Knowing When to Ask for Help

Despite what you might see throughout internet comment sections or your Twitter feed, it is an intrinsic part of life that not everyone can know everything about all the things. Try as we might, expertise is hard-won, and it would be impossible for all of us to be experts on a wide array of topics. Not that the impossibility stops us from trying…

As a cellist and teacher, it goes without saying that there are better performers and teachers in the world; I’m definitely not good at EVERYTHING I try to teach students. How could I be? So, then, I’m surprised when students, parents, and even other teachers are so hesitant to ask for help.

Kids today are under seemingly constant pressure to perform to their highest capabilities (and further, even). Whether it’s in 6th grade math class, 9th grade all-state orchestra auditions, 11th grade Science Olympiad, or on their college applications, the expectation of perfection and know-it-all-ness is endless. I remember this pressure from my days in school, but it wasn’t near the level that I’m witnessing today.

Kids hate to be wrong. I have students - self-proclaimed “perfectionists” - who don’t practice the things they are bad at because they are afraid their parents will hear them sounding bad, and then chastise them. They are unwilling to do really hard work in their lesson (and their practicing) because they may play a wrong note, or with bad tone, or screw up a rhythm. The risk of making a mistake - ANY mistake - goes against this ideal of “perfection” that they are constantly striving for. I’ve noticed that either the critical thinking skills that I attempt to teach in cello lessons aren’t being cultivated in school systems or kids are so overwhelmed at the thought of giving an incorrect answer to a teacher’s question that they don’t take the time to think critically.

Students aren’t alone here. There’s a middle school orchestra teacher - a violinist - I know who incorrectly teaches vibrato technique to young cellists, some of whom are my students. I’m similarly at fault in my own teaching: I haven’t played every cello concerto, sonata, and solo piece, yet each year I teach at least one student a piece that I’ve neither played, nor practiced before. Both the middle school orchestra teacher and I should ask others for help.

Teachers of all walks should be attempting to teach their students how to be thoughtful, good citizens. I try to be a model for my students, both in their cello playing and in their everyday lives. Usually, I fail, but not for a lack of trying. When it comes to failure, I am a world-class role model. When I don’t know the answer to a student’s question, I ask someone who will. Everyone knows someone else who is better - or more knowledgeable - at something than they are.

In an effort to give our students the very best information and education possible, I think that we can start here: we can ask for help.

Everyday in lessons, kids ask questions to which I do not know the answer. Now, I COULD string together some fancy words, filibustering, until I’m able to come up with a cogent response. I COULD waste time and sneakily tap away at my iPad, searching for the answer on the interwebs. Or, I COULD tell the kid, “I don’t know.” When it comes to pieces of music I’ve never played, I’ll teach the student what I’m able to teach them, but I will go out of my way to get that student to a masterclass with a brilliant cellist or send them (or myself) to another teacher for a lesson or two.

I seem to be in the minority. I have strong memories from my pre-college cello lessons, math classes, and even baseball practices where my teachers and coaches gave me information that I later found out was completely incorrect. At best, the information I’d received was misleading. When a teacher is asked a question to which they do not have an answer, why is it so bad to say, “I don’t know. But I’ll find out.” In a profession where students look to you as a source of information AND as a role model, I think that showing one’s ignorance about a topic here and there could be used as a teachable moment, showing a student that it’s ok to not know the answer. That said, one of my students, in a particularly informative example of his own projection, told me that he loses respect for a teacher when that teacher doesn’t know the answer to one of his questions. After explaining my opinion on the matter, I’m not sure I had convinced him otherwise.

I’ve got some anecdotal evidence on this topic. I have noticed that when I tell a student that I do not know the answer to their question, they - later on - ask more questions. I don’t know if it’s because they feel comfortable asking questions (perhaps showing off my ignorance allows them to feel comfortable with their own?) or if they’re playing “stump the teacher.” Either way, when they ask questions, they get answers (one way or another, immediately or eventually), and they learn things. In more than a few cases, so do I.

As a part of my recruiting of new private cello students, I used to visit schools to do presentations and (more often) to coach cello sectionals. In August of 2017, I sent a short email to teachers offering to come and do “Cello Music That Isn’t Written by Some Dead White Guy” and “How to Teach Beginner Cello Vibrato” presentations to students and teachers, respectively. After offering this “service” (for free, I might add), I was surprised how few teachers were interested. Now, this could be my inflated sense of self and my overgrown ego talking, but I would think music teachers would be interested in introducing their students to information that they themselves may not be able to offer; I AM knowledgeable in those areas, if not a super-fancy-pants-expert™. Perhaps those teachers were just seriously strapped for time or DO have that expertise. (Either way, there no nibbles, and I decided not to make the offer in the future.)

I don’t always find this same trait in professional performers, perhaps it’s because we’ve always been the “teachees” rather than the “teachers.” (Or perhaps it’s because I’ve spent more time with performers than with school teachers.) Performers seem to seek out others, whether to ask if a friend will listen to a run-through of a piece, or to solidify a particular technique they may be having trouble with. For example, I’ve become interested in listening to my boss, William Pu, discuss violin technique. At a sectional coaching we did together, I was fascinated to hear him talk about the shape of the hand and individual fingers, and how this small thing - the shape and length of two students’ hands and fingers and how the length of individual fingers relates to the hand position itself - affects the minutiae of how he would teach each of these students to play the same exact piece.

It’s important, I think, to ask for help in all areas of life. You’ve got nothing to lose - other than a bruised ego - by telling a student that you don’t know the answer to their question. After all, we can’t all be experts in everything, and seeking out those who have more information can enrich our own knowledge in a particular area, as well as that of our students. Giving students the best, most complete information should be the goal of any educator.