopher Seamans, are a testament to his wonderful gift of selecting one or two key listening elements in each work, playing them on the piano, with lots of bravado, and throwing in a little composer background. Maestro Seamans’ personal charm and obvious fascination with the music are absolutely magical for the audience. (In fact, many of the musicians go “out front” to hear these lectures!)

Reflecting on Inspirational Teaching

Before we begin designing teaching strategies for our orchestra’s program, I would like us to do a bit of self-reflection on our own inspired music learning.

Please take a moment and formulate your personal responses to the following:

  1. Identify two music teachers who were inspirational to your learning process.
  2. Describe how they inspired you.
  3. Did they use any particular teaching techniques?
  4. Describe how you learn music most effectively?
  5. Did you participate in school music programs? How did they stimulate/support your musical interest?
  6. As a child, did you have experiences with orchestral education programs? Describe these experiences.
  7. Which experiences most strongly made you into a music lover?
  8. Can you delineate any challenges in leaping from being music “doer” into a “music appreciator?”
  9. What type of parental support did you have for your musical studies?

“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you” - Aldous Huxley

Inspirational Teaching and Performing

As you consider the design of your orchestral education programs or your individual educational endeavors, can you incorporate any of the inspirational strategies used by your teachers?I have never been afraid to share the enthusiasm for the music itself. Stanley Leonard, then Timpanist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, certainly shared his excitement and musicianship with me during my high school lessons. We would study the repertory the orchestra would be performing in upcoming concerts. After I had a command of the basic elements, Stanley would show me the “special Wagnerian endings” etc., and the unique interpretive style of Maestro William Steinberg as seen in the actual performance parts. I would then go to the concert and await the magic! This experience reminds me to show my enthusiasm every time I teach repertory or lecture to the public about specific orchestral works. As musicians we all know when we are playing tutti passages and we all have the ability to step outside of the orchestral texture and be a soloist, when needed. This “soloist” element is very important in making an educational performance/presentation come alive.In these situations we are not only musicians, but also teachers and yes, actors!

Identifying Student Learning Styles

We all had that intuitive teacher who simply made beautiful sounds and then let us duplicate the sound, using our aural intelligence.[1] At other times, we may need to see “it” in notation or have “it” explained to us – visual and verbal intelligence. As musicians, we all appreciate the value of“practicing it again,” our ideo-kinetic intelligence. Many of our leading schools of music offer courses in Dalcroze Technique and eurhythmics that build on the ideo-kinetic intelligence. I highly recommend the works of Howard Gardner for a more detailed discussion of learning styles. Many of our public schools assist students in identifying their learning styles. Identifying student learning styles can be a great aid to teaching and learning both in the school, in the orchestral education programs, and in your teaching studio.

Advocacy for School Music Programs and Public School Music Educators

As an advocate for education in your orchestra, you may be called upon to support school music programs as they face the inevitable funding cuts. Many public schools have long ago eliminated orchestra programs from their budgets. While this certainly impacts the supply of collegiate string players, it has virtually eliminated orchestra music as a performance opportunity within high schools. Unfortunately, this has eliminated one of the few opportunities for high school students to hear a live orchestra in assemblies and school concerts. “Music Appreciation” classes that provide in depth study of orchestra repertory for ALL STUDENTS are almost non-existent today. However, you may be able to forge a supporting relationship with the band director/orchestra director. One of my colleagues in the RPO donated her time to start a string orchestra in her son’s school. The school now has an orchestra! And don’t forget about that classroom teacher who absolutely loves music – they are the ones who will be eager to incorporate the orchestra’s educational program into their curriculum.

The question about converting “doers” into “music appreciators” definitely speaks to a very major issue in America. Almost every school has a band and choral program that incorporates lots of performing opportunities for students (doers). Unfortunately, our current system has not been effective at converting these students into “music appreciators” whose souls resonate to the orchestral repertory and who will attend professional orchestra concerts. This group of current student music participants would seem to be a wonderful target for innovative orchestra education programs.

Teachers Who Inspired Eastman School of Music Students

Below is a list of comments made by Eastman School of Music students in my Arts Leadership Course , “The Joys and Opportunities of Studio Teaching,” as they responded to my request to describe inspirational teachers. Even though the responses are in a condensed form, I think you will find them interesting.

