Articulating our Abilities – Thoughts from Neil Moore
Recently, a trainee teacher wrote to me expressing concern about a prospective student who had a pre-existing ability to play at a level that was, in some respects, beyond their own. The teacher was also concerned about the fact that were the student to progress quickly, the teacher might not have enough material for her, and that the Level 1 materials alone might not be entirely suitable?
Here is my response to the email:
Let’s start by setting a background. The challenge for you, and in reality all of our newest teachers, is that you have to learn how to integrate a couple of issues at one time. Firstly, the fact that you have only just begun teaching puts you in a position whereby you have had very little ‘hands on’ experience with even the entry level aspects of this method. Secondly, you are going to come across students with prior, and sometimes extensive, experience.
Teaching Simply Music is analogous to a card game. There’s the issue of how many cards are in your deck, there’s your expertise in how well you can shuffle and deal the cards, and then there’s how well you actually play the game.
Similarly, the reality is that you can only present to students those programs that are available to you and that you are trained to teach. Assuming you had at your disposal a command of all the different aspects of the Simply Music program (foundational, reading, accompaniment, jazz, theory, blues, improvisation, composition, arrangement, etc.), there’s the need to assess and clearly identify what the student wants and needs, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to design the program that best fits. Finally, there’s your expertise in presenting this in a professional, consistent and thoughtful manner, and knowing how to resolve the array of issues that emerge along the way.
It’s complex to some degree, because you also have to discover how to be at peace with, and understand exactly where you are with regard to all of the elements listed above.
Having said that, we still need to remember some of the basic facts:
1. Most people are beginning students (even those who’ve had lessons before).
2. What the population at large needs is a breakthrough in entry-level music education.
3. You provide a program that is a breakthrough, entry-level method.
4. What you provide will be suitable for the overwhelming majority.
5. This program is not designed to be, and will not be, all things, for all people, at all times.
With that as a background, let’s now look at some specifics. As you move more deeply into the Simply Music program, you’ll not only gain expertise in presenting the method, but also inherit an ability to identify more clearly where people are at. Over time, you’ll acquire more expertise in teaching our specialized programs, and you’ll be trained in the specifics of how to work with students who have had extensive prior experience (including those are comparatively advanced musicians). You’ll learn how to identify where students are ‘at’, and shape and customize a program accordingly.
Fact 6. You don’t yet have the ‘cards’ at your disposal to do all of that right now.
So what do you have to offer this person, and anyone else in this category? You need to achieve at least two things. One is to have people clearly understand what Simply Music is (which absolutely includes them knowing what it isn’t), the other is having people clearly understand what it is that you are able to contribute.
As an example of the above, one of the reasons why teachers such as Gordon Harvey, Sonia Castro, Kevin Meyer, Sarah Harmony and Marie Offenburg, to name a few, built a healthy student body soon after they began teaching and have maintained large student numbers ever since, was a result of their ability to communicate to people precisely where they were ‘at’. Their approach, in essence, was something along the lines of…
“…. I’m not an advanced musician, and I’m not dedicated to becoming an advanced musician. I haven’t had the extensive traditional background that the typical piano teacher has had. In fact, it’s really important for you to understand that in many respects, I’m a beginner myself. However, I love this program, I’m a product of this program, I learned to play because of this program, I ‘know’ this program, I completely believe in it and I really know how to teach it. So if you’re wanting your daughter to have a high-level, classical foundation, and you want her to start with all of the complex aspects of theory and reading and technique and the whole emotional experience that goes hand-in-hand with that, then I’m not the right teacher for her. But if what you’re wanting is for her to have a wonderful initial experience with music, immediately start playing lots of great-sounding songs, lay an excellent foundation for her to move on to more advanced levels, and have her feel great about herself every step along the way, then I don’t think there’s anyone better equipped to teach her than me. And we may find that at some stage, she may ‘out grow’ me as a teacher, and I’ll be the first person to say so if I believe that to be the case, but what I suggest is that you try it for a month or two, and then you and your daughter be the judge as to what we’ve achieved and whether you’d like to continue…..”
And they will.
Now the actual words above are my words, paraphrased to make a point. But what I know about Gordon, Kevin, Sonia, Marie and Sarah, is that they are relatively at peace with where they are at as musicians, at least enough to be honest to people and confident about what they can provide, and not embarrassed or at conflict with what they can’t. And they can powerfully articulate that. And therein lays a world of difference.
Having the ability to clearly articulate where you are ‘at’ is essential.
Also, when students with prior experience come to Simply Music, they need to understand that they are not necessarily learning how to play pieces, but are in fact, learning a way of learning. Much of what we do can be ‘mapped out’ on to far more advanced levels, but only if you as a teacher really get clear about the fact that you are teaching a way of learning, one symptom of which is that students build a repertoire. So, provided that you can identify the student’s strengths and weaknesses, have a clear map of where to take the student, and a pathway of how to get there, then you can in fact offer so much to pretty well every student that you are likely to encounter. Getting to this point however, just plainly and simply, takes time and patience on your part.
With all the above in mind, it may well be that the best thing to do is to recommend that a more ‘advanced’ student be placed with another Simply Music teacher. This is both a very real and viable option, and one that may well serve the best interests of the student and the teacher.
And when all is said and done, if you doubt your ability to assess and deliver for an ‘advanced’ student, and need more guidance, then what you do is reach out and call one of the senior teachers.