The other day I blogged about what it means to be a Beatles scholar, and of how my career is founded on two fundamental skills: (1) the ability to thoroughly analyze music, and (2) the ability to present that analysis in ways general audiences can understand. It's a topic I've already written and spoken about many times in a variety of contexts. But one aspect I have yet to blog about at all is how I developed those two skills.
There's not much to say about the first skill: I learned how to analyze music in school. In my eight years of collegiate music study (four undergrad, four grad), I took a wide variety of music theory and history courses, which taught me the analytic techniques I now use on a daily basis when studying Beatles music.
The second skill, however, is much more interesting because the learning curve was so slow. Learning how to teach proved immensely more difficult than learning how to analyze music because I had formal instruction on musical analysis, whereas I learned how to teach through practical experience rather than formal instruction. I had to figure it out as I went, and I made a ridiculous number of mistakes along the way.
This post, then, will illustrate in detail the convoluted and painstaking process of how I learned how to teach.
Ten years ago I had no interest whatsoever in being a music educator. I had many colleagues throughout my undergraduate study who were education majors, but I never even considered a degree in education. It didn't appeal me at all.
A few weeks into my first semester of grad study at Boston University in the fall of 2008, I was offered a job as an ear training Teaching Assistant (TA). If I accepted, I would be in charge of instructing a sophomore ear training class of about 12 students. I'd teach solfege, interval and chord recognition, sight singing, and melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic dictation - all skills I could do quite well thanks to my own undergraduate education, but there's a tremendous difference between doing and teaching. And I didn't have the slightest clue how to teach those same skills to somebody else.
Though I was flattered by the offer, I had little choice but to decline on the grounds that I had absolutely no qualifications - a complete lack of experience, and an utter lack of interest. Thanks, but no thanks. A few days later, I was approached again and told that there was literally nobody else available to take the job - I more or less had to accept the offer. I wasn't quite as flattered by that news, but I begrudgingly accepted.
Looking back, it was a profoundly irresponsible decision both on my part and on the school's part. Those students were paying obscene amounts of money to take these classes, and their teacher (i.e. me) was thoroughly incompetent. If I were a student in my own class that first year, I would have been furious and demanded my tuition back (though that would never have happened - universities are notoriously tightfisted).
You might think that I would have received training both before and during my BU teaching tenure since it was the first time in my life I ever taught anything. And while the TAs regularly held meetings to discuss our classes, the only conversation I remember was one about how teachers shouldn't use red pens when grading homework because it looks like blood. I vividly recall asking my students about that particular concern and them scoffing at the notion. So much for that. I was on my own.
More the result of my lack of abilities as a teacher than their lack of abilities as learners, most of my students severely struggled with the material. This led to one female student offering to give me a lap dance in exchange for a decent grade on one of her tests. I think she was joking - and I wanted to joke back by offering the same deal to fellow classmate Evan - but I was in a position of responsibility and so refrained. (For the record, I never personally found out if she was joking or not. But from what I heard, other TAs did...)
By the time of my graduation from BU in May 2010, after two years of on-the-job experience, I had gone from being a truly horrendous teacher to being a merely below average one. I told you it was a slow learning curve!
The following autumn I matriculated in a doctoral program at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. There I eagerly registered for an Ear Training Pedagogy course, thinking that I would finally receive some legit instruction on how to coach all of the skills I had tried to teach back at BU. Boy was I wrong. The class was a complete joke, taught by a professor (who shall remain anonymous to protect his privacy) who had tenure and thus had little reason to do his job well since his job was secure. We did learn about how ear training was taught in Hungary in the 1950s (which was where and when this particular prof learned those skills). And that would have been helpful if any of us in the class owned Marty McFly's DeLorean! Without it, however, the entire course was an epic waste of time because the prof didn't take his job seriously. I ripped him a new one on his evaluations at the end of the semester. Even with formal pedagogical training (at least on paper), I remained low on the teaching learning curve after three years of genuine effort.
In between my first and second years at UHa (summer 2011), I saw a job posting for a music teacher position at Grace Academy, an all-girls inner city middle school in downtown Hartford. Normally I would have ignored such a posting, but there's this thing about eating: I really, really like it. So, somewhat out of desperation, I responded to the ad, interviewed a few days later, and was hired to start the following term.
A few weeks before beginning at GA, I caught a bus from Hartford, CT up to Keene, NH to participate in The Walden School Teacher Training Institute, a week-long intensive designed to teach teachers how to teach. Unlike that Ear Training Pedagogy class, the Walden Institute was quite helpful, and I felt reasonably confident entering my new job as middle school music instructor.
