Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How teaching can focus your thoughts

I taught school music for a lot of years, finally stepping away from it in 2001. Believe me, teaching music in middle school is a lot harder than anything else I’ve done in my life — and I’ve had some difficult jobs.

Recently though, I’ve taken on a private student, something I didn’t think I wanted to do anymore. That experience has given me the subject of this week’s blog posting: having to teach something to someone else focuses and crystalizes your own thoughts to the point where you improve your skills right along with your student. Let me explain.

In order to make a student understand what you’re trying to impart, you have to distill your own experience and knowledge into easily understood, cogent thoughts, ideally from multiple approaches (in case the first one doesn’t work). That’s not as easy as it sounds and anyone who’s taught will agree with me — especially if that knowledge is particularly ephemeral, like you often find in music or in writing.

Yes, there are simple nuts and bolts things, like how to figure out a particular rhythm or how to punctuate a sentence correctly, but what do you actually say to someone when you want to impart the projection of the emotional component in music or writing, for instance? How do you help someone understand a concept that to many people is “airy-fairy”? Aye, there’s the rub.

My current student has gotten me back to thinking in that direction again. My dormant skills didn’t take long to resurface (actually it was frighteningly quick) and we’re well on the way to jointly rediscovering the French horn.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the lesson. I began to also think more about the mechanics of how I write, sort of like editing in reverse. Here’s a sentence I’m about to write. If I had to explain to someone what I’m going to do, could I make it understandable to them? The realization is that if I’m going to be my most successful as a writer, I should be able to do that. To do that, though, I have to explain it to myself so that I understand it. The alternative is just letting the moment take me, write down a passage, and often, month’s later, wonder just what the hell I was thinking when I wrote this rubbish. It’s happened too often for me to ignore any longer. I have to be more clear, more precise. more thoughtful in that moment of first creation. Going back and fixing stuff is getting a little wearing. It shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

But before I can do that successfully, I have to have complete understanding. Understanding that’s clear enough that I could explain it clearly and precisely to anyone. If I can't do that, I’m falling short.

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