As It Should Be: A Teacher’s Job is to Serve

Menzie Pittman • June 2019Small Business Matters • June 5, 2019

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed the topic of music lessons, and many readers have lesson programs, so let’s jump in and have a look under the hood at some “obvious” and some “not so obvious” pitfalls that can hopefully be avoided. Or maybe those very pitfalls can help to serve our programs to become more effective.

Serving the Student First

Effective teachers make the needs of their students their highest priority. Rather than embracing just the instrument, they are completely in tune with the student and, thus, they embrace the student first and foremost. At first glance this seems like an obvious principle. It seems much simpler than most music teachers or music lesson program directors realize. So, what is this great secret to accomplishing this you ask?

Teach the person, not the instrument. No doubt that statement will draw some ire, but – yup, I said it! Technique is wonderful, chops are great, gadgetry makes us all gaga, but truthfully, when you approach teaching any other way than “teaching the person first,” you corrupt the process.

So, What Does it Mean to ‘Teach the Person First?’

It means you, as a musician, are not the most important component. The student outranks you, even though he or she is subordinate to you. As a teacher, you technically outrank the student, but you need to cast aside the great throne of musician/teacher entitlement. Steal a page from the legendary Quincy Jones, who while recording “We are the World,” posted a sign to all the artists that read: “Please Check All Egos at the Door.”

Become the Observer, not the Expert

“Become the observer, not the expert” means you study the student while he or she develops their craft. You observe the way the student processes and learns, not what that individual learns. Understanding how a student processes is the gateway to successful teaching. Once you understand that, only then can you effect change. Great teaching is selfless and, done well, it becomes one of pure observation – observation of the way the student comprehends both the music and him- or herself.

Most teachers understand the music part of that equation, but they wrestle with the idea of observing the student’s comprehension and the “whys” of the student’s struggles. Teachers are so focused on the right or wrong of the materials and techniques that they overlook the “how” the student learns part and the “why” the student learns a certain way part. The “why” tells you how the student learns, and the “why” is how you advance any music student, young or old.

When You Strive to be a Great Teacher, Sophistication, as a Musician, is not Always Your Friend

The art of teaching is different than the craft of performance. I worked diligently every day at my craft for decades, and I still do. When you perform music, the goal is to serve the song and entertain an audience. When you teach, the goal is to serve the student, and that takes additional humility. So, the role of the teacher is challenging in different ways than the role of the performer. While service applies to both, the role of a good teacher is more esoteric. That’s why it takes a special understanding of the student to be effective at it.

Nothing is More Advanced than Book One

Once I had a teacher ask me if I favored teaching the more advanced students and materials. He was referring to the fact that I carried many advance students at the time. I’m sure my response made him wonder a bit about me, but I said, “Nothing is more advanced than Book One.” Book Two is just Book One with more enhancement and faster tempos, and Book Three, et cetera is just Book One turned upside down, and you add your left foot, and, of course, at that point you are expected to sing (obviously, I’m a drummer). That teacher hasn’t asked me too many questions since. So, you see, I take the value of Book One seriously. I always joke and say, “I teach Book One to death, because nothing is more important than establishing the foundation”

Your Job is to Make Learning Compelling – Not Difficult

Recently, I inherited a situation that had some student frustration intertwined. The student came from another teacher in the area, a teacher who had a reputation for good technical skills, and it should be noted that he did help this student develop into a good reader. But in the process of focusing mainly on advancing materials, instead of focusing on the true level of the student, he advanced his own ego but not the student’s curiosity. The student would have been better served learning to be comfortable with himself and working with materials that would ground him and help him learn how to learn. That would have helped the student’s self-esteem develop, along with his confidence. Advancing the material doesn’t always advance the student.

In Closing…

Every teacher means well when he or she teaches. I truly believe the intentions are good, and every program is initially designed to be productive. But, as with musicians themselves, there are several levels of teacher mastery. You can’t put up a poster of Jimi Hendrix and call yourself a master guitarist – although I do see “branding” distracting the customers more and more. However, just as true, pushing a student into materials that satisfy you, but that leave a student feeling frustrated, doesn’t serve the student, and serving the student and understanding how he or she learns is the job of the instructor. Great teachers do that job well.

Menzie Pittman is the owner and director of education at Contemporary Music Center in Virginia (CMC). Following a performance and teaching career spanning more than 32 years, he founded CMC in 1989 and continues to perform, teach, and oversee daily operations. He has 50 years of musical experience as a drummer and drum instructor. Menzie is a frequent speaker at NAMM’s Idea Center, and a freelance writer for MMR’s “Small Business Matters” column.

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