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!

Building Epiphanies

I finished my little summer break recently, and have started teaching again. For those who don't know, I teach private cello lessons. It's often kind challenging, and you have to be a little bit careful about well meaning but over bearing mothers who are making their kids do a thousand and one different extra-curricular activities, but... it's a lot of fun. At least, it is to me. I know other people who hate it, which makes me wonder why they're doing it. I mean, ok, money, but come on. The money isn't that good in private teaching. If you chose private teaching to make lots of money, well. You chose poorly.

Early on in my blogging, I wrote a couple of times about a book called "How People Learn." I thought it was a good book while reading it, but I'm convinced it's actually a great one. That's because I took some of the principles laid out in the book and used them in my lessons. The impact was immediate and profound. When you see a student's bow grip and bow stroke change dramatically for the better, and when even the student realizes they've hit on something good because they can feel and hear the difference, then you know you've got a winner.

All in all, they were some phenomenal lessons. When I did my post-teaching debriefing with myself (where I ask myself what I did well, what I did poorly, what was ok but could have done better, what I missed, etc.), I spent a lot of time thinking about what went right. Clearly, a lot of it came from the book, but there was something that happened that the book didn't cover very much. The students all had, within the lesson, epiphanous moments. Ah-ha moments. And I realized during my debriefing that those moments, while not consciously engineered, were not accidents either.

Either that, or we were terrifically, miraculously lucky.

Here's what I think happened.

The Will to Power

One of the biggest points "How People Learn" makes is, you don't teach the facts, you teach the principle. If you teach the principle, the facts will make sense and come naturally on their own. That's basically what the whole book is about, actually, and how to approach that fact of learning/teaching. I have puzzled over what the principles of movement are since I wrote about that particular pedagogical problem. Talking with numerous friends and a few teachers, here is what I have come up with.

1. Strength is highest in your core (torso), decreases as you move away from the core, and is lowest at the periphery (feet and hands). This is pretty easy to observe, actually. The muscles in your hand are far smaller than even the muscles in your forearm.

2. Strength is not the same as tension, and tension must be balanced: too loose, and you'll drop your bow; too tense, and you will hurt yourself.

3. Finally, movement starts from the muscles you activate and moves outward. If the movement starts from the wrist, the hand will move; from the forearm, the wrist and hand and fingers. etc.

The principle at work is thus quite simple: effective and relaxed movement starts from strength (the core) and radiates outward; but in order for that strength to be leveraged, it must be channeled. Too little tension, and the strength dissipates, too much and the strength is blocked. While not strictly part of the above principle, it should be noted that twisting (torque) is more effective than pushing (force), and that we should strive to gain mechanical advantage (give me a large enough lever and a fulcrum, and I can move the world) wherever we can.

Learning Bug in the Teaching Web

Once I had settled on the principle, I set about trying to teach it. But I didn't start with the principle, as the book tended to suggest. I instead hid the principle at the center of discussion, and led my students around the periphery, covering a wide variety of apparently unrelated problems. I did a number of the tricks in the book: Socratic method; teasing out assumptions; testing assumptions rather than simply correcting them; creating hypotheses and testing those. Those were all quite effective.

But then, slowly, gradually, I led my student towards the actual issue, the thing that tied everything together. When we got there, a most fascinating thing happened: an epiphany. And not just a random one, either! In teaching, we don't want to rely on chance... Natural epiphanies can be enlightening, but they are rather flighty birds, to be sure. No, this epiphany was instinctively (or accidentally) constructed. As soon as the principle became clear, the student went: "Oh. Oooooh!"

Thinking about what an epiphany is should make it quite obvious that this was the most natural reaction in the world. An epiphany is simply the sudden realization that a number of unrelated facts or problems are all related by an underlying idea. And that's exactly what we made. Epiphanies. The best part? Epiphanies are some of the most powerful aids to memory we can come across. It is very difficult to forget something that comes in the form of an epiphany. In its most extreme form, think of religious conversion. Now scale it back to earthly levels, and that's exactly what we've got.

Now go out and make some epiphanies happen!

Daily Recommendation

As usual, I have a couple of pieces in keeping with the theme. The first is a little piece by Claude Debussy called "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum." The title alludes to what is perhaps the first musical text book in Europe, "Gradus ad Parnassum" by Johann Joseph Fux. The book is a series of exercises in counterpoint (the art of writing one melody against another), and was studied by a Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart, among many others.

The second is the 4th movement of Mozart's Symphony 41. It, too, allegedly uses a motive found in Fux's text, but uses it brilliantly in a 5 voice fugetta (little fugue) featuring four themes all more or less at the same time.

