In my native language, Greek, the word for teacher is didaskalos (from the verb didasko: to teach or rather apt to teach). The root of the word is deus which means “wisdom to teach and learn.” Strangely enough this is the word for God in Latin, a realization that has always made me nervous! Another word for teacher is pedagogue, which is yet another Greek word adopted in almost every language of Western civilization. This term for teacher has a very interesting history. Initially a paedagogus was a slave who escorted children to school and generally cared for them and supervised their activities. Later, the paedagogus acquired a new status in Greek society and the word came to mean the teacher, the leader in the education of the young (pedo: child, youth + agogos: leader). A pedagogue became the main individual responsible to guide, educate, and prepare the young, privileged male citizens of the Hellenic world for adulthood.
Growing up in a country that used these two terms (didaskalos and paedagogus) interchangeably, I soon started to wonder if they were actually synonyms in their modern use. If not, what were their differences and which of the two job descriptions would actually apply to me and my professional career in music?
The Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “teach” as “to give systematic information to a person or about something, to enable a person to do something by instruction and training.” In other words, to teach is to provide the tools and methods to accomplish a specific task. To educate, again quoting the Oxford Dictionary, is “to give intellectual, moral, and social instruction especially as a formal and prolonged process, to advise or give information.” It is the way in which we learn a discipline.
When I entered the academic world as a college student, I started thinking about academia and academics. I began to observe, analyze, and in some instances question the way my professors taught me and my fellow students. At this time, I became conscious of another academic term, professor. The actual word for professor in Greek is kathigitis. It literally means to guide through, to drive towards, and hopefully lead to knowledge. Feeling frustrated with some of my professors and their apparent indifference for my artistic development and professional accomplishment, I started rethinking these terms. I suddenly realized that words, their roots, and their particular meanings were not just there to enrich my vocabulary and sense of linguistic fluency. They were descriptions of a vocation, a list of skills and tools one needs to obtain, maintain, and cultivate.
Words are not just terms; they are responsibilities towards generations of younger people who rely on the teacher or professor to perform successfully on any given day. These terms are the calling not to profess only what we know; what we have read, studied, and memorized ourselves. They are proof that we will never know enough. They are a reminder of our duty to keep learning and keep searching for ways to assist our students and to allow ourselves to be taught by them how we need to teach them.
Such realizations offered me no easy solutions on how to be a successful teacher. They just created more questions. Some of them are fundamental. They speak to the core of my artistic existence and have become a constant companion in my career. I turn to those questions seeking new answers whenever I feel that I am loosing perspective or getting frustrated with the state of music education nowadays. They serve as points of reference whenever I start doubting myself about the reasons I teach, my goals, or my artistic objectives.
I know that I love to teach! I enjoy instructing students of all levels and ages from the very young beginner all the way up to the college student. With very young children a teacher is called to offer a guide through a maze of information and help them understand, appreciate, embrace and explore the arts. They are in the most important formative years of their life. It is when young students are most vulnerable but also most resilient, flexible and perceptive. They are eager and curious, inquisitive and able to discover and cultivate their own way to learn and internalize knowledge in general. It is the best time to lay the foundation for a meaningful, comprehensive music education.
Teenagers, whether just beginning or continuing their formal music education beyond middle school, are desperately looking for a way to channel their creativity and are passionately seeking a calling, something to distinguish them from the masses. College students on the other hand are often confused, frustrated, and doubtful about their future and the path which they need to follow. They are trying to balance the conflict between their own decisions and the expectation of their parents and society, but already have a passion. All they need is assistance to sustain their passion and let it bloom.
There are decisions to be made on the pedagogical methods I use, the creative tools I employ, and the objectives I set with each individual student or specific class. There are practical, curricular, and structural differences between teaching the fundamentals of playing a keyboard instrument to a group of music students as opposed to private studio instruction. In the class, the professor deals with mixed levels of ability and interest. One sets very specific goals via the syllabus and expects very well defined assignments and course requirements to be fulfilled by the end of the term that apply more or less all students taking the class. In private instruction, the student, beginner or not, enjoys the privilege of the teacher’s undivided attention. Goals and expectations are tailored to the needs of the specific student. There is more time for practice during the lesson and the opportunity for personalized instruction. The main goal in both cases is basic training, music appreciation, and hopefully a lifelong respect for music and the arts.