But, much like my first year of collegiate-level teaching, my first year of middle school teaching was an epic disaster. And while I had significant teaching experience from my time at BU and had just completed the teacher training intensive, there was astonishingly little carryover to my present situation. In short, I had no idea what I was doing, and so had to start from scratch. Again.
After my first semester, I seriously considered quitting. I simply was not capable of doing the job, so I figured it would be in the best interest of all involved (the school, the students, and myself) if I just quit and they hired somebody who was actually competent. The only thing that kept me there was the GA Head of School, Matt Fitzsimons, whose infinite patience and ceaseless encouragement persuaded me to persevere.
Fortunes started to change in the early months of 2012, when I learned how to cater my teaching to my audience. It's all fine and dandy to plan lessons, but if your audience isn't engaged with and receptive of that material then it's all for nothing.
On paper, my job was music teacher. I was supposed to teach the fundamentals: simple concepts such as pitch and rhythm, rudimentary listening skills (is this instrument a trombone or a flute?), basic notation (eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes), and simple piano playing. I tried very, very hard to do that job. And I failed miserably.
Then, on Valentine's Day 2012, some students and I started chatting at the end of the class - not about music, but about life. I had purchased an engagement ring that morning, with plans to propose to my girlfriend Natalie that evening. Since I rode my bicycle everywhere (we could only afford one car and Natalie usually took it because she had a lot further to travel), I didn't have time to return home before going to work, so I brought the ring with me to school. With a few minutes at the end of class, and too excited to hold the news in, I proudly displayed the ring to my students. Out of nowhere, one girl asked, "Do you and Natalie ever fight?" And with that question, it suddenly hit me: While my job was ostensibly that of music teacher, my actual job was as a stable male adult.
I imagine very few of my GA students will pursue lives and careers in music. There was little to no direct professional advantage to those students taking my music class. But every single one of them will have to deal with men for the rest of their lives. Many of those girls came from single-mother households. And while I was definitely NOT a daddy replacement, I was probably one of the most stable adult men in many of those students' lives. Music, then, was not the end but the means - the vehicle by which I could be a stable adult man in those students' lives.
Once I finally figured that out, my job teaching at Grace Academy became much, much easier. With that understanding, I could stop fretting about the academic standards I was supposed to teach, and instead focus on the students' individual needs. When those needs corresponded to the standards, it was a "two birds with one stone" situation. But when they didn't line up, well, hasta la vista standards. And that's the single biggest difference between Aaron the Terrible Teacher and Aaron the Effective Educator.
I was lucky enough to be situated in a school where I COULD focus on students' needs instead of the academic standards. Most teachers - and especially those in public schools - do not have that liberty since teachers' effectiveness is often judged by their students' test scores and benchmarks rather than by their ability to mentor and cater to their students' needs and development.
A good teacher will teach students exactly what they need to know. But a great teacher will instruct students how to educate themselves. I knew I was (finally) doing a good job when some students came to class and played music they had learned outside of class. I provided them with the fundamentals - the foundation on to which they could teach themselves - and then they used that as the springboard for self-directed learning.
After gradating from the University of Hartford in May 2012, I had a lot more time on my hands since I no longer had classes and homework to worry about. Like many recent graduates, I plunged headlong into a job hunt. My employment at GA was part time, so I knew I had to find additional sources of income.
I applied to dozens of positions ranging from a cashier at Whole Foods in West Hartford to an audio engineer at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol. Of all the applications, I received a grand total of zero calls backs. I suspect that my substantial education actually hindered my job prospects. There is a myth that better education leads to better jobs. And like all the best lies, there is a degree of truth to that idea - an applicant with a high school diploma will of course find better job prospects than an applicant without; and an applicant with an undergrad degree will of course have better prospects than one without. But after the bachelor's, the study becomes so focused that it actually decreases prospects that fall outside of that specific focus. In my case, a master's in music composition will increase job prospects for composers, but will only inhibit job prospects for anything not directly related to music composition (i.e. very nearly 100% of the jobs out there). I remember at one point seriously considering withholding my graduate studies from my applications - not lying about it, but not being fully honest either - because I thought it would be the only way I could actually land a job.
Desperate, I started searching on Craigslist and found two requests for piano teachers: One from Capital Preparatory Magnet School (a pre-K through 12 school also in downtown Hartford), which was seeking an after school private lesson instructor; the other for Just Once Classes LLC, which was seeking a teacher for their adult-level Just Once Piano seminars all over the state of Connecticut. While I didn't (and still don't) consider myself a terribly gifted pianist, I was competent and comfortable with the instrument, so I beefed up my meager resume as much as I could and submitted both applications. Amazingly, both responded and eventually hired me.
