Balancing Acts

Emily Wright writes one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking cello-related blogs I know.  Never one to pull punches, she recently made a strong case for a regular lesson routine.  Regular lesson times are a must in most situations, I agree, especially with beginning and intermediate students.  As Emily says is her practice, I only rearrange lesson times rarely–if I’m sick, if I have to be out of town, and occasionally because there’s some unusual event at DePauw that has to take precedence.  Last week, for example, the preliminary round of DePauw’s concerto competition (which I was judging) ate up what would have been a student’s usual lesson time and we moved it to later in the day.  I’ll admit I did the rearranging later that I would have liked;  I didn’t look at the competition schedule until the day before and discovered it was going longer than I had anticipated.

Emily had some great and very distinguished teachers who kept a very regular schedule in addition to busy performing careers and her lessons were, if I understand her post, rarely canceled or even rearranged.

My experience was quite different.  Three of my teachers–Bernard Greenhouse, Stephen Kates, and Leonard Rose, had busy national and international performing careers and didn’t set regular lesson times at all.  Well, Steve Kates might have had a schedule, but things got rearranged a lot because of his travels.  With Greenhouse, there’d be a sign-up sheet posted when we knew when he was coming, and with Rose I think a grad assistant assigned times.

Both Rose and Greenhouse had teaching assistants who taught very regular lessons, so in essence the student had two cooperating teachers.  With Rose, it was Channing Robbins, a full-fledged Juilliard faculty memeber, who gave the bulk of the lessons, at least while I was studying with them.  If Mr. Robbins was a good match for you, it worked out well.  If not . . . well, I transferred to Peabody to study with Steve Kates.  (I will say that everything about cello technique that Mr. Robbins taught me, at least everything I remember, I use to this day.  There were other issues that made us not a good match for each other, which I’ll write about some other time.)

Greenhouse’s assistant, while I studied with him, was me.  I taught all his undergraduate students on a regular weekly basis.  They also had their full allotment of lessons with Mr. G, albeit irregularly scheduled, so I was helping them prepare for their lessons with him, providing continuity, and another perspective.

This regular-schedule issue comes up periodically in college and university music units.  If you want teachers who are active performers, and want them to have a national or even international profile, they have to go off and play concerts and sometimes tour, and that wreaks havoc with the teaching schedule.  At the same time, regular lessons are important, and finding the right balance is tricky.  The institution needs to think it through carefully.

Probably because the lack of a regular lesson schedule was the norm for me, my own philosophy about this tends to be much more flexible than Emily’s (even though my practice is quite conservative, if only because I don’t have a national or international performing career).  It used to amaze me that students or administrators would be upset by teachers rearranging lessons;  my assumption was that this should be expected.  Obviously there are other models. It’s certainly a question that comes up in hiring applied music faculty.  Do they perform enough?  Do they perform too much to be available consistently?  It’s the Goldilocks formula;  not too few, not too many, but the “just right” number of concerts.  It varies from place to place.

And the point of this post? When picking a teacher, you need to know what your (or your child’s) needs are, what kind of schedule the teacher keeps, and what the focus of teacher’s professional life is.  At earlier stages of development, we need a teacher who is a teacher first and foremost and is, as Emily puts it, “available consistently.”  Later on, when technique is in place and we can work more independently, study with an active touring artist can be tremendously stimulating and informative.  Some students need a regular lesson (or two) a week;  others don’t.



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3 responses to “Balancing Acts

  1. Emily

    Wonderful post! I think the nuts and bolts truth is based on being reasonable. I am not an elite teacher (she says with pride) so I really can be quite structured. We’ll see if I do as well when I’m at Hopkins. 🙂 Love you! Love your blog!

  2. Great followup! I love this post & Emily’s … both are valuable.

  3. adamcathcart

    Great post; helpful on multiple fronts!

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