Claude Debussy: "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum," from the Children's Corner Suite.

Amadeus Mozart: Symphony 41, K. 551* 4th movement.

*Mozart's works were written before number works with an opus number was common. His pieces were all catalogued by 19th century scholar Ludwig von Köchel. Hence the "K." Like K-mart. Except klassier.

Lead by Teaching

Tickets are boughten, bags are packed, we're on the train to Valuetown. Classical musicians and music lovers have an instinctive feeling that classical music is valuable. However, we can't just assume that other people will see it in the same way, not least because the forms and harmonies which structure classical music often sound foreign and unintelligible to people who aren't used to them. So of course, some amount of teaching is assumed, even if I don't personally believe that an audience member needs to know everything going on in classical music to enjoy it.

It's like... When The Simpsons was in its prime, did people stop liking it even when they didn't get all of the multitudinous obscure or downright esoteric jokes? No. There was plenty of stuff for everybody to hang onto. But oh how you felt good when you got one of the jokes none of your friends got. It's like that.

Still, musical education in general is something we find missing in a lot of people's lives, whether it is classical or not. So lets look into some ways we can leverage what students we have to help create more societal value in what we do.


Not everybody is a teacher. Oh wow, is this ever true. If you don't like teaching, if you don't want to teach, if you can't teach water out of a plastic cup, then don't. There are far too many good/great teachers who aren't being utilized because the pay is generally too low... but that doesn't mean the gap should be filled with terrible ones. Just because you can play doesn't mean you can teach, and if you really, honestly can't, just... do what you're good at, and play awesome concerts. Trust me when I say, everyone will be much happier that way.

First, Teach by Leading

It's not enough to be a teacher if you don't know what the heck you're talking about. Like, I could have a PhD in Physics, but that doesn't make me qualified to teach a high school English course. That makes me qualified to teach a college physics course. Should be obvious, right? Well, apparently it's not obvious to some school districts which require teachers to have a master's degree, but don't require a degree in the subject you're going to end up teaching.

Like, I don't know...Imagine you're reading Grapes of Wrath, and your teacher suddenly says, "A train leaves west from station A at 45mph, and a train moves east from station B at 30mph. If station A and station B are 400 miles apart, how long will it take the Joad family to find work in California?"

Trick question. They never find work in California.

Wait, what was I saying? Right. Teach by leading. Don't just teach your students. Play for them. As often as you can. Show them that you know what you're about and that you mean business. It's amazing how quickly you earn respect that way.

Then, Lead by Teaching

So now you have a bunch loyal minions. I mean, students. What do you do? You tell them about all of your concerts. More specifically, you tell their parents about all of your concerts. This achieves a number of things. First, it puts some bodies in the seats. This is important because ticket sales.

But just as importantly, you're filling your audience with people who are slowly learning how to listen to music at a higher level. The students not only get to see you strut your stuff, but they also get to hear their own learning. Over time, they start hearing more and more from pieces they thought they knew. They start to get Haydn's inside jokes. They start to hear why Claire de Lune isn't just sparkly vampires.

They of course fail to pick up on the subtle subliminal messages put in by the Mozartian Masonites and, much later, by the Schoenbergian Fraternity of Tonebros, but that's all according to plan. If they knew what they were really listening to, it wouldn't work.

Finally, Play Music with your Students

You know what's awesome? When a teacher you really respect works with you on what is being taught/learned. It can be as complex or as simple as necessary. But there's something really cool about that kind of collaboration. Suddenly, you don't feel like just a student, and you aren't just a teacher. You're two people doing what people have been doing for tens of thousands of years. Making art. And ultimately, isn't that what's really important?

I mean, besides the pay check.

Art is Not Just Art

Continuing my musings about building societal value in music, I come to an interesting point: Music, art in general, is not just music and art. It's also a service. Now, I personally hope that we can come to an age where music is learned just because music is awesome and fun. But the reality right now is, we have politicians who are deciding whether it is worth the budget space to fund music programs in schools across the country, and those politicians need "reasons" for music to be included. Especially in a culture which highly prizes its standardized testing, and is constantly giving weight to that which is testable and 'objective,' the arts tend to get shafted. How do you test music or art? How do you test its impact on the life of a person? You can't. Not really, because those values are totally subjective, holistic, and multifaceted. There is no multiple choice answer to the question "How has music made your life better?"

