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There are two ways to go about teaching music. One way is to weed out those people who don’t have what it takes by forcing them to adhere to rigid standards of excellence. The other way is to take each person as far as they are capable of going at the speed they can go.
My first piano teacher clearly took the second tactic with me. I studied with him for twelve years and in that time failed to get any better than I was after my second year. He was endlessly patient and put up with my lack of consistent practice and goal setting, the result being I discovered at age 18 that I couldn’t read music and I couldn’t play the piano very well.
I have gone over this many times in my head. Did he fail me? Did he take my parents’ money and offer me nothing?
There are a couple of things that give me pause. First of all, he was a friend to me and a consistent presence in my life when things were getting very difficult. Second of all, he was an inspiration to me as a composer and a pianist (and even as a poet) and my time with him was always enjoyable.
Third, I’m not of the opinion, after having taught music for quite some time now, that it’s ever necessary to weed people out. I was one of those kids, not that interested in music until I was 17, didn’t have any kind of a good practice ethic, never played a recital. I was a great candidate for “doesn’t have what it takes.”
I look at myself now and I see a very good musician. I became almost everything I wanted to become. It just took 30 years longer than I thought it would.
And even if the person in front of me is never going to be a good musician, why do I care? If all someone gets from my lessons is a tiny step towards self-mastery and self-actualization, then what should I regret? Especially if we had a good time getting there!
The world is full of people who had teachers who pushed them. Typically they tell me that they regret not sticking with it, but I suspect they really don’t regret it at all. They were successfully weeded out and learned that music is for other people.
I can get the same result: a student who knows they are not cut out for regular music making. The only difference is that I want my student to feel good about their lessons, knowing that they got something out of our time, rather than considering it a failed process. I would like to think that any of my students feels like they know something about music, even if they can’t make it to the same extent as a pro.
Why do I think this way? I suppose that my teacher didn’t fail me at all. All the while I felt like he failed to turn me into a virtuoso, he was teaching me how to be a good teacher.
Who was an important teacher in your life? Did they weed people out or nurture their growth? Which do you think is the best way?