Here in Atlanta, the school year ended in May, and while I’m teaching all summer, my day-to-day busy work has all but dried up. I’ve been reflecting on the personal and professional successes and failures that I’ve experienced this year, and what (how?) I intend to build on what I’ve learned next year. Over the next few weeks, I’ll put those reflections onto "paper" and share them, if for no other reason than I find it cathartic (and I hope it will keep me honest next year). Here goes.
Workin' for the Weekend
We’ve all done it. Every person, ever, in any job, no matter what, has phoned it in at work at least once. I’ve done it - I do it - with every student, at least once each year. There are all sorts of factors at play: maybe I’m tired or my brain isn’t functioning correctly; maybe the kid hasn’t practiced and isn’t prepared but I’m not in the mood to fight a parent when I send the kid home early; maybe I’m heading to the lake for a weekend in the 100 SPF'd sun and I’m just excited for this day to be over OMGWILLITEVEREND?!
No matter the reason, it’s happened. Why can I zone out and still teach a kid something? Simple: I’m pretty good at my job. That isn’t a not-so-humble brag; it’s true. I know that there are words coming out of my mouth and that they make sense and are helpful, even if I’m not listening to those words or even thinking about what I’m saying. I know what I’m doing and using just half of my attention, I can identify problems and offer solutions while my brain is thinking about wine slushies on the dock.
Listen, most of my cello lessons aren’t the deep dive that I’ve struggled through in my own lessons and practicing. There isn’t a round robin of problem solving. It’s simple stuff like, “Make sure you are playing on the tips of your fingers,” or, “Lead that bow stroke from the elbow; don’t shrug!”
But, I KNOW that this is bad. I KNOW that people pay me the moneyz to be present to teach their kid how to do things. I KNOW that this half-assed teaching runs directly contrary to what I expect of students in their practicing and their lessons. I KNOW that if I was 100% present, mentally, all the time, if I got out of my chair to grab their arm and physically move them through the correct motions, and if I tried to create a general plan for lessons ahead of time, students would see faster, more substantial progress. So I have to do that.
I have a few different irons in the fire that will force me to be in the lesson all of the time:
First, I’m no longer teaching these shorter lessons. With some exceptions, weekly 30- and 45-minute lessons are too short to accomplish much that is tangible, and I’ve gotten too good at filling the time just to get through the lesson. 15 minutes working on scales, 15 minutes working on an etude, and 15 minutes of surface level instruction of repertory makes for an easy day. Even easier with 30 minute lessons, though those are historically reserved for young children who just COULD NOT sit through a longer lesson and require all of my attention at all times.
You might think that I could just elongate the time for each scale/etude/repertory category by five minutes and mindlessly fill the time that way, but you'd be wrong. Working on scales with a 13 year old for 20 minutes, attempting to improve intonation is torture. For both of us. No, teaching a 60 minute lesson forces me to think about what I’m currently doing and what I'm about to do, forces me to engage with what is happening in front of me, and forces me to plan ahead - both for each lesson but also for long(er) term progress. Which leads me to...
Second, I have to plan ahead. I spent this past weekend relaxing on Lake Lanier, looking at nature (through a picture window, in the A/C), and trying to plan the repertoire that all of my students will be studying this coming year. I made a chart that listed students’ current playing level (on a scale of 1-10) and where I’d like them to be at the end of the year. I then listed techniques that I’d like for them to be working on, scales/arpeggios that they should have memorized, and the pieces of music that they will work on (four categories: solo Bach, concerto, classical sonata, other/contemporary). All this, as I’ll be writing about in another post, leads to planned performances - at least 5 - and competitions over the course of the school year that students can use as a goal to practice toward.
Lastly, I need to be more involved in students’ cello playing, both within the lesson, but also outside of the lesson. In the lesson, I’ve begun taking notes so that I can remember what students are working on, and what we did last week. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, remembering things, especially when there are 35 kids all playing similar but slightly different scales, etudes, and repertory. I have to be more physically involved within the lesson. Something as simple as purchasing a stand to hold my cello makes it more likely that I’ll get out of my chair, put my cello on the stand, and grab an arm, position a finger, or move the bow when a student is making a mistake. Feeling the correct motion, guided by me, is often - definitely? - more helpful than just watching me do it.
Outside the lesson, I want to be more involved. A few years ago, I had a student who was auditioning to major in cello performance and when he told me where he’d decided he'd be going to college, I was surprised to learn that he’d even auditioned at that school. We hadn't even discussed it as an option, and that's probably because I gave the (false) impression that I didn't care.
I’m legitimately interested in what students are doing, whether it’s college auditions, youth ensembles, camps, or buying an instrument, and I shouldn’t act so aloof. This coming year, I’m going to host monthly studio classes and one or two masterclasses, a handful of recitals, All State audition camps, and I will try to be as engaged as I can be in their extracurricular/outside-of-lesson musical activities.
Finally, an anecdote: I have a student whom I teach weekly, but on Skype. He’s the final, sometimes-unwilling holdover from my days living/teaching in Pennsylvania and is my longest-tenured student, at nearly five years. He works as hard as he needs to, frequently less than he should, and has seen some pretty good progress over these five years, from struggling through Samuel Applebaum duets and Suzuki book 2, to maintaining his composure in the Saint-Saens Concerto. His parents are incredibly supportive, and even though he’s “just” a student, I consider them friends.
I don’t see them in person very often, perhaps only once or twice a year, but when I do, the lessons are productive. We get good work done. Then, we have some pork shoulder or brisket or whatever his dad has on the grill and we talk about the goings on and sip bourbon. His mother, a vet, spoils my aging dog. It’s anecdotal, but I think that the relationship that I’ve cultivated with the student and his family over five years has contributed to his relative success. He listens to me precisely because he knows that I give a shit.
So, no more working for the weekend. I will be just as involved in the most unproductive lesson as I will be in the most productive. It doesn’t matter what is coming up later in the evening or what happened this morning, all lessons matter and I will be planned and present for each.