Establishing an Environment of Trust Expectations in the Classroom

Mike Lawson • String Section • March 3, 2020

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The ability to take the needs of those around you and compromise accordingly (and adjust to them without fuss) makes everyone’s experience better and more pleasant.

This is especially important for private teachers as well as members of administrative groups charged with successfully managing a school music program.

Self-identifying as a teacher begins when you realize that you are an authority figure and how that impacts student and yourself inside the studio and out. I remember the precise moment when I realized that what I say is automatically taken as truth by the student. It was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Students expect competence and as such, we must be conscious of the effect our answers and comments can have. Additionally, if you don’t know the answer, be honest and do right by your student. I have never had a student respect me less because I admitted that I did not know or feel I could answer their question. If anything, students will respect you more when they can relate; they see you as a regular person who has to figure things out just like them.

“Trust Me: I’m The Teacher”

A significant dose of faith in the teacher is required of the beginning student. It is common that when starting a student out I will indicate a visual example in their method book and say, “ignore that picture, don’t do it like that”. I am requesting them to trust me (likely an unknown entity) to know better than those who are obviously experts in the matter. After all, so many people use their books.

Why would a student automatically assume their teacher knows best how to execute any of the million things required to master the instrument and do so with high levels of musicianship? You must subtly give them reason.

The inadvertent cues/clues you exhibit during the lesson as they get to know you are going to give them reason to trust or not trust. As such, we must recognize our body language, our tone of voice, our demeanor, and our familiarity with our role as an instructor and musician. Sometimes it is important to give a student a simple but convincing “why.” At times I lead with a concise summary of my approach to their lessons and lay down a framework of the relationship I expect and am comfortable with. I always make sure that before they leave their lesson I have explained that I am there to help them. Their lessons belong to them and I am there to provide what they need. If I am not giving them that or am requiring more of them than they intend to give to the learning of music in their lives, tell me. It will not hurt my feelings. When I am aware of these things, my job is easier.

Used in an age-appropriate context, such conversations can set the tone for all that is to come. It presents an open environment where they are the focus and betterment is the intent.

Sometimes form equals function, there are myriad factors which determine the form and its development. The individual decisions made in personal practice during the trial-and-error/problem-solving process is often when a musician figures out how to “make it work.” The student desires a skill or sound and then figures out how to get there. They are not considering any technical parameters expected by various “schools” for their instrument. They are considering the music they want to make.

When Doing It Wrong Works

In college, I struggled with this. I spent much of my life without a regular teacher and much of the high school years locked in practice rooms figuring it out wrong.

As I made my way into the professional world in college, I knew there were some serious flaws in my technique. The issue was that they were working. My teacher decided and explained that at such a level I was at, he wasn’t going to change functional playing. What was the benefit of dissecting, examining, and rebuilding an entire life’s worth of work unless there was something proving problematic? Because I didn’t want to be embarrassed in the professional world? Because I was afraid of colleagues noticing and thinking less of me?

Well, yes… While there are definitely things that are always in adjustment or need to be addressed to execute a bow stroke or better manage sound… It takes incredible time, work, and energy to change the established playing form. It had better be necessary!

There are many ways to get a thing done. If you give 10 people identical tasks, you could theoretically end up with 10 different ways the individuals accomplish the task.

There are certain methods of tasking in a known situation (or familiar context) that seem the obviously effective method or approach to some. This is almost always a result of experience (familiarity or comfort), self-awareness, and a history of available resource(s).

For the most part, people will follow the path of least resistance. Don’t doubt your experience and instinct around students. Be confident and natural and comfortable in this being your job. It can be helpful, depending on the student, to explain that there are some rules and “correct” has its place, but playing and music is a fluid thing. It is always in motion. Therefore, we have to consider the music and the making of it to be malleable.

Flexibility of thought allows one to adjust technique and method based on the situation unfolding and unknowns dictating circumstance. You have to be secure in your knowledge that you know how to teach, and you know how to play. If done well, your students will trust you and have faith that you are giving them instruction that is in their best interest and not concern themselves with the accuracy of how you go about it.

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