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The virtuoso teacher

8 years ago

  Paul Harris considers what it means to be a virtuoso in the field of education and how to take your teaching to the next level. When George Bernard Shaw in his play Man and Superman coined the fateful expression, which we all remember as: ‘Those who can do; those who can’t teach’ he had no idea of the damage it would do. And it has never been forgotten. His discouraging phrase is now 109 years old and the time is ripe for putting it well and truly behind us. Here’s my updated version for the 21st century: those who can, do; those who can do better than those who just do, teach. In fact, George Bernard Shaw’s belief that teaching is a bit of a second-class act is well off the mark. Yes, it may become second class if we approach it with a second-class attitude, but if we desire to do the job really well then that status soon changes: it’s an enormously important profession which should always enjoy seriously high standing in society. Teaching is, indisputably, a wonderful, fulfilling, endlessly stimulating and hugely responsible occupation. And just as we musicians can aspire to be virtuoso players, we can also aspire to be ‘virtuoso teachers’. Virtuoso teachers are not virtuoso players who teach, though the virtuoso player may aspire to become a virtuoso teacher! Neither are they teachers who may teach the occasional virtuoso. Virtuoso teachers teach as virtuoso players play: with a heightened sense of what they are doing, with passion, with energy, with profound involvement and real commitment. The virtuoso teacher welcomes any pupils who want to learn (from beginners onwards) and will teach them in such a way that they really do learn and really do benefit from the teaching and (more importantly still) don’t give up prematurely. Anyone can become a virtuoso teacher. It doesn’t take long to make the transition, nor does it require long periods of study! We just have to be determined, dedicated, and prepared to spend quality time thinking and reflecting upon our efforts; building on what works and confident enough to discard what doesn’t. All young people should have the opportunity to receive the kind of teaching that ultimately gives them the confidence and abilities to access the marvellous world of music entirely independently and at any level. That is what the virtuoso teacher does.

The spirit of Paganini

Paganini was perhaps the most famous of all 19th century virtuosi. So what were the qualities that caused people to travel, often many miles (in the days when travel really was quite an undertaking) and be ready in their seats many hours before his performances? We can put this success down to three qualities: great communication skills, an exceptional technique and a mesmerising artistry and imagination. It is exactly these qualities that define the virtuoso teacher.

  • Our communication skills help us connect effectively with each and every one of our pupils and galvanise them to fulfil their own particular musical dreams.
  • Our technique is born from the knowledge and strategies we use to help our pupils develop their playing and singing - we can practise this just as the virtuoso player does. Technique goes way beyond our knowledge of repertoire or how to operate the instrument. It’s the very way we teach; the very way we are when we teach.
  • And finally... our artistry and imagination allows us to help our pupils develop their own musicality.

So much more

There is, however, one major difference between the virtuoso performer and the virtuoso teacher – and it is to do with the nature of the interaction between the two parties. Whilst there is undoubtedly an energy flow between virtuoso players and their audience, the two-way energy flow between virtuoso teachers and their pupils is enduring, special and potentially much more revolutionary. The virtuoso teacher does indeed have the power to change people’s destiny. Virtuoso teachers are truly transformational – they really care, enthuse, and create the aspiration in each of their pupils to explore his or her own unlimited, musical potential. And that’s very special. There are other factors that help define the virtuoso teacher. They include taking risks, perhaps experimenting with styles of music outside our comfort zone, dipping into teaching strategies we may feel less secure about – improvisation and composition, for example - and challenging received conventions. And, crucially, the virtuoso teacher will understand the importance of taking the stress out of teaching and learning. Teachers (and parents) are so often driven by outcomes: exams, performances, and that rocky road taking us ever closer to the ultimate perfection that many of us so desire. But the problem with outcomes is that they are all stress-making. Nothing wrong with outcomes – we need them! But the virtuoso teacher will make the journey towards them rich and enjoyable for its own sake. Let’s learn this scale because there is something deeply satisfying about developing the control to play it beautifully, to play it with shape and with technical ease, and to play it with musical understanding. Not just because we have to learn it for an exam at some point in the future. The virtuoso teacher is concerned with the ‘now’, which is where most young learners spend their time. The future is a far off place to them. The virtuoso teacher also has a broad range of teaching strategies: markedly more than those who simply teach by reacting to their pupils’ work and who so often end up becoming frustrated and bored. Those who adopt the much more proactive simultaneous learning method of teaching will understand this. Virtuoso teachers set up each activity so that it can be achieved and react to their pupils’ efforts very carefully. In fact the process of instruction – pupil-response – feedback is central to the whole practice of teaching. I have observed countless teachers at work, listening to and watching their reactions – noting especially their use of body language and verbal language. And those reactions are so important. The spirit of the words we use and the manner in which we use them can make the difference between creating a well-motivated or a poorly-motivated pupil. The attentive virtuoso teacher responds with positivity and energy and the lesson is never in danger of stalling, losing focus or becoming negative. Virtuoso teachers also think deeply about how people function – which means both an acute self-awareness as well as an awareness of each of our pupils. There is always a reason why people behave the way that they do. The virtuoso teacher has razor-sharp attentiveness to their pupils’ behaviour and so can, in turn, respond accordingly. Potential problems are thus much more likely to be averted or nipped in the bud. The virtuoso teacher is also sensitive to the requirements of each individual pupil – who they are and what they need. ‘This is what I teach, take it or leave it’ is not the battle cry of the virtuoso teacher. I hope I’ve given some insight into the qualities of the virtuoso teacher. We can all aspire to become virtuosos. You may already be one – or may be well on the way. Music matters. Teaching music matters. Our pupils matter. It’s worth taking the trouble.

Paul Harris has an international reputation as one of the UK's leading educationalists. As composer and writer he has over 600 publications to his name, and is in great demand as a workshop leader and adjudicator worldwide. Paul is an ABRSM examiner and presenter, and author, with Richard Crozier, of The Music Teacher’s Companion (ABRSM, 2000).

This article was originally featured in the January 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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