The Joy of Practice: Part 5 - Not knowing something never stopped you from teaching it! (Or learning

I’ve discussed the importance of passion in a previous post and how practice is really the art of both teaching and learning. Now I would like to focus in on maintaining curiosity and humility in relation to your practice.

I have taken on assignments over the years - in terms of teaching, that would seem insane or maybe just absurd. One parent brought his 10 year old son to me - initially for drum and percussion lessons, then for piano, then guitar, then clarinet. The fact that I don’t play piano on the level of a dedicated pianist, never played guitar and have never had a clarinet within 3 feet of my mouth didn’t influence my decision to say yes to teaching the young student. I admit, in each instance that this has happened, I have tried to dissuade parents by telling them that I didn’t play that instrument and that their child would be better off studying with someone who did. Once someone insists that I am the teacher they want, I shift my attention to the task at hand. I am truly excited by the prospect of learning something new and foreign. At the same time, there is always a sense that the interconnectedness and transferability of my knowledge and experience (in learning many other things) will guide me.

I’m not recommending that the best teacher in any situation is the one who knows nothing about the subject (and I can’t say that I knew “nothing”), but I do think that it is vital that any teacher be curious and be a very active student during the teaching process. For one thing, as a student, it is inspiring to see your teacher striving right beside you (the learning never stops). There is also an empathy and perspective that is gained by the teacher when he or she is constantly generating new ways to uncover and transmit knowledge and skills. I have learned so many things from my students (even at the most elementary level). They often force me to become a beginner again, even with skills that I’ve used for decades. As a teacher, when students start to ask questions for which you don’t have a ready answer, the learning has begun. Thinking that you are teaching because you “know” the subject leads to boredom, complacency and an uninspired environment. What does all this have to do with practice?

If we have that same attitude during practice, we can close out many wonderful surprises and opportunities. We can’t expect engaged, motivated and passionate students in a class (or a lesson) with a teacher that doesn’t understand that he or she must be one of them! Our “teacher-selves” must remain interested. If you have one excited and curious teacher in your life, you will know the wonder of learning and that will be present in your practice session. My students have taught me so much that I have applied to my practice. Their doubts and fears and my ability to assuage them have strengthened my ability to reassure myself as I approach difficult musical challenges, especially those that have been particularly vulnerable areas. I have recognized that a shift in my strategy and attitude can get me the results that have eluded me in multiple previous attempts. Whenever you can nurture humility and curiosity, you are on the fast track to learning something new. Practice being a beginner, especially once you are an accomplished musician. You just never know what you may have missed the first time around!

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