Do they resonate with your responses or raise new issues?

Experiences that Inspired My Music Learning

Compiled from remarks of students in the 2003 ALP course: The Joys and Opportunities of Studio Teaching

Adult student: I had a student who was 80 years old. He had incredible joy and delight in learning the clarinet.

  • Conductors inspired me to work beyond my age and showed me new possibilities as an ensemble player. He also clued me into the ensemble thought process.
  • My private teacher in high school was really a model of my career intent. I also had a conductor who used innovative techniques in teaching.
  • Demanding conductors inspired me.
  • In my teaching I try to break content into small units but yet show my students the big picture.
  • The Ying Quartet’s intensive seminar at Interlochen really super charged me with motivation.
  • A student with asthma had significant improvement in their health during their study of clarinet.
  • I was deeply impressed with the influence of music on health and well being.
  • In observing ECMS teachers, I observed their continual encouragement of their students and their high level organizational skills.
  • I saw the power of positive comments in a high school student who had lost confidence and dramatically improved their performance with positive reinforcement.
  • As a student in the Boston Youth Orchestra, members of the BSO mentored us.The mentors treated us so well – they were our heroes!
  • I also had the opportunity to teach at my old junior high. I was worried about my ability to communicate with the kids and move them forward. The teacher gave me great comments: “You did know where to start them, you understood where they were as learners.” He gave me lots of ideas – the kids loved it!
  • At Chautauqua I was given the advice of “just do it, you are too cautious – GO!!” This was the right advice at the stage I was at.
  • I had the contrast of a high school band director who was negative and took away our self-esteem, and a private teacher who was encouraging.
  • I was teaching private students in my home and my Mother made the following observation, “You teach like your teacher.” My teacher was very strict and even harsh. I am now trying to not teach the way I was taught. In Korea parents demand very strict teachers. In America there is more of a balance between the child and parent expectation.
  • I had a teacher who was funny and dramatic – really made the points well.
  • I respected my teacher and my teacher always showed respect to my musical ideas.
  • In Japan I had teachers who were quite different:
    • One was very strict, angry, and hit me – this was good for me; it made me practice more!
    • The other was a “sage” who knew many things and used music as a way of seeing the world.
  • I went to a Baroque performance workshop in the summer. It captured my interest not only in Baroque practice, but in applying that practice to modern performance. This workshop was in a different environment that assisted my learning.

As I began to listen to the students in the above class, I realized that what I was hearing from them was worth preserving. I hope their thoughts are of value in your personal strategic rethinking of your own education in music. This exercise reminds us how we grew to love the experience of being musicians. Understanding and reaffirming our musical roots is a powerful step in connecting others to music. Now it is time to begin turning our experiences into action.

Sharing Our Inspiration with Orchestra Board Members

Let us not forget a group of leadership music lovers that are within our orchestra organizations!

A majority of members on many orchestra’s Boards of Directors indicate that their early exposure to music, either through frequent concert attendance or personal performance, has stimulated their current deep level of engagement with orchestras. Many other Board members are communitarians – they serve on our Boards out of a sense that orchestral music is of value to our community. Others are altruists – they value music in general as an art and want “their orchestra” to be of high caliber, even though they may rely on the opinions of some of the “music aficionados” on the Board for validation. There are sometimes a few Board members who serve for social or business reasons. I would encourage all of us to personally connect with our individual Board members, ascertain their connections to music (as above), and share a few “musical anecdotes” about the week’s rehearsals or “what to listen for” in the program. Remember to take into account their individual musical background. This is powerful first step in bringing education to the fore in the Board agenda and growing their engagement with our art.

Remember this is only a first step in our process of developing ourselves as

Musicians who are Educators!

I look forward to hearing your responses to this article. What can you add to the discussion? Do you want to propose additional questions that would help musicians reflect upon their music learning experiences? Please go to the response section of this website and we will begin what I hope will be come a deeper dialogue. Your ideas and input are greatly valued.

Thank you. Ruth Cahn

[1]Frames of Mind; Howard Gardner; Basic Books a division of Harper Collins, 1993

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