In thinking about online teaching I decided to do a bit of thinking about teaching in general. I want to start with the one-on-one format of learning musical performance, whether vocal or instrumental. I’ll take a look at lectures later on.
But why consider music lessons at all, since they are so very different from the kinds of subjects most people would be teaching online? That’s a reason right there, because it is different. That difference may force us to think a bit differently about teaching. That’s one reason. Second, by its nature it has to be student-centered. Third, the martial arts have come up as a topic in the Connected Courses forum. Though I have no direct experience with the martial arts, they are, like music, about educating one’s body. Which brings me to my fourth reason. Though I have little experience in teaching music, I’ve had a good bit of experience learning music and, in consequence, have become a fairly skilled musician. I know that this stuff works.
When the music's over we'll take a quick look at Plato's notions of learning as recollection and teaching as midwifery.
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Let’s start with a nine-minute video of vocal coaching:
I don’t really know the situation here. It feels a bit cultish to me – it’s under the auspices of something called Access Consciousness (yeah, I know, I could find out easily enough as Access Consciousness does have a website, but the video itself is adequate for my purposes) – and no doubt this particular segment was chosen for upload because it shows effective coaching.
We see a young girl, Aubrey, being coached by a middle-aged man, Gary Douglas. Even before he has her sing he repeats what sounds like a ‘mantra’ of formulaic encouragement he no doubt has used hundreds of times before with others. Then she sings – “I will survive” – and the coaching continues.
He asks her to think about what the song is about – sex and relationships. then he makes a suggestion that has to do with energy – BTW, watch his gestures throughout the session. What’s THAT, this energy? There is noticeable improvement when she sings again. Now he begins more focused work on her breath.
At one point he tells her to sing from her toes. What does that mean? Think about it for yourself. If you are going to sing from your toes, just what will you do that you didn’t already do? Whatever it is that she did – and we haven’t got a clue about it as no one asks her what that means – it worked. When she sang from her toes, her singing got better.
There’s just a little more work and then it’s over for the day. Douglas senses that that’s all Aubrey can do – and says so. They reconvene the next day. Notice that she’s now wearing a nice dress – in one way or another, someone, perhaps Aubrey herself, has staged this. But that’s OK. She sings and is noticeably improved from how she began the previous day. Once she gets started the (small) audience begins clapping along in rhythm and keeps it up to the end. They’re actively participating in her performance.
Whatever is going on here, it worked. Since it worked so quickly, it didn’t involve the hours of practice and training that music requires over the long haul. Aubrey already had THIS in her when she showed up the previous day. All Douglas did was observe her and make suggestions that brought IT out.
Whoever this Gary Douglas is, he must have had a lot of experience in coaching. He knows that suggestions like “sing from your toes” will work. He may well have some rationalized theory about what that means and why it works, but he says nothing about it here. He just makes that suggestion, and others, and they work.
Equally, she accepts the suggestion without question. She is here because she believes, for whatever reason, that Gary Davis knows his stuff and that she will benefit from his tutelage. Her faith, if you will, is rewarded in ways that she recognizes immediately and that others recognize.
Singing is something we do with our bodies. Moreover, it is something that we do with our whole bodies, not just the mouth and vocal cords. The vocal cords are set in motion by the breath, and breathing involves most immediately the chest, but the chest rests atop the abdominal area, which is in turn supported by the pelvic girdle, which is atop the legs, at the very bottom of which we have our toes. In asking her to sing from her toes he is asking her to reconfigure how she uses pretty much her whole body. If this all seems rather “Zen”, well it is. That’s the body for you.
Here’s another coaching video:
The basic situation is the same. We have a teacher, in this case Thomas Leyendecker, principal trombone with the Berlin Philharmonic, and a student, one Carson King-Fournier. They’re working on a passage from Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” from one of the Ring operas. King-Fournier is an accomplished trombonist who has done years of focused work on his music. He’s here to get pointers about style and interpretation. For all we know he’s beginning to take auditions for professional orchestral gigs.
King-Fournier plays and then Leyendecker begins coaching him. He begins by explaining what’s going on in the opera’s plot at that point. Why? What’s the pedagogical purpose? Then he says: “What you played was much too nice. It’s absolutely not funny and it’s not beautiful.” And he goes on. There’s a hint of anger in his voice and, of course, authority. King-Fournier is under orders, orders he may not understand very well either. He does his best to play as Leyendecker directs him to.
