The Accidental Teacher

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I’m an accidental teacher.  I really never had opinions, positive or negative, about the profession of teaching.  Teaching was never what I imagined myself doing.  I dreamed of being a lawyer; but I would have only accepted being Perry Mason, and the job was already taken.  I could have imagined myself a journalist, writing impassioned stories, exposing injustice and corruption.  The problem was always that I loved to play the piano.  My first piano teacher disabused me of the idea that most professions would allow time for the amount of piano playing I required; all except one:  if you become a college professor you will be expected to play the piano as part of your job, she said.  The idea was like offering me my own warehouse of dark chocolate.  Yes, I’ll become a college professor of piano!

{Cut to 10 years later}

I had two interviews set up; the first was to be at Louisiana Tech University, in Ruston, Louisiana.  The second was to be a week later in Flagstaff, Arizona.  Both seemingly nice, hot places; I didn’t think I would miss those days where the ice coated the trees of Iowa City.  I didn’t have a Plan B.  My high school piano teacher had assured me that what I needed to sustain my life was in one of those two places.  I would become a college piano teacher, and play the piano to my heart’s content.  I didn’t even question myself when I learned in Ruston that there had been over 200 applications for my job.  It did occur to me that I was one of 5 semi-finalists.  Instead of spending my time worrying about the application process, I looked through the yellow pages of the phone book in my motel room:  wow!  50 Southern Baptist churches in the parish (county) the university was in.  I went to the university library and tabulated the books specifically dealing with piano music, piano literature, piano teaching, etc.  I found that my own library was far superior.  I knew I would have to fix that.

It was a good several days; I was feeling very good.  I talked to lots of people and knew that my biggest weakness… not being able to remember names… was going to be ultimately exposed.  I did spend a little time with one of my favorites pastimes; I loved to match people up with their instruments.  It always seems to work.  If you’ve ever met a drummer or a sax player you know what I mean.  They simply become their instruments.  I sought out the tuba teacher (I played tuba in highs school, college, and even in the Army when I wasn’t busy with the Signal Corps).  He looked OK, smiling his “Oom Pah” best when he didn’t know me from Adam.  I was only slightly taken aback when I was offered the job before I left.  But, what about Flagstaff?  I was able to get a stall of a couple of days, although they really wanted my answer right on the spot.  But, it was my spot that I was on, so I was allowed a decision period of 3 days.  I had decided by the time I got home, so I called and cancelled the interview in Arizona.

It was only after my first day of teaching Freshman Music Theory and meeting the piano majors that were relying on me that the thought struck me:  my boss had no idea if I could teach; I had no idea if I could teach.  What little experience I had was in a guided and protected situation, with lots of talented students that seemed that they would do just fine, with or without me.  Oh, reality, thou cruel, cold, damp towel that… OK, enough of that.  I had to think about how I was going to approach this.

I remembered the first recital I prepared without a teacher.  I was hired to play a whole recital for the Cecilian Club of Freehold, New Jersey.  I had a grand piano to work on, and time to practice.  Life was good.  OK, I know what I want to play.  Now what?  I listened closely, and I could hear the voice of my college teacher.  I knew what he would say.  “That went quite well,” which meant I sucked.  “Your Chopin is ‘growing’, but you haven’t gotten control yet.”  So I let John Holstad teach me that recital, in absentia.  It worked pretty well, so I thought I understood.

When my first piano major came to her first lesson, I observed the score of her Chopin Nocturne.  It was full of colors of many markings.  Joseph’s Coat had nothing on the E Minor Posthumous Nocturne.  She explained that the colors were the “feelings and emotions” that she would apply at the different points.  The look on her face when I expressed confusion, concern and not a little disagreement, showed that she missed her teacher from the previous year.  I, on the other hand, knew why they chose someone from the University of Iowa, rather than another Indiana University elite.  I knew that John Holstad’s wisdom would fall on deaf ears, so I had to think of something.

So I said, “Leslie, where are you having trouble?”  She thought for a while, forgot about her rainbow score, and played one of the phrases with the intense Chopin figuration that everyone agonizes over.  For myself, I just thought, if this were me, and my piece, what would I do?  Practicing is what I do.  Diagnosing problems and determining solutions… that’s what I do.  If nothing else, I know how to practice.  We got to work.  I worked with her for the rest of that year on technical matters that prevented her from playing the best she could, and on other little things that seemed to disrupt the flow of the pieces she had begun.  She had won a regional competition, and I helped her to move on to the state finals.  I helped her prepare for her admittance to the upper division, where she would have to play a short program for a panel of faculty.  She did well on both, and I felt very good about working with her.

Leslie taught me quite a few things; first, I learned that it really had nothing to do with my teaching.  It had to do with her learning.  Most of the information that I have explored since, in over 40 years of teaching, has had to do with how people learn.  It turns out that not everyone learns in the same way.  We, the teachers, have to figure out how each of our students can become… and then address them in that fashion.  There is no method.  There is no solution.  I found that I don’t teach music; I don’t teach piano.  I teach students.

Along the way, in twenty years at Louisiana Tech University, I noticed that something interesting was happening.  I was accidentally becoming a teacher.  My students taught me how to become a teacher.  As I taught, I found that I played better myself.  I was teaching myself, too.  I no longer had to imagine John Holstad.  I used my “closet.”  My closet had all of the answers.  I also want to believe that I taught my students to find their own closet.  Oh, wait… I guess a word of explanation is in order?  That will have to wait for the next installment, I’m afraid.

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