A. It lets me socialize with my peer group.

B. It helps me form my own identity distinct from other people.

C. It helps me learn how to regulate my emotions.

D. It lets me communicate with my grandmother who has Alzheimer's.

The list goes on, but "all the above" doesn't cut it because music is everything for everyone, and everyone has different issues, and you can't just say "This is the right answer. Oh, music helped you form a social life? Wrong, the correct answer was 'Music helped you regulate your emotions.'"

However! There are, of course, numerous benefits to music, both listening and performing. Granted, many of these benefits are merely correlations, as we find in the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium. Things like art relating to increase in sustained attention, geometrical representation, long term memory, etc. They are careful to note these are not yet causally related, but that's why they exist. To help draw research attention to these correlations for further study.

Music Therapy

Music in the realm of medicine has been increasingly validated by science. I admit, when I first heard of "music therapy," I was pretty skeptical. It sounds awfully similar to a lot of snake oils we've had in the past. But then I started reading. Alleviating Alzheimer's has already been noted. But there are numerous other benefits as well. Everything from helping depression and bipolar, to speech and even movement therapy.

Oh man. Speech and movement therapy. Let me tell you about that. Paraphrasing from Oliver Sacks' book "Musicophilia": A patient, Samuel S., developed severe aphasia following a stroke. Regular speech therapy produced no results even after two years. Then, a music therapist heard him singing "Old Man River," though only managing one or two words of the lyrics. The therapist worked with him to recover the rest of the song, and soon other songs followed. After two months, Samuel was able to make short answers to questions.

Also from Oliver Sacks' "Musicophilia," regarding movement therapy: An old lady required surgery for her hip, which required a long period of immobilization, both before the surgery and after. However, even after recovery, the leg remained apparently paralyzed, with no obvious cause. Upon questioning, Sacks found that the patient's leg responded to movement while listening to Irish jigs. Wondering if, perhaps, dance music could help, they went through jig after jig, march after march, for weeks. At the end of it all, she had totally regained the movement in her leg.

The Usual Disclaimers

It should be noted, Oliver Sacks' book is filled with the extraordinary. It may be we cannot expect such phenomenal results from every person who needs therapy of one kind or another. However, research continues to show the benefits of music for people recovering from stroke, or suffering from Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

The ultimate point is, music is not just music. Art is not just art. These activities have benefits beyond just the pleasure of doing them (which is, in itself, quite a motivation for including these activities in your life). One day, we will understand that we do art just for the sake of doing art. Until then, we should strive to remind everyone we can that there are powerful justifications for the inclusion of the arts in any educational program, and beyond.

Recommendations of the Day

I think I should recommend something in line with today's article. To that end, I highly suggest, almost demand, that you put Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang into your life. It is longish, about 15-20 minutes or so, but you will not regret it. The piece itself is a "Song of Thanksgiving," and is dedicated as such: "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity." This was written after a long period of illness, and is phenomenal in every respect.

Heiliger Dankgesang, Beethoven String Quartet op*. 135, 3rd movement**

*Opus. Meaning "Work."

** Longer compositions are often divided into units which are simply called "movements." A typical symphony, say by Mozart, has four movements. It might be helpful to think of them as chapters in a book.

Teaching Orchestra Classes

Continuing with my educational theme, today I'm going to discuss orchestra as a school class. I make the distinction between a 6th grade orchestra and a college orchestra because at the college level at least the players know how to play their instruments. Although, after having lived through numerous college orchestra rehearsals, I sometimes wonder if that is a fair assumption to make.

Anyways. After hearing a student orchestra rehearse the same piece for five weeks and not really ever get better, I began to think maybe we're doing something wrong. Is it possible that perhaps we don't know as much about teaching music as we think we do? I think it is.
So lets get cracking.

Problems Facing School Orchestras

1. Class size. It is well known by now that class size is an important factor contributing to student success. Large classes tend to hinder learning, smaller classes tend to help it. Or at least, not get in the way. The book "Boys and Girls Learn Differently"(a book which I recommend with reservations... it's a whole article unto itself) says that the optimal classroom size for middle school is around 20.


Excuse me while I vomit out my nose from laughing too hard. I'm not saying this is unattainable, but 'good' orchestra programs, even at the 6th grade level, rarely if ever have fewer than 30-40 kids in a class. It's not surprising, as orchestra is by nature a group activity. But still.

2. Lack of teacher's aides. In absence of low class size, "Boys and Girls etc" recommends the help of one or sometimes even two teacher's aides. These teachers are able to provide individual assistance where the head teacher cannot. When staring down a battalion of 6th graders, allies will at least give some moral support. But in an orchestra, you are far outnumbered, and they can smell your fear. Just say to yourself, "This. Is. SPARTA!" and go down in glory.