The whole session is worth close attention. Leyendecker repeatedly talks about what’s going on in the opera. At one point he talks about riding marches, that is, marches to accompany riding a horse. He wants King-Fournier to think in terms of riding a horse – which the Valkyries are doing, of course – and to feel THAT in his body, to get THAT into his playing.
My gloss on this whole session is that King-Fournier is drawing his energy from somewhere above his shoulders and Leyedecker wants him to tap into (higher) energies that are lower down on the spine, somewhere behind the solar plexus and lower ribcage. If you are familiar with the Hindu/yogic doctrine of the chakras – bare familiarity is sufficient, that’s all I’ve got – that’s what we’re dealing with. Alternatively/additionally, think of Paul MacLean’s theory of the triune brain. King-Fournier is playing from his neomammalian brain and Leyendecker is trying to induce him to activate his reptilian brain, the old primal lizard.
To my ear King-Fournier doesn’t quite get it. Maybe there are changes in his playing by the end of the session, but they’re not really sufficient to the purpose. His playing is still too pretty. Not enough blood and guts.
Two things: 1) Leyendecker, like Douglas, is working indirectly, by suggestion and evocation. He can’t reach into the student’s body and work the muscles himself, so he does what he can to put the student (King-Fournier) in a mood where he’ll naturally do the right thing. 2) Whatever it is, it’s already within the student. The teacher is just trying to bring it out.
Not all music pedagogy is like this. A lot of it involves having the student work on this or that technical exercise and slogging it out week after week and year after year. These exercises have been worked out by generations of players and teachers and have gotten codified by this or that teacher, who writes them down and publishes them in books. Piles upon piles of these books are available for each instrument, and for the voice as well – more for some than others.
One the on hand, we’re training the muscles. But we’re also training the spirit, if you well. In the first video the teacher made suggestions for both body and spirit. In the second video, the suggestions were all about the spirit (albeit via the body).
But what does this have to do with online pedagogy in non-musical matters?
Let’s just shelve the online part of the question. But it seems to me that what’s going on in those two videos is not so different from what Plato had his teacher, Socrates, doing. And what ever Plato was doing, it wasn’t about music, which he distrusted, as he seemed to distrust all that arts.
One of the doctrines Plato offered here and there was that learning was but recollection. Consider this passage from the Meno, roughly 81 c (Gutherie translation, p. 364 in my beloved Bollingen Collected Dialogues):
Thus the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is. So we need not be surprised if it can recall the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed. All nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, so that when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledge—learned it, in ordinary language—there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection.
If, then, we already know everything, then the teacher’s job is not unlike that of the two music coaches we’ve seen (but, of course, not all a musician needs to know can be coached out of him or her in that way). And so Socrates sometimes talked of himself as a midwife. Thus, from the Theaetetus:
All that is true of their art of midwifery is true also of mine, but mine differs from theirs in being practised upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. But the greatest thing about my art is this, [150c] that it can test in every way whether the mind of the young man is bringing forth a mere image, an imposture, or a real and genuine offspring. For I have this in common with the midwives: I am sterile in point of wisdom, and the reproach which has often been brought against me, that I question others but make no reply myself about anything, because I have no wisdom in me, is a true reproach; and the reason of it is this: the god compels me to act as midwife, but has never allowed me to bring forth. I am, then, not at all a wise person myself, [150d] nor have I any wise invention, the offspring born of my own soul; but those who associate with me, although at first some of them seem very ignorant, yet, as our acquaintance advances, all of them to whom the god is gracious make wonderful progress, not only in their own opinion, but in that of others as well. And it is clear that they do this, not because they have ever learned anything from me, but because they have found in themselves many fair things and have brought them forth.
Socrates, being ignorant (a ploy, of course), asks questions of others. In answering those questions for themselves they give birth to their own knowledge, and Socrates was merely the midwife.
In bringing up Plato in this context it is not my intention to defend his theory of knowledge or, for that matter, even of teaching. I bring it up only to point up the parallel it makes with what happens in musical coaching.
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For a more extended look at music teaching at a very high level, look at this video, suggested to me by Laura Ritchie:
A celebration of the cello in documentary form, featuring renowned Bienen School of Music cello instructor Hans Jørgen Jensen and many of his students in concert, private lessons, and studio classes. Hans Jensen has an international reputation for inspiring students with his brilliant, unique, humorous, and energetic teaching style. Many of his students have gone on to play in premiere orchestras throughout the world, win major competitions, and teach in prestigious institutions.
It’s quite wonderful.