This fall I will begin my nineteenth year teaching applied low brass lessons at the university level. Having begun as a wide-eyed twenty-two-year-old graduate assistant, I was in those early years eager to embark on my teaching career, terrified of failure to help students, and ready to deploy all of the pedagogical tools at my disposal to help students with their difficulties in performance. Students with both an appreciable level of “natural talent” and a strong work ethic were and are easy to teach, and even less talented but hardworking students present few difficulties. But the unmotivated, regardless of innate ability level, were for me then a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
As a young teacher, my tendency when a student came to a lesson having made little progress from the previous week was to immediately conclude that some deficiency in my teaching was to blame for the student’s lack of improvement. I would then make an extraordinary mental effort to devise new ways to explain, practice, and execute the assigned material in the hopes of spurring student success. To be sure, this practice led to a number of improvements in my teaching, as through study and experimentation I developed new understandings, new explanations, and new exercises to help struggling students. Nevertheless, after several years of exasperation it occurred to me that at least some of the time the fault was not with my teaching but rather with the student’s failure to put into practice the instructions I had already given.
I’m reminded of a satirical piece from several years ago entitled “Student Has Amazing Breakthrough by Doing What Teacher Says.” In that fictional account, violinist John Man struggled for years with little progress until discovering this long-hidden recipe for success. Here’s a short excerpt:
“I tried just playing the way I want over and over and over again, hoping that it would get better,” he said. “It never did! It was like, the more I played it the same way the more it would sound the same. What could I do?”
Finally, out of sheer desperation, Man started doing what his teacher had been telling him to do in every lesson for the past five years. “The results have been incredible!” said Man. “It’s as if following the advice of an older, more experienced musician allows me to somehow cultivate effective working habits better than my own.”
This fictional account has been replicated by numerous students who have come through my studio over the years, and I’ll confess to experiencing a delightful satisfaction when a student comes to a lesson playing exponentially better than the week before, and then finally says something like “I started doing [insert instruction here] like you said and it worked.” Of course, sometimes the fault for a student’s lack of success really does lie in my teaching, and I am always looking for better ways to motivate, teach, and correct young brass players. But if a struggling student has yet to at least try the suggestions I’ve already made, my usual direction is “Go to the practice room and do what I’ve already told you. If it doesn’t work, then I’ll come up with something new.”
The ones that finally try it often end up with “amazing breakthroughs” of their own.