No. I mean, get some additional help.

"But what about money?"

Money? Oh right. Money...

3. There are other problems, but I'm going to stop with a big one here. When learning music in an orchestra or a band, there are actually two subjects going on. There's the subject of the instrument, which is obvious. It's the thing you just dropped $500 on for a ten month rental. Then there's the subject of music. Which is less obvious, but mostly because it's so obvious nobody thinks to think about it.

See, music isn't just playing notes. It's also knowing how notes are put together. Learning patterns. Reading notes. As it is, we're teaching those kids the ABC's without teaching them how to string them into words, much less how to string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into whole compositions. Imagine trying to read Les Mis one letter at a time, and you'll get some grasp of what we're expecting orchestra classes to accomplish.

Ultimately, it is problem number three which poses the most difficulties to a student orchestra and their director. They are really trying to learn and teach two different subjects in the same amount of time as one. Problems 1 and 2 exacerbate this problem greatly, as individual help cannot be provided to struggling students in real time, and the class is usually far too large to facilitate group discussion of music or problem solving.

So it's no wonder orchestras take so long to learn a piece. The students are reading one letter at a time without comprehending words, there are more students making mistakes than a single teacher can reasonably be expected to keep up with, and that teacher somehow has to try and divide 45 minutes worth of time into teaching instruments and teaching basic music theory. Yeesh! Even Sisyphus had it easier than school orchestra directors.

Possible Solutions

1. There's not a lot that can be done here because orchestras are, by nature, usually rather large. There are some things that immediately spring to mind, however. The first is the divide orchestra classes into sections, rather than the full orchestra. This will not only reduce the class size, but also make it easier on the teacher as he or she will not have to deal with all of the little idiosyncrasies which plague each instrument. Other than that, I don't know what to say. This is the most intractable of the problems.

2. Get aides. No, not AIDS. The other aides. This is only problematic insofar as it requires money, but the benefits would be well worth the cost. The size of the classes almost requires additional assistance for effective teaching. And I don't just mean "Let's divide the orchestra into sections and have the assistant teach one and the head director teach the other." I mean the class is going on with two teachers: the head director giving the large scale instruction, and the assistant weaving in and out helping individuals with their own unique problems in real time.

I cannot stress this enough. Mistakes must be addressed quickly as the mistake is being made. Otherwise, it is highly likely the student will not even realize there is something wrong and keep on doing what you don't want them to be doing. Not that they weren't doing what you didn't want them to be doing in the first place, but... you know what I mean.

In addition, assistants can provide much needed moral and psychological support. "Is it me, or does Jimmy's intonation sound worse than a donkey getting eaten by a velociraptor?" "No, it's not just you. But at least his tone is good. Emily's violin sounds like it needs an exorcism. I keep expecting the scroll to twist around while spewing out obscenities about my mother." "Ha ha! I know, right?" (This is totally not an actual conversation I have had with an orchestra director. Totally not at all.)

There. Don't you feel better now? This way, you can relieve all your frustrations without ever taking them out on your students.

3. And now the radioactive elephant in the room. I mean, I don't even know where to start. However! There is some hope. At the 6th grade, beginners level, I highly doubt students need more than 15-30 minutes of practice a day. There's just... not enough to practice, you know? They know all of three notes. Only so much you can do with that.

Keeping this in mind, it is entirely possible orchestras spend far too much of their class time teaching the students how to play. Given a 50 minute class, if you divide up the class into a 25 minute theory class and a 25 minute practice, we can probably cover everything we need to cover so long as we are exceedingly efficient about it. This is still far from ideal. Music theory is a class of its own, but it is progress.

Another possibility is the use of computers. "How People Learn" describes an experiment wherein students learning physics are allowed deliberate practice through a computer-based tutoring program. The students exposed to this program were able to reduce the time it took to reach real-world performance criteria from 4 years to a paltry 25 hours.

I mean. What? Really? Is this real life? Did I seriously just read that? Well.

I can attest to the usefulness of these programs, as well. One of the private schools I teach at has several computer modules where piano students go to learn their music theory. It would not be difficult to adapt those kinds of programs to the specific needs of string, wind, and brass players (and singers who, judging from performance at the college level, seem to need help the most).

So like I said. There is hope. But we have a lot of work to do. Now lets hunker down and prepare for the onslaught. It's a long night, and Gandalf isn't guaranteed to show up.