This spring, I began the arduous task of learning to play golf. It was twenty years since I last played, and even then, I was never very good, never breaking 100. But now, as I look at retiring in 2-3 years, the idea of playing golf appeals to me, so I decided to start working on my game now so that I’d be ready to play reasonably well by then. Unlike last time around, this time I am making an organized effort to learn the right way to swing a club, align my shot, and choose the right club for the distance I want to hit. While this is still most definitely a work in progress, the stages of learning I’ve gone through so far have a lot to teach us about teaching music.
The first stage was going to the driving range, placing the ball on the tee, and hitting the ball with the club head. I didn’t really know what I was doing at this point, and eventually I would learn that I wasn’t doing much right. Every so often I’d hit what looked like a good shot, more often I would not, and I really didn’t know why some shots were better than others. This is like the first time a student picks up an instrument. Like just trying to make contact with the golf ball, the music student is just trying to get a musical sound out of the instrument. If they succeed after the first or first few attempts, it is as much due to luck as it is in knowing what he or she is doing. Sure, they have knowledge of how to form an embouchure, or how to place fingers on the keys, but when the next attempt produces different results, they very likely won’t know why one attempt succeeded and the next one failed. In both the student’s and my case, we lack awareness of what we did to produce the result we got.
When I dribbled a ball along the ground instead of elevating it into the air, I couldn’t figure out why this was happening. I just kept repeating the same swing and getting the same result, except for an occasional good shot; just enough to encourage me that maybe I was on the right track, like a gambler getting a teaser payoff at a slot machine. So far, I am not making progress, because I lack both knowledge of what I’m doing to get the result I’m getting, and the skill to execute the shot correctly. It would be weeks before I would be able to see my shot go to the left and know I hadn’t finished my swing properly, or see my ball lack distance and realize I hadn’t kept my right elbow tucked in and rotated my body correctly. In other words, it wasn’t until I knew what I did to cause the bad shot, and what I should have done to make it a good shot, that I began to improve my game.
That is the lesson to be applied to teaching music. If my student is a clarinet player, he or she won’t stop squeaking until he or she knows what causes the clarinet to squeak, and what the player must do to produce a good tone without squeaking. The student needs to be able to self-diagnose, and then put into practice the correction. It is not enough to simply tell the student, “take less mouthpiece” or “push up more with your right thumb.” To get the job done, I must explain what causes squeaks, and why these two directives are part of eliminating them. Then, when the student is practicing at home and hears a squeak, he or she can immediately go back and check the right thumb and the amount of mouthpiece in the mouth, and make the necessary adjustments to correct the problem, and play with fewer or even no squeaks.
In order to teach yourself or others music, or for that matter anything, you must not only be expert in the correct way to do the thing, you must also be expert in the many incorrect ways there are to do the thing, and the consequences of doing it each of those wrong ways. Knowing this makes diagnosis and correction possible; it is knowledge that all students need, and are greatly helped by teacher who passes this information along.