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Three Great Fundamental Principles for Teaching

My week of Unit 1 Suzuki teacher training with Rick Mooney was very helpful and enlightening.  In addition to helping me develop a plan for teaching all of the pieces in Suzuki Book 1, I learned so much about general principles of effective teaching and realized that values of the Suzuki method frequently match my own.  Here are some important principles that I learned from the experience:

1. Focus on relaxed, balanced weight being poured into the string

In Rick Mooney’s lessons with students, almost everything was related to maximizing relaxed and balanced weight in the body.  When this state is attained, it allows for the production of a rich resonant tone as well as accuracy and consistency in the left hand, providing a strong foundation for executing technical challenges and musical ideas.  The word “pour” is especially effective because it illustrates the natural, fluid, and dynamic sensation that we want when playing cello.  I spend a great deal of my practice time searching for more relaxed and balanced weight in my own playing, and I hope to teach my students how important this concept is.

2. When giving constructive feedback to others, telling students what can be improved without making comment directed at them personally

This style of teaching is effective since it explains what can be improved while keeping students receptive to the teacher’s suggestions.  For example, rather than telling the student “you are squeezing your left thumb”, instead saying “there is squeezing in the left thumb.”   By promoting this more distanced perspective, students will be more focused on improving their technique or musical approach instead of judging themselves and being less attentive towards the goal of learning.  Music can be a very personal activity, and it can be disheartening to hear criticism towards something that we feel emotionally invested in, especially if we devoted a fair amount of time towards it.  For this reason, I will use this approach to minimize the chance that my students get discouraged and increases their receptiveness to constructive feedback.

3. Using simple, child-friendly explanations or metaphors to describe technical or musical aspects of playing.

When Rick Mooney addressed the action or sensation he wanted his students to do or feel, it was very impressive how he could explain important and surprisingly advanced concepts to students who had not been playing cello for very long.  His descriptions were intuitive and practical to the development of high level cello playing, and even if his students did not understand the concept in much depth, it gave them a clear goal to work towards.  These simple goals are relevant at any level of cello playing, as it is frequently beneficial to remind our body and mind how it can work naturally and effortlessly when not given too many overly complicated tasks.  Some examples of the explanations he used is about weight being poured (as mentioned earlier in the first section of this post) and imagining left fingers sinking into the fingerboard as if it were a pillow to reduce pressing and tension.  I hope to follow Mooney’s example by discussing concepts that are intuitive to students of varying age and experience.



Creating a Positive Environment When Giving Feedback

As serious musicians, we can often be very hard on ourselves and others in our quest to improve in our art.  We focus greatly on our flaws and what we need to improve upon and will often do the same when giving feedback to others, and as a result it is very easy for us to forget to have a positive mindset and to practice compassion for ourselves and others.  This is why it is very important to not be overly negative and critical when evaluating music-making.  Here are two concepts that will help create an environment most conducive to giving constructive feedback:

1) Objectivity

One of the most valuable reasons to welcome others’ thoughts on our music-making is that they can listen to our playing with a (usually) less biased perspective than we have and they can focus entirely on the sound produced, whereas we as the performers also have to concentrate on the actual mechanics of music playing.  This allows for an outside listener to have a higher potential for objectivity, which in this circumstance I define as being thorough in mentioning both what was effective or what was less so.  Here are some reasons why it might be more helpful to be objective than to focus primarily on the negative:

a) It’s important that musicians know what was effective so that they know they are on the right track in some areas, and it can let them know that they can practice a bit less in those areas and focus more on weaker ones.

b) Strengths and weaknesses can often be connected, with a mindset or approach causing one to be stronger in one area but weaker in another.  If the one receiving feedback hears about both one’s strengths and weaknesses, one can gain a more complete and in depth view of one’s music and subsequently reflect on what might cause these imbalances in skill sets.  If the commenter can connect a strength and a weakness, that can be very beneficial input.

c) How one hears one’s playing while performing is different than how an audience member hears it because of how sound is transmitted through a performance space.  A listener can get a sense of how the performer’s sound is projected outwardly more reliably than the performer can. It’s important that performers know the positives and negatives of how their tone and musical ideas are received by an audience member so they develop their ability to perform for others most effectively.

d) One is more likely to be motivated to improve if one hears some positive aspects of their music in addition to what can be improved.  One is more likely to feel discouraged and unappreciated if the feedback is overwhelmingly negative.

2) Empathy

One of the most important reasons to pursue music-making is its ability to help us connect with and appreciate others.  Connection aids us in making music with others and helps us enjoy music more, both of which stimulate joy and the desire to pursue music further.  Giving feedback also has the potential to increase connection, and empathy is one of the most powerful tools to do so.

