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Why teach?

May 12, 2011

Musicians in the US are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in an economy that is in rapid decline, where our government is merely a tool of the corporations that are really running the show.  We see and hear daily news of long-standing orchestras going bankrupt and concert promoters giving up in dismay over lackluster concert attendance, a most unfortunate circumstance that affects us in a personal way.  The economic outlook does not offer any measure of comfort, and things are not likely to improve anytime soon.

Another factor affecting the survival of independent musicians is a prevailing attitude that music is a commodity that somehow should be available for free to clever individuals who are able to locate, download and share mp3s.  In order to come to grips with all the above forces, musicians must deduct time from instrument and repertory, and continually search for creative ways to put the rice and beans on the table.  One time-honored way we have of confronting the pesky survival problem is to teach music.

There being only a small number of dedicated individuals with enough time, focus and folly to want to learn to play the lute, I mostly teach guitar.  Guitar is a versatile instrument and, in order to teach effectively, I have to be well versed in many styles and current in many areas of repertory.  It helps that I have a background in music for theatre, where almost anything goes for a member of the pit band.

The essential skill of reading music, a quick ear, and the ability to improvise contribute to the marketability of a musician, enabling one to find an interesting variety of performing opportunities.  But successfully teaching music to individuals from ages 6 to 60 requires a much more comprehensive and nuanced skill set.

Probably the most important quality of an effective teacher is empathy, with the ability to clearly communicate complex information  running a close second.  Since playing a stringed instrument requires a great deal of mechanical dexterity, a good teacher must possess the empathy to understand and track the physical qualities and limitations of every individual student.  Likewise, the teacher must have clear communication skills in order to explain in precise terms how to perform incredible feats like not dropping the instrument.

Effective instruction also has a great deal to do with applying positive reinforcement, necessarily balanced with the ability to apply a helpful reality check in order to coax students to a level of competency.  More on this in a future post.

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