I taught at CPrep several days a week (it varied depending on the number of students taking lessons at any given time), biking the mile from Grace Academy on days when I also taught there, or the two-and-a-half miles from my apartment in the West End of the city when I didn't.
Where GA taught me how to teach children in a classroom environment, CPrep taught me how to teach children in a more intimate one-on-one setting. And I quickly discovered that the two were quite different. In a classroom, the instructor must have a solid idea of what to cover before setting foot in the classroom. You must calculate lesson plans ahead of time, anticipating as best you can the trouble spots and estimating how much time each step will take. You don't have to be terribly precise in this preparation, but you do have a game plan in mind in order to be effective.
In private lessons, however, such lesson planning is futile because the direction of the lesson is entirely dependent on the individual student. You can plan all you want, but if s/he hasn't practiced, that could quickly throw out all your prep work. And even if/when they did practice, they often discovered new problems during the course of practicing which need to be addressed promptly in the lesson before moving on to the next step.
Since private instruction is so flexible, it's extremely difficult to predict how things will proceed. One-on-one instruction requires a more improvisatory teaching style compared to the more planned-out classroom agenda because you never know what that individual student will need at that particular time, whereas the group dynamic and progress of a classroom is more uniform and thus predictable.
GA and CPrep taught me two different styles of teaching, but both were children-oriented. The Just Once Piano seminars, on the other hand, taught me how to teach adults.
In terms of mental processing, I could use more technical vocabulary with adults than I could with children as long as I explained that vocabulary in terms they could understand and presented the material in logical and easy to follow step-by-step explanations. I could also progress faster (cover more material in less time) with adults than I could with children.
In terms of physical processing, adults have greater control of their bodies for the simple reason that they've been alive longer and have had more time to develop coordination. This can make the physical act of playing the piano easier for adults than for children.
But at the same time, adults tend to have formed more habits - again because they've lived longer and have had more time to develop such habits - which can inhibit the learning process in both mental and physical realms. Combating ingrained bad habits can take exponentially longer than it would have taken to learn the proper way in the first place. Children, precisely because they have less life experience, tend to be more flexible in their learning because their young brains are more malleable.
So instructing adults and children both have advantages and disadvantages - certain things are easier with a younger student than an older one, while other things are more difficult. Neither is necessarily better/worse, or easier/harder over all, it just requires a different mentality from the teacher when working with differing ages.
In addition to teaching me how to teach adults, the Just Once Piano seminars also taught me that adult education programs are ideal settings to test out new classes. There's no better way to learn something than by teaching it to somebody else.
In many ways, I'm actually a professional learner - I take any subject I'm interested in, learn everything I can about it I can, then teach the subject through a local adult ed program. And I do it for selfish reasons: not to impart any particularly profound knowledge (I don't have much of that anyway, except about the Beatles) but because teaching is the most efficient way for me to learn any given subject. The end result is mutually beneficial, with both teacher (me) and student learning efficiently. From 2012 through 2014, I put together such adult ed courses on the Beatles, the history of rock 'n' roll, the music of Star Wars, baseball history, naked eye astronomy, and origami.
Having amassed a substantial repertoire of classes on a wide range of subjects, and having taught them to both children and adults in a variety of contexts, I accumulated an enormous metaphorical toolbox of teaching techniques. Need a screwdriver? I have Phillips, flat head, and Robertson. Need wiring? I have copper, aluminum, gold, and fiber-optic. Need a wrench? I have 64 different sizes in both metric and standard. And with these versatile tools available whenever and wherever they're needed, there's nothing I can't build.
While my learning how to analyze music was both effective and efficient, my learning how to teach was effective but extraordinarily inefficient - it took six years of hard work (half of which were little better than abject failure) to learn the necessary skills and gain the necessary experience to the point where I could do the job well regardless of the setting or the students' ages. In short, the reason I'm now a good teacher is because I was such an awful teacher for so long before I figured out how to do it well.
My hard-earned teaching skills will be on full display tomorrow evening at the Ironwood Library:
Wednesday, 23 March 2016, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Ironwood Library, 4333 E Chandler Blvd, Phoenix, AZ
From the Shadow of JFK: The Rise of Beatlemania in America
Many Beatles authors and scholars have cited John F. Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963 as a cause of the Beatles' sudden popularity in the United States in early 1964. Their logic: Kennedy's assassination made America sad, then the Beatles made America happy again. But this commonly accepted answer is overly simplistic. America has suffered numerous tragedies and rebounded each time, but the popularity and staying power of the Beatles remains unmatched in American history. The real answer is that Kennedy's life and death inadvertently primed the nation for the Beatles' arrival and success. This 60-minute program will explain how and why.
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.