Ask the Dumb Questions
Back when I used to teach in Cleveland, I recall one lesson in which I felt completely at a loss for words—it had been a long day, for one, but also the student was one who I felt was particularly talented, and so I felt a real imperative to chew over my words carefully. The truth is that I didn’t really react to my student’s latest effort all that much, yet I was hard-pressed to identify specific musical elements that vexed me; I needed some way to express this in a way that would be helpful instead of unduly negative. After some more struggling, I blurted out, “What if this whole thing were upside-down?”
Immediately I felt a strong sense of embarrassment—after all, I was supposed to be The Teacher, I was supposed to have the answers, and most of all I was acutely aware of asking a really Dumb Question.
But I felt a little better when my perhaps most poorly thought-out, half-assed comment of all time seemed to engage my student. “Do you mean, like, the whole thing in inversion?”
“Yeah,” I said, gaining a bit of confidence. “How much difference would it make if you flipped the whole thing, with middle C as the axis?”
My student had just been learning all about the technique of inversion both in some twelve-tone works and Bach inventions, so without much resistance he began working the opening out, and as we worked it out together he commented that it wasn’t all that different than his original version.
Great, I thought, now we’re getting somewhere. I wasn’t sure exactly where this was going, but maybe, I realized, I didn’t have to be sure all the time. We then tried inverting the openings of several Bach keyboard works, and my student noted how strange this was—because in Bach and much other tonal music, bass lines are of course constructed much differently than soprano lines as a result of their distinct function. I’m not going to say that the resulting conversation turned on any big light bulbs for my student, but he didn’t seem to be annoyed with my comment or the path the last part of the lesson had taken, and by the following week he was back with some fresh ideas about his piece.
Part of the problem with any kind of teaching is the teacher’s inevitable tendency to talk about what is easy to talk about, and to teach what comes easily to teach. But it seems to me that while part of teaching certainly involves modes of explanation—making the unfamiliar familiar—it’s at least as important to uncover problems and issues the student might not even have been aware of—making the familiar unfamiliar again by revealing some element heretofore taken for granted. Part of the way that a teacher can accomplish the latter involves abandoning a little bit of the “teacherly” air and exploring this or that musical element along with the student as a fellow innocent, not from the point of view of someone who has the answer but as sympathetic traveler journeying along the same path.
There has been a lot said over what, if anything, can truly be taught about the craft of music composition, much of it in despairing tones. And with so many different kinds of students with such different backgrounds and needs, figuring out what to teach them can be a real conundrum. But fortunately there is one thing that we can do for every student: We can teach them to be curious about sound.
Curiosity is well, a curious thing in that it must spring from uncertainty, ignorance, silence. In my short career as a teacher I’ve tried more and more not to be afraid of these three bogeys, as I now recognize them as the conditions necessary for cultivating curiosity. And in my own work, too, oftentimes it is the dumb question—the one that at first appears irrelevant or even nonsensical—that inspires a curiosity in the kinds of possibilities I need to become aware of in order to move forward.