Student as Musician
by Mark Dvorak
A writer friend and I were having coffee one morning. The conversation was light and playful as we talked about books and writers and writing. She described her writing desk in the loft area of her home. She told me about her little company that publishes and distributes her novels. She talked about a recent reading she did at her favorite writing conference. Before long though the laughter dwindled and her mood darkened a bit.
“How do you do it?” she asked. “I mean, you make your living at music?”
I thought for a minute and said, “I have to do a lot of different things to keep it going.” And I shared with her some of the kinds of less glamorous gigs a working musician has to accept in order to make ends meet. And I told her about all the other things I have to do, that have nothing to do with playing music.
“And you teach?”
“Yes,” I said. “I don’t make a lot from teaching, but it’s income. And it’s steady. Have you ever thought about teaching writing?”
After a pause her smile returned and quite plainly she said, “No. Writing teachers have to read a lot of work by students. I think I want my head to be full of my own shit and not somebody else’s.” And we laughed out loud.
Teaching of any kind is not easy work. Sometimes it’s fun and other times it can be messy. And only occasionally do you get to witness the long-term results of your work with students. Music takes a lot of time to learn, and those who would become good at it will have had many teachers. And a good teacher does have to fill themselves up with the uncertainty and desire of his students.
There are different kinds of teachers and many personalities within each. The Nurturer loves his or her students whether they have practiced or not; whether they can pay attention or not. The Nurturer creates a safe place for students to return to and settle. The Professor instinctively expounds on theory, technique and genre, and The Hard-Liner is a “my way or the highway” sort of autocrat. Aloof and distant, sometimes a Hard-Liner is also a very good player or singer. The Mechanic is good at taking things apart and making the nitty-gritty, inner-workings of music more accessible to others. The Storyteller illuminates abstract concepts through narrative. It’s not really music, but a good story gives students a moment to breathe and reflect while working in class. A Storyteller though, who likes to talk too much can get in the way and obstruct the natural flow of a given class period.
The Show-Off parades his talents before the lesser-skilled in an attempt at something other than teaching. The Clinician approaches teaching in a more hands-off way. The Clinician qualifies first, and facilitates more than teaches, focussing on text, technique and doing things “the right way.” The Modeller brings others forward, provides context and sets useful examples. The Drill Sergeant demands attention and barks out orders. The Critic picks nits and makes little deals into big deals. The Slacker is underprepared and likes to fly by the seat of his pants. The Psychologist spends time on motivation and why things happen. Or don’t. And on and on.
Students also fall into types. People who tend to need nurturing may find themselves drawn to The Nurturer. People who are comfortable listening to a lecture find their Professor. People who like butting heads look for a Hard-Liner. Like-minded Mechanics find each other, and people who would rather talk than play may find The Storyteller engaging. Show-Offs run in bunches as do Clinicians and Critics. Those who would rather watch and listen than have something explained or written out, seek The Modeller. The obedient fall in line at their Drill Sergeant’s command. Slackers find each other, as do Psychologists.
But here’s a thing I have wrestled with. I’m not sure a teacher in the end, can really teach a student anything. I think somewhere along the way, all good learners have first learned how to teach themselves; to straightaway apply what is knowable and doable to their own special circumstance. But along the way, from time to time, everybody also needs help and that’s where teaching seems to come in. Fortunate teaching opens doors. Many doors, so the right door might be waiting open when the learning moment arrives. But the doors a teacher is most able to open are mostly well-known and have been around for a long time. If you can see it that way, you’re not a beginner anymore. And by the way, none of those doors is ever locked.
A student turns toward becoming a musician the day he or she turns away from their teacher and all of the lessons and papers and exercises and everything else, and begins the long stroll through any of the doors they may find already open and waiting. Any of them. They all eventually lead to the same place and when a student finds the doors that are his or hers alone to open, that’s when things begin to change. Sometimes in a hurry. And that’s when this business of getting good sound from your instrument and voice becomes more serious and urgent.
When you begin to empty yourself of all the things you don’t need anymore, whether a teacher put them in there or not, the desire to create deepens. Like mad. Your musical voice starts to take shape and mature, and sound becomes richer, more authentic and fulfilling. Soon enough you will begin to know that sound - the very sound you are making - has always been the real teacher.