I Have No Idea What I’m Doing: Lessons From My First Year(s) of Teaching

In 2013, while living in Pennsylvania and writing my dissertation, I took up teaching cello lessons as a way to make money and pay down my, ummm, substantial student loan debt. The studio was small back then, just a few students. First there was Tony, then Jon, then a pair of sisters, followed by Becky, Peter, and finally Matthew.* When it comes to their cello lessons, I feel bad, a serious sense of empathy, for those Pennsylvania kids. The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing.

Making the transition from a life of professional practicing to a life of professional teaching was harder than I thought it would be. I believed, ignorantly, that my analytical practicing skills would transfer to the teaching studio. In fact, I was an awful teacher. Just terrible. That which came so easily to me in my own practicing - organization, critical thinking, and goal setting skills - just wouldn’t make the jump to my teaching.

For a long time, I’ve been under the influence of the old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” In blog after retracted blog, conversation after regrettable conversation, I’ve criticized teachers - specifically school orchestra teachers - for what I saw as a dereliction of duty. I couldn’t quite understand how these teachers could profess to teach music in classrooms, but couldn’t “do” music outside of the school walls. In many cases, I stick by my criticisms (music teachers SHOULD be music practitioners). I’ve also criticized, much more privately, cello teachers that I’ve had: too many of my teachers could play but not teach. I overstepped with my criticisms. I was judgmental without cause. I had no idea how hard - practically, emotionally, technically - it is to teach in any setting.

Having said that, I was dreadful, really awful, at my job in 2013. I don’t think that music education courses/seminars would have helped me to be a better teacher. Similarly, all the practicing and performing that I did in graduate school meant almost nothing when it came to helping a 5 year old with her bow hold. Frankly, I should have started private teaching long ago.

Skill level, technical knowledge, wasn’t a problem in my teaching. In fact, I knew (know?) a lot about cello playing. In many cases, I know things that I’m not able to do in my own playing. Whether it’s perfect intonation, a Popper etude, or a good sautillé, I can tell a student what to do and how to do it, even if I’m not confident in my own abilities on the topic.

No, my problem was language, delivery, explanation. I teach kids. High school kids, middle school kids, even a few itty bitty kids. I've learned the following:

Language matters. The words I use in a lesson will make or break a student’s progress. When discussing phrasing, I can talk about secondary dominants with a high school junior who just took AP Music Theory, but the 6th grader who isn’t quite understanding why that C# matters in this G Major phrase does not give one single shit. She just wants to know how to play the damn thing and make it pretty. So, rather than discussing theory and how vii/V resolves, we talk about emphasis and accents.

Delivery matters. The way I say something, the tone of my voice, is enough to push the kid up the hill or knock them off the cliff.  I, or so I’ve been told, tend to “think very loudly,” so even facial cues must be considered. While I can say, “Hey jackass, why don’t you consider playing in tune today, huh, waddayasay bud?” to myself, in my own practice room, I must deliver my critiques with a smile and stern positivity when working with a high school boy who may have just broken up with his girlfriend of three weeks. One must do this, or risk the lesson - and the boy’s progress - devolving into an explosion of negative emotions and regression.

Explanation matters. I am the king of the metaphor/analogy/simile. Name a cello technique and I’ve got a metaphor to explain it, and if I don’t, I will in about 10 seconds. Tell me that you’re a runner, and I guarantee I’m going to relate cello to running every way I can. You like science? Me too. Here come some lab metaphors and discussion of the use of the scientific method in practicing. Baseball? Oh damn, wait until you hear my comparison of a good bow hold and how to throw a curveball!

I’ve been lucky to have studied with a few master teachers. These are the kind of folk who marry a fancy performing career with thoughtful teaching, bringing experience and knowledge from the stage to the studio, with the rare ability to communicate that knowledge in a constructive/productive way. I’ve also been lucky enough to study with a few terrible teachers. These are folks who either don’t care about their students or don’t care about teaching. Worse, they may just be bad teachers or cellists, for one reason or another.

The latter of these types of teacher probably helped me more than the former. In fact, while my teaching style is heavily influenced by my former teacher Rhonda Rider, there’s a lot of “what not to do” that I’ve learned from others. I explain everything, perhaps to a fault, when discussing a new topic. I spend far too much time on some things - like sound production - simply because I’ve had teachers who spent almost no time on many different topics - and expected results just the same. I want my students, whether advanced or beginners, to understand the nuances in cello playing, sometimes sacrificing their short term progress (and All State Orchestra audition) for long term understanding. And I care - oh goodness, do I care - about how a student feels in their lesson and the connection that is made between us, the student and me. I genuinely like my students, and I want them to know that I care about their progress.

I didn’t know what I was doing in 2013. Not at all. Consider this an apology to all of those students whom I yelled at, neglected, or whose cello skills I downright stunted with my ham-fisted teaching style. I had the best intentions, I swear. I was just...bad.

In 2017, though, I definitely know what I’m doing. I am sure of this because of the progress I've seen in one student, Cal, who started taking lessons with me about four months after he began playing the cello in 6th grade. Cal was, essentially, a beginner when we started working together. He had a good setup (posture, et al), thanks to a good school orchestra teacher, but there were other problems, as one would expect. In 20 months of cello lessons, Cal has fixed those problems and done even more: he’s moved through the standard etudes and exercises; understands and executes left hand techniques up to and including upper octave thumb position; has nearly all 24 of his scales learned in three octaves, with multiple bowings and at any tempo; is knocking out the standard repertory; and understands style and phrasing like a kid years more advanced.

Now, it’s possible that this has nothing to do with me. Cal is, I should say, a brilliant kid and a hard worker, with a brain made for advanced practice in (I imagine) many fields and academic areas. But, when I watch him play, I see myself. Not in a creepy way. No, it’s the bow arm I've taught him, the organized left hand I describe, my attention to weight/contact point/bow speed. He’s advancing because of his own hard work, based on things I’ve told him. He knows what's wrong even before I ask him.

There’s work to be done. There’s always work to be done. But now I know how to help him do it.

I still have a profound case of impostor syndrome, but I am starting to realize that I know what I’m doing. I know how to teach, even if I’m still learning and struggling every day. It’s a nice feeling to be good at one’s job, though not a feeling that I’m used to. I still feel some amount of shame for the teacher I was in my first year in Pennsylvania, but I’m thrilled that I’m getting better, and hopefully helping my students do the same.

*-all names changed to protect the innocent, except for Matthew, who is neither innocent, nor needs protecting.