I have the privilege of teaching students at a wide range of ages and abilities. Every now and then, I’ll be discussing my work with a parent or a director, and the question will come up, “What’s your favorite level to teach?” Now, the question of whether I prefer group teaching or private teaching is easy to answer: I do like group teaching, but find much more enjoyment out of investing in a student one-on-one over the course of years. My favorite level of student? That’s a much more difficult question.
I love teaching beginners. I mean, first day opening the instrument case beginners. I love helping them make those first squawky sounds. I love hearing the difference only one week of practicing makes. Teaching beginners is tremendously important work: it is vital that they are properly shown the mechanics of playing the instrument and taught to read and count correctly. It is so much easier (on the teacher and the student) to learn the correct way the first time than to go back and undo what needs correction. When you start beginners off on the right foot, you’re setting them up for their entire playing career - whatever that may look like. The little hands that are assembling that clarinet for the first time could be playing in a major symphony orchestra someday, or playing duets with their own child someday. This is the opportunity to instill a love of playing that can continue whatever the student’s profession will be. Plus, when I start beginners, there is the opportunity for me to develop a musical working relationship (and a limited personal relationship) with the student over the course of several years. This summer, for example, I said goodbye to two high school graduates who I started as sixth graders. I get to be part of these children’s lives as they grow up.
I love teaching intermediate students. They are just discovering what they and their instruments are capable of doing. They are forming the idea that they can play, and they were beginners recently enough that they can look back and see the progress they’ve made. I love helping them expand their skills. They probably don’t know where they want to go with their instrument, and that’s ok - they are enjoying it for the meantime and gaining an awareness of what styles and avenues are available to them with their instruments. This is the opportunity to instill a love of music as a whole, and something I find extremely important at this stage is teaching the student to listen. We actually take time in lessons to listen and discuss. If you can teach a student to listen, you will cultivate a very real enjoyment of music that will hopefully stay with them through their adult life. This is of benefit to the student: it helps them be still long enough to interpret art and then make decisions about quality and about their own preferences. It helps them feel like they actually know something about this magical, semi-tangible thing that seems so heady and lofty… because they do! This is of benefit to the community of musicians: these students will either contribute by playing or contribute by attending concerts. The audience is essential to the performance, and a knowledgeable audience is even more helpful. I get to be part of these students’ discoveries of their own potential and the field of music.
I love teaching advanced students. I love listening to them play the music, not just the notes and rhythms. These students have enough technique and concept knowledge that they can assemble phrases, play with inflection, and completely change the meaning of a section of their music by altering their method of expression. It’s so cool. That’s not to say that we don’t ever have to stop and make corrections or learn a new technique, but they can present the art as a whole. These students are learning to make decisions all the time. And I do mean all the time! What fingering would be most efficient here? How should I shape the phrase there? Which vowel sound would give better intonation for these notes? So many intricate details that add up to a glittering work! This is the opportunity to let the student take over the reins. At this point, it’s almost more like mentoring than flat-out instructing. After all, I don’t have to harp on them about practicing, they tend to be very good at asking questions, and they are self-motivated to make art, not pestered to make a grade. Guiding them through making their own decisions in the context of history, common practice, and their own personal style gives them a sense of independence. They feel like they really can do it, and that can’t help but spill into other areas of their lives. I get to be part of these students becoming their own musician.
Argh! It’s so hard to choose! They’re so different, but each so laden with lessons important to both music and to character-building. And more to the matter, they’re all points on one continuum. They’re stops along the same long road. And I love them all.
As a side note, be careful not to place importance on one over the other. There are other examples, but I most often hear people do this by referring to school teachers as “just elementary music teachers,” or “just middle school teachers”. The head band director at the best high school in the area has an important job, but depends on the quality instruction of the feeder middle school directors. The middle school directors can work much more efficiently if they can build on the skills and concepts properly taught by their feeder elementary schools. To go back to what I said above, they’re all points on the same continuum. Don’t hold a teacher in higher esteem just because they teach older students - someone had to get that student to that level. And as a student who came up through those ranks, thanks to all of you teachers out there.