How? Explain, "Why."

I've had some wonderful teachers all along the road I've taken to cello "professionalism." Each of my primary teachers taught me something new about cello playing that was built upon by their successors. For example, David Diehl and Ronald Chambers both challenged me to create a sound that was more mature than I was; Kim Cook taught me how to make that sound beautiful (when necessary), always being conscious of the kinesthetic variables at play; Rhonda Rider taught me to develop that sound into a palette of colors and textures, usable in all interpretations of works; and David Starkweather taught me to be analytical, questioning theses various sounds that I make in hopes of best representing my desired interpretation of a work.

In my own teaching, I want to inspire my students in this same way, and I seek to give them the tools needed to be the best cellists that they can be. To that end, I rarely offer my students answers without first challenging them to develop solutions of their own. When presenting a student with a new work, I encourage them to loosely follow my Seven Stages of Practicing. I rarely offer fingerings and bowings (at least at first), instructing them to come up with their own. The results are sometimes dreadful, sometimes brilliant. The aforementioned David Diehl used to refer to my own self-conjured fingerings as "Dumb Ass Dougherty" fingerings. He was probably equally appalled with my bowings. Nonetheless, the process that high school-Justin went through summoning these fingerings showed me what I could (and could not) do with my left hand and what the outcome of my various solutions was after a performance (Nope, seven consecutive shifts to fourth finger was not, it turns out, a good idea). 

Understanding one's limits, developing solutions based on those limits, and seeking to improve what needs improving are incredibly important steps of the learning process for students to experience. When a teacher says, "Do it this way," the student learns how, but doesn't learn why. About a year ago I wrote a blog on commissioning that briefly discussed my dislike for the "only teach 'How'" method of instrument lessons:

As a string player, I’ve been taught from the beginning that “this” is how you do “it,” and your finger goes “there,” and you “must” play “this” in “that” way. When I became proficient enough on my instrument, I began to receive harder music from my teachers. Along with that music came a copy of their part. “Here are my bowings and fingerings,” they might announce. The expectation, as far as I could tell, was that I would copy each of these things and do them exactly as told. Throughout my education, I noticed that this process never really stopped, and it was true no matter the instrument or teacher.

This spoon-feeding has handicapped students, and doesn't stop with the physical considerations of instrument playing! When a teacher says, "Here are my bowings," what that teacher means is, "Here's what I think is musically important." That's shocking! When students should be developing their own critical thinking skills and figuring out how to play their instruments and make musical decisions, they are looking to their teachers. (Not that I think that’s a bad thing, but let’s put limits on it, eh? Spread your wings and fly, little violinist!) 

It should be said that all of this is 100% OUR fault. The fault of the parent. The teacher. The student, too. We are obsessed with the "how," but really quite uninterested in the "why." The "How" is necessary for short term results, while the "Why" is for long term success. In this day of rapid change in technology - the desire for instantaneous results in any area of life, and a latent distrust for all of the things that look to the distant future rather than that which will come tomorrow - the idea of "long term success" takes a back seat to the idea of N-O-W. While most are familiar with the trend of so-called "Tiger Moms" and "Helicopter Parents," Steven Conn wrote an astute article for the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing an equally important topic: the rise of the "Helicopter Teacher." 

One teacher I know has lamented that they must now - in addition to the always-present obsession of the child themselves - deal with parents obsessing about their unprepared-for-college child's lesson performance. This teacher also hands over a copy of music with pre-marked bowings and fingerings to their student when assigning new repertory. While the helicopter parents may have failed to raise a child primed for the rigors of the post-secondary academic world, so too is this helicopter teacher failing to prepare a student who will have the necessary tools to be successful in the post-post-secondary real world.

We, as teachers, should feel obligated to criticize our students. We should offer our suggestions (How), but first explain the route we took and the thinking necessary to come to our conclusions (Why). We should praise individuality and creative - well reasoned - deviation ("That is a tone color I haven't heard before in this spot! What led you to make this musical decision?") rather than an unthinking, conformed performance. To do anything else would be doing a disservice to our students.

Don't just tell HOW. Tell, WHY and watch the next generation of musicians - and thoughtful citizens - begin to flourish before your very eyes.