Learning occurs when students are presented with opportunities that evoke their curiosity, foster independence, and challenge the limits of their creative thinking. Rather than explore the many hats I wear as a teacher, my philosophy focuses squarely on a complex topic that I believe is at the center of all learning and good teaching: Involvement. At the age of 10, I approached a crossroads in my piano studies. My teacher was also at a difficult crossroad herself, but with me. As a wiry, unfocused, and outspoken 4th grader, my teacher offered me a “last chance”. As an educator, I now understand the discouragement my teacher must have felt working with a “difficult” student. In a final effort, Mrs. Di Dimenico gave me the option to choose a work of my choice in addition to the etudes and exercises she assigned. Given the opportunity to work towards the piece of my dreams personalized my learning. At the time, my favorite pieces of music were written by Scott Joplin, particularly the Maple Leaf Rag. When I initially learned the piece, my teacher delved into the history of ragtime heros like Jelly Roll Morton and stride piano techniques. As a Peabody Conservatory graduate, I knew that she was extending the bounds her own expertise and comfort. She made me responsible for devising a practice plan that created time for “my piece’ and her assigned exercises. She encouraged my creative thinking skills by challenging me to transfer the energetic style that I achieved in the Joplin to my Czerny and Hanon studies. My piano teacher had created an entry point for my investment in music. By involving me and keeping my own inspirations in sight, she created a portal through which I could have a more personal relationship with music. Involvement in the playful sense has recorded impact on successful learning but is often sacrificed for the sake of traditional teaching. And while I do require students learn basic techniques and performance traditions, I strongly believe that the way to achieve these skills while simultaneously creating meaningful experiences is to directly involve students in ways that challenge or speak directly to their own experiences and inspirations.
As a performing and teaching artist in Carnegie Hall’s resident ensemble, it is my intention to help students realize their personal goals and acquire musicianship through active involvement. In a co-partnership, my teaching balances core foundational principles with the goals of the student. In the process of working together towards these goals, it is my hope to embolden students to take an active role of their learning so that they can have a meaningful relationship with music that surpasses the classroom or lesson. In my experience, I have witnessed the most change in educational development when students are given an equal stake in their musical progress. The excitement of pursuing a long-term goal creates an ambition and involvement that encourages students to actively seek their own learning.
My methodology for implementing this progressive and more cooperative approach to teaching includes collecting an inventory of teacher and student goals at the beginning of the semester. Before a student plays, I identify their goals with a few open ended questions. For example, I might ask, “ If you had a personal Genie and could have any three wishes for your flute playing, what would you wish for?” While the student plays their lesson material, I assess my own goals based on their strengths and weakness. After discussing our goals together, I assist the student in crafting a timeline with these goals in mind for the year. Although we might not address these goals at each lesson, it’s a great reminder of the “pact” created between the student and myself. It is also a helpful assessment tool that I use to check in on how goals are or are not being achieved.
Another creative tool I often use to develop student involvement is a European partner lesson system. While I do enjoy working with students one on one, I always offer the opportunity for students to have a lesson partner. During my masters study at the Cincinnati College Conservatory Music and my time in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar, I experienced the partner system first hand as a student. I have found this method of teaching to be extremely effective in building studio relationships and increasing involvement particularly between undergraduate and graduate students. While one student plays, the other student is responsible for taking notes for their peer. Students have found it extremely helpful to read an objective listener’s notes and encouragements from the lesson. Simultaneously, the listening student absorbs and stores the information discussed to be used in the future. Students work together to reduce information received in lessons and support one another in achieving their goals. In my experience, I have found that this kind of cooperative relationship building helps growing musicians conclude what they want to achieve in their lessons more quickly. While this style of teaching is certainly not for every student, it has proven to be a valuable tool for students that are more receptive to this system of learning and involvement.
As an educator I have learned that students, at the pre-collegiate and collegiate levels, approach learning with different and/or multiple intelligences. In my work as a teaching artist and lecturer, this is incredibly valuable information because it supports the idea that all students can be involved and engaged if an educator can figure out how they learn. As a teacher, I am often presented with the challenge of relaying old information in new ways. As a student, pictures and analogies were always very difficult for me to grasp. I have a laundry list of collected metaphors ranging from eggs to peaches to threads. But for my students who are experiential learners, I have found more interactive ways to get them physically involved in creating meaningful musical experiences. For example, I have a quiet secondary flute student who struggled to capture the extroverted and passionate character of Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes for flute. After several attempts to “break through” the students creative wall, I had a epiphany. I made a phone call and quickly asked my student to pack up her flute. In a moment of temporary folly, I prompted my student to take a friend to a free tango class at the Gregory Street Dance Studio in downtown Rochester. With her eyes open wide, she looked at me in disbelief and answered in her most nonchalant sophomore expression, “K.” I was unsure if I had made the right decision. Had I crossed the line?
I had but am glad that I did. In her next lesson, Marcia played with a freedom she had never expressed in music before. After the lesson, she told me that she had always wanted to take dance lessons. Now she had. Marcia had fulfilled an unspoken personal dream of hers in a flute lesson. Understanding how to play Piazzolla’s tangos was an added benefit to her newly developed interest in the style of music. As an informal assessment, I gave Marcia the task of “teaching” or explaining the stylistic elements of Piazzolla’s music to classmates who had just begun working on the etudes. Encountering the tango in real life was an entry point for Marcia’s involvement which ultimately helped both her and other students to experience the music more fully.
As an advocate of new music, I regularly integrate extended techniques into applied flute lessons. Beat boxing, as an art now being popularized in the flute community, has been a great resource in developing better rhythmic integrity in my students. This kind of engagement challenges students to be involved in a way that pushes the limits of their comfort zones. As an example, in lessons I will occasionally beatbox off beats to expose the unevenness and compression of 16th note passages in Mozart’s G Major Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. In lessons, students also have the opportunity to beatbox their own orchestral ostinato accompaniment. After recording their ostinatos, students go home and perform the solo of their favorite concerto to their own self created “orchestral” rhythmic background. This interactive approach to exploring rhythm helps students audiate the music when they are playing by themselves in campus and regional auditions. My students also are involved in the practice of singing while playing. This exploration of the oral cavity not only opens the sound but also engages flute students in a playful discovery of new sounds and techniques. Extended techniques empower students to take risks and to explore the possibilities of sound with a never ending curiosity.
In the passing years, I have realized that I am most passionate about keeping students mentally and emotionally engaged in the music-making process. Although involvement is a topic that is often oversimplified, it represents the universal entry point for all learners embarking on a professional journey in music or not. I am also dedicated to recognizing the individual goals and interests of students as an equally important part of their education. In a co-partnership my teaching facilitates a personalized learning. In the spirit of self discovery, students have the freedom to explore and question new techniques and concepts so that they can ultimately determine their own path and experience with music.