Friday, October 17, 2008

My experience "teaching" music: it's a varied world


Teaching music, at least in ensemble playing and in lower grades, involves very different personal skills from composing, performing, or even building up the ear for the mass of classical music literature.

In my main blog on the July 25, 2007 entry (archive link) I talked about the problems that I ran into with classroom discipline as a substitute teacher back in 2005. But the music assignment raises some particular issues.

It had been called in to me the day before it started, a nine-day assignment in a middle school. It turned out there were five 50-minute classes, with a long break between the first and fourth periods, in the band room. The first period went super, a small class with a student conductor and self-sufficient. The sixth period was a four-person jazz ensemble, again self-sufficient. The seventh period was eighth grade, again with a student conductor and quite motivated. I was supposed to ask every student play a scale exercise individually and mark it, which went fine; it then play Offenbach’s Orpheus overture, with great vigor.

The fourth and fifth period classes, however, presented a challenge, perhaps to my integrity. They were, like period 1, sixth grade. The cryptic lesson plans for all the sixth grade classes had called for rehearsal of the “Prehistoric Suite” by Paul Jennings, a piece that did not inspire a lot of musical interest, but maybe that was because of the circumstances. I asked for the “student conductor” and one precocious girl said something like, “I think you should be the conductor.”

Now, I have an ear for music to where I know the literature cold, and can explain all of its significance. But I have no idea how to conduct, and I did not want to pretend that I did. And furthermore, here the issue is getting children to play their musical instruments together. The knowledge is in a totally different area psychologically.

I felt like the girl probably understood (quite incredibly) that some short-term subs were not really qualified teachers, were looking for easy money (although not much). The whole sense of integrity from my presence was fractured, and order in the class broke down. Because of these two classes, I had to leave after two days of the nine-day assignment. That started the downward spiral in my subbing experience that I describe in the archived reference above. They had to find a “real band teacher” after all. And band or orchestra, not voice, not piano, not composition, etc. But they did. As far as the kids were concerned, I should have been a clerk at the 7-11 across the street.

I could ask this, though: Why does this little band need a conductor to micromanage it at all? What about the libertarian idea of spontaneous order? After all, small orchestras sometimes play without conductors. Eventually, with a lot of grumbling, each of these two classes did stumble through "The Prehistoric Suite" without my wand.

A couple months earlier, at a high school, I had experienced a great two-day assignment with chorus classes. They were all self-sufficient, and included a madrigals class. I went to their Christmas concert in December and met the teacher. During one of the classes, in some free time, there was one eager student who wanted to learn to sight-read piano. I was quite able to help him with that for twenty minutes or so. So, my effectiveness depended on what the required skill would be.

As with the telemarketing job in the previous post, I though that my music background would lead somewhere in this situation. But I was no father-like authority figure, and I was not a band player. I have no idea how large musical ensembles learn to work together. That’s still a different world. So I fell between my own cracks.

For almost anyone who makes music a life's work, however, teaching certainly has to be an important skill. In the WB series "Everwood", the piano prodigy character Ephram (Gregory Smith), after he blows the chance to go to Juilliard because of his conflict with his father (Treat Williams), still sets up private piano lessons and even a class at home back in Colorado at age 18 or so.

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