Things are very different with piano majors. These young people are already musicians in most cases. They have had training, have already studied a good deal of repertoire, have already had performance experiences, have acquired practicing and performing habits, and have ambitions to make it in the music profession. Most importantly, they have been accepted into the community or artists after going through the painstaking process of auditions and various placement tests. Their college entrance auditions are in many ways their first job auditions and these young musicians are our future colleagues!
The job of the professor in this case is to shape and sometimes reveal their students’ talents and artistic strengths. A music professor is there to guide them and educate them on the different musical styles and their performance practices, teach them patience, and help them develop methods for self learning and discipline.
Especially in the case of the instrumental professor, we need to be extremely cautious. We should never seek to see a reflection of ourselves in our students. We are there to mentor, offer solutions to a series of complicated and often unnecessarily magnified artistic problems. We are there to correct debilitating technical problems and offer aesthetic and stylistic advice. We are also there to recognize and support individuality, initiative, creative imagination, and to promote independent thinking. Our students trust us with their professional future and they expect us to teach them how to develop their own abilities and become accomplished, well educated musicians who can stand on their own.
I do not believe that I am an exception to the rule if I say that my approach to the above challenges vary with each individual case. They are as different as each and every piano student I teach. Each student has different talents, strengths, weaknesses, personalities, backgrounds, spiritual affinities, and unique emotional worlds.
One of the most fundamental questions that arises from language and experiences of teaching is what am I contributing to the future of music education? For me, the answer comes in the form of advocacy for educational outreach programs in schools and communities ranging from rural to metropolitan areas. With that in mind, I will conclude my thoughts on teaching with an epilogue taken from comments I made to the Glendale (California) Arts Commission in order to secure their help in funding such an educational outreach project in the Glendale Unified School District:
The Importance of Music Performance and Education
All artists feel that the importance of educational programs and consistent exposure to musical arts is self evident to everybody. The benefits are such an integral part of every day life to professional and amateur musicians that we sometimes forget that not everyone has the privilege to be exposed to a musical education. However, I realize that we professional musicians need to act as advocates for the merits of our work and actively assist in creating young, enthusiastic, and well educated audiences.
Some of you may wonder: “Why are the enhancement of already existing musical programs and the creation of new initiatives so important for our children’s development? Why is classical and any other learned, sophisticated kind of music important?”
Well, I could stand here for a week communicating my experiences and conclusions from years of studying, performing, and teaching in Europe and the United States. In brief, we all get a kick out of a happy rhythmic pop song and seek emotional relief from our stresses and daily burdens through a melodic ballad or an old crooner’s song. Music can be simple and entertaining; vehicles to express emotion, release tension, or just to have some good old fun. What is definite is that there are many dialects in music and they all have a place in our lives according to our preferences and aesthetic orientations.
Learned musical idioms (classical, jazz, new music, and artistically demanding dialects) offer a very important tool for the enhancement of our mental, spiritual, and aesthetic capabilities as well as our physical agility and coordination. It is scholarly and scientifically proven that formal music education and exposure to diverse musical environments teaches us to learn better and develop a great deal of discipline through methodical learning habits. Music has been shown to dramatically improve children’s performance in math and physics. After all, music is in a way math rendered in sound.
Chamber music in particular brings together a small group of musicians and teaches them the principles of a balanced, civilized, and creative collaboration. They learn to listen to each other, assist and accommodate each other, and adjust to unpredictable circumstances. Chamber music and collaborative playing sharpens the aesthetic perception of sound, musical composition, the sense of rhythm, and musical expression. Music sharpens the mind and cultivates the soul!
It could be that music is one of the most effective tools to a child’s future. It can become a valuable companion, a creative outlet, or even a lifelong passion and shelter in times of trouble and uncertainty.