It's Not the Ears, but How We Hear

“Teaching takes patience.” I thought this thought. I even thought this thought was thoughtful. But what I thought I thought was not what I thought I should thought. Think. Not what I thought I should think.


“Teaching takes patience.” This is a truism. I think it is true... ish. What I have been finding with my own teaching has been slightly different. I'm not actually patient. I mean, I am. But that patience is not the result of some inherent virtue that I have. Although it is a virtue...


“Teaching takes patience.” Yes. Yes it does. But where does this patience come from? That's the important bit. Some people might be patient because they have a high sense of mission. Their clear sense of purpose allows them to slog through to the greater good. I am not really one of those people. I suppose that makes me terrible, but I don't care. Haters gon' hate. Instead, some people are patient because they enjoy the job, like me.

But the more I think about it, the odder and odder that statement becomes. “I enjoy teaching.” It's a bit like saying “I enjoy getting flogged by an 800 pound gorilla.” Especially when it comes to music. How many parents out there have literally told their kid to stop playing for five goddamn minutes because jeezus, that violin sounds like a toddler in a fist fight with a fennec fox.

Not in so many words, I mean. Just, like. “Hey, I think you should probably stop for today, you have math homework to do,” except you didn't really care about the math homework, it was just a convenient excuse at the moment. Don't lie. You know you've done it.

I'm not even the kid's parent, and I not only hear that kid play for thirty minutes, I also hear pretty much the same thing in thirty minute increments for 4-5 hours a day. And yet I say, “Oh yeah, I enjoy teaching.” At face value that seems like the height of insanity. This is not something a normal person says.

But what I have come to realize is, I am not patient as an inherent virtue. I am patient as a result of a mind-set. It's a kind of mental misdirection. When I hear a mistake, the something I sometimes say to the student is “Yeah! That sounded awesome! It wasn't right, but sure sounded cool.” This is especially true for missed pitches, or weird sound effects the cello can make if you're not careful (or if you're supremely careful to make that sound on purpose).

Usually, the student hears this and is at first amused. They laugh, because that's not what teachers are supposed to say. Teachers are supposed to say, “Oh my god that was awful, you're awful, everything about your life will be awful until you do that again and do it right. … [student messes up again] … Oh. My. GAAAAAAWD.” So, you know, it's funny and, I must imagine, somewhat relieving to hear that while they didn't play what they set out to play, they at least made me say something weird.

Then I play it back at them, and that's when they realize I'm not just blowing smoke out my ass. What they had done was honestly, truly cool. And sometimes, the “mistake” they made sounds better than whatever is written in the part. I mean, not on its own, necessarily. Usually I take what they did and recompose what we're playing to include and expand upon the “mistake.” Have you heard that insufferable Suzuki vl.1 French Folk Song played in an Arabic scale? It's kind of neat.

I don't do that all the time. I only do that when it's actually cool, otherwise it will lose all its value. But what the student doesn't realize is, I'm actually doing that a lot in my head. Nothing they ever play is anything I don't want to hear, because while they're busy trying to figure out how reconstruct sound from a bunch of squiggles and dots, I'm hearing techniques Kaija Saariaho uses in her pieces for solo cello; I'm hearing musical indeterminacy the likes of which would make The New York School blush; I'm hearing Ives as melodies from different practice rooms overlap; or Ligeti as the orchestra warms up.

That's how I can be patient. When I'm teaching, I'm not hearing a student screwing up. I'm hearing music. It may not be the music on the page, but that doesn't matter. That is totally, utterly, impossibly inconsequential. The student may or may not ever play that page correctly, and all we can do is make some changes and try again. If they do, great, if not whatever.

So they didn't play what was on the page. But what they did play... What a sound!