Do As I Say, Do As I Do (If It Helps)
Teaching is one of the most challenging things I do. Teaching responsibly seems to require constant soul searching and occasional upheavals in approach, methodology, and perspective as I encounter new students, new times, new pedagogical philosophies, and new music. When approaching the teacher/student relationship, what is the best way to provide what each student needs to develop as a composer?
There is no question that teachers have the potential to wield a lot of power over their students. I remember as an undergraduate asking a theory teacher (who is still a great teacher in my mind, as he was then) about John Cage, and I still can hear his derisive laughter followed by a comment about Cage’s music not being worthy of study. His response was enough to keep me away from this music for a long while, but not forever. This early encounter lead me, when I became a teacher, to resist expressing my own opinions about certain kinds of music and ideas to my students, for fear they would simply take on my attitudes as their own and stop the questions that are such an important part of learning. But I am also keenly aware that students very much want to hear their teachers’ opinions—perhaps because “trying on” someone else’s point of view for a while can be an important part of developing your own.
Learning to compose can be akin to this—taking on the style of your teacher as a way of progressing into your own. Or is it better to avoid this approach, and take the students from whatever style they bring in and encourage them to branch out from there? The latter has been my approach, but recently I have wondered if some of them don’t simply get “stuck” in old ways of doing things, impeding their progress as a result, and if they would do better if I had simply assigned them to work outside of their comfort zones more.
I’d appreciate hearing from people about pedagogical methods or points of view that work or worked well for them, as students and as teachers.