Empathy involves understanding that music is a human endeavor rather than something mechanical and straightforward.  Even if we would like to hear what we need to improve, we would still want our emotions to be acknowledged.  However, if the main emphasis of the feedback is being critical and targeting flaws, the learning environment can turn harsh and cold.  In this situation, the one receiving the feedback might feel the need to become “thick-skinned” or try to ignore or suppress one’s emotions because others would be talking of one’s flaws almost exclusively without regarding one’s feelings or life situation.  In an overly negative and critical environment, vulnerability is discouraged, which is not only stressful and unenjoyable, but against the spirit of why music should be pursued.  Vulnerability is necessary for connection and is essential for artistic expression, since music is most meaningful when musicians have the freedom to take risks and be completely open with their emotions.  To avoid discouraging vulnerability, the commenter should make an attempt to recognize the emotions of the one receiving feedback, try to understand the process one experiences before and during one’s performance, and consider the difficulty of perfecting the aspects of music-making.



Empathy in Giving Feedback

In my post “Creating a Positive Environment while Giving Feedback”, I mention the importance of empathy in having an encouraging learning environment.  I would like to expand upon what empathy in giving advice looks like, especially because empathy is difficult to implement in practice.

Empathy is crucial for allowing musicians to be vulnerable and play most expressively.  The empathetic teacher or colleague gives suggestions while being aware of the extreme difficulty of music-making and how receptive a student or colleague might be to certain advice at a certain time.  Especially in focused music environments, an empathetic teacher or colleague recognizes that there will often be an imbalanced ratio of criticism to meaningful compliments and emotional support.  From my my experience in music school, it feels like I receive approximately 1 compliment for every 100 criticisms, with the compliments usually being too vague to feel inspiring.  In that environment, it’s easy to forget our motivations to pursue music when we’re constantly being told that we’re not enough.

Here are some ideas to give feedback empathetically:

1) Be specific about what is being done well

We generally have no problem identifying exactly what students or colleagues could do better, but it seems much harder to tell them what we like about their playing.  We’ll typically resort to saying some variation of “good job”, but that has less power to make students or colleagues feel appreciated than a specific compliment does.  Anyone pursuing music wants to feel his or her work is productive, and well timed encouraging feedback implies “I’ve noticed something that you’ve worked on and I appreciate it.”  This acknowledges that a student or colleague is human and not just something imperfect to fix.

2) Understand that certain issues are very difficult to improve upon

Pursuing music to a high level is an extremely challenging endeavor further amplified by our personal weaknesses.  There have been certain technical and musical issues that my teachers have tried to help me with a countless number of times, and yet progress seems nearly nonexistent.  If I do happen to improve in these areas, I often regress to old bad habits.  Also, the concepts that my teachers mention may have enough depth to them that I will be working on them my entire life.  These struggles are very normal, so we need to be patient and not think less of students or colleagues that are making very slow progress or have weaknesses in their playing.

3) Observe the emotional state or personality of a student or colleague

Personality and emotional state are important clues on what types of comments students and colleagues will take heed of most.  Some ideas to acknowledge are:

a) Some prefer directness over tact or vice versa

b) If a noticeable positive or negative emotion is detected, consider adjusting the delivery of a comment to either work with a positive emotion or lessen a negative one

c) Specific positive feedback will almost certainly increase receptiveness to comments about what can be improved

d) Be careful about offering unsolicited criticism soon after a performance or outside of a lesson, masterclass, or rehearsal, especially if given to a colleague.  Most will not expect to be criticized in these scenarios, and there is the risk of creating discouragement and a reduced willingness to be vulnerable.  If there are important suggestions to be made, ask students or colleagues if they are willing to hear your suggestions and if not, offer to tell them when they are more receptive.

The responsibility of the one receiving feedback

While it’s important for a teacher or colleague to create a supportive environment during a lesson or rehearsal, students or colleagues receiving feedback must accept that their skills are imperfect and receive suggestions gracefully.  Both the giver and receiver of feedback will be flawed, but when we remember the humanity of pursuing music, we can recover from times of weakness and inspire the courage to feel freely and perform most expressively.

An important reminder to have empathy: It’s not necessary to be a top level musician to have one’s music affect others’ lives positively

Anyone pursuing music seriously would like to feel one’s music is valuable, but could easily question the purpose of a path full of struggle, sacrifice, and criticism, only to feel one’s music makes seemingly no impact on others.  After all, why does it matter that I’m working on the J.S. Bach cello suites when (insert top level musicians) have already performed them so excellently?

There are two angles to finding the positive impact of our music on the world.  The first is to look for aspects to appreciate everyone’s music, even if it’s not the pinnacle of musical achievement.  The second, and I’d argue more meaningful angle is see the value of pursuing music not directly related to our created product.  Being a musician allows for the development of personal connections, and allowing others to experience the pleasure of ensemble playing and teaching.  It’s nice we move others with our music, but having motivations to be a musician outside of performance allows us to feel motivated and joyful even if we’re criticized harshly or not satisfied with our playing.  We should strive to remind ourselves and others the vital phrase: “your music matters.”

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