Friday, April 28, 2006

Teaching and Learning

I think I mentioned in a post not too long ago that I've been working pretty hard at recovering my lost trumpet-playing skills. It turns out that playing music is not exactly like riding a bicycle--it doesn't just come back to you automatically. It's taken me about six months to get myself to a point where I'm actually much better than I was 35 years ago when I played 1st cornet in my junior high school band, but I couldn't have gotten here without help.

I started off with the best of intentions. I wanted to help my son practice his trombone. Like many 6th graders, he is loathe to do it, or anything, really, not related to computer games. Really the main reason I took the trumpet up again was so that I could practice with him, because for some strange reason he seems to enjoy certain things more when I do them with him. Go figure. Most of my friends have a tendency to search frantically for excuses whenever I ask them to do something with me. So he asked his band director for a copy of the "trumpet" version of the book they're using in his band lessons at school, and his director was apparently pretty excited that I was practicing with him and gladly supplied the book. I paid for it, though, so don't go thinking that I'm sponging off the public school system.

Since I tend to have a little more staying power than some 12 year olds, I quickly mastered the whole book and needed something more. So I went to the Ohio University Music Library and got myself a copy of that old stand-by, The Arban-Clarke Method for Cornet and Trumpet. That title will be familiar to anyone who has studied either trumpet or cornet--I used it as a kid and it was an incredibly old book even then. Jean Baptiste Arban was a French cornetist who lived in the 19th century--the Method was first published in 1864. That's remarkable when you remember that the cornet was only invented at the close of the 18th century, shortly after the invention of trumpets with valves (the valveless, or "natural", trumpet has been around much longer). Herbert L. Clarke published a "modernized" version in 1930, and it is still used by many students and professionals.

I began working my way through the exercises, and my progress was noticeable (just ask any of the hapless squirrels who fell off of the roof of my house when [because?] I was practicing). One of my favorite parts of the book is not the musical exercises but the written text. Get a load of this:
The proper production of tone having been duly arrived at, the executant should now strive to attain a good style. I am not now alluding to that supreme quality which is the culminating point of art and which is possessed by so few artists, even among the most skilful and renowned, but to a less brilliant quality, the absence of which would check all progress, and annihilate all perfection. To be natural, to be correct, to execute music as it is written, to phrase according to the style and sentiment of the piece performed,--these are qualities which surely ought to be the object of the pupil's constant research. But he cannot hope to attain them until he has rigorously imposed upon himself the strict observance of the value of each note. The neglect of this desideratum is so common a defect, especially among military bandsmen, that I think it necessary to set forth the evils arising therefrom and to indicate at the same time, the means of avoiding them.
You've got to love the expressions like "executant" and "desideratum". People just don't--or can't--write like this anymore. I wish my own students could. Even a banal essay would be more fun to read if it were written in this kind of prose. Playing without care will "annihilate all perfection"! It sounds funny to say, but it's so true! It's true in university coursework, too, that's how I know it is also true of learning to play music.

Or check out what he has to say about the portamento (a kind of grace note):
The portamento is a little note which is, in fact, merely the repetition of a note which the performer desires to carry to another by slurring. This kind of embellishment must not be used too freely, as it would be a proof of bad taste. When judiciously employed, it is highly effective; but, for my own part, I decidedly prefer that the tone should be slurred without having recourse to the grace note.
I don't actually know whether this part of the text was written by Arban or is an addition from Clarke, but I love the freely-dispensed normative judgments. People don't worry enough these days about proving that they have bad taste.

After working with Arban for a while I decided it was time to get some real lessons, so I enrolled in the Athens Community Music School, a service branch of the Ohio University School of Music. I was assigned a graduate student trumpet player, and I have been enjoying working with him. He is a great teacher, and my playing is already much better after only a few sessions.

It is sometimes easy to forget, when you are a teacher, what it is like to be a student. So, too, students sometimes either forget or, possibly, never even think about, what it means to be a serious learner. I am having something of a renaissance with these trumpet lessons, and I'm thinking that there has got to be some way to communicate the excitement that I feel to my own students, because, if there were, learning would cease to be the chore that some students apparently find it to be.

Attitude, it seems to me, is very important here. When I step back and look at the learning process itself, I am sometimes very moved by the nature of the relationship that I see there. Let me take a rather banal example. I sometimes watch the Golf Channel, and those of you who also watch it will know that the daytime programming hours are filled with instructional programming. As an avid but lousy golfer, I know what it feels like to want to golf better. I went to a few workshops to improve my game and I remember very well the feelings I had as some old geezer patiently stood next to me while I tried swing after swing, failing each time to send the ball where he told me. With each swing he calmly explained what had gone wrong and what I could try to do to fix it. When one fix did not work, he suggested another, then another, then another. He never ran out of suggestions, in fact, even though I think I hit the target zone maybe one or two times out of thirty. He never showed any sign of frustration that I just wasn't "getting it". If he suspected that I was unteachable, he did not show that, either. I came away only slightly improved in my golf game, but with a vastly improved sense of the difficulty of teaching and learning. More importantly, however, I had a new sense of how that relationship--the relationship between teacher and student--ought to be. I saw myself in that particular situation as someone looking for some help, and the teacher as someone willing and able to give it. It was not some commodity that I was purchasing (although I did, in fact, pay a fee to attend the workshop, upon reflection that seemed immaterial to me), but rather a desire, on the one hand, for betterment, and a willingness, on the other hand, to do what was in one's power to provide that betterment.

So, too, in the case of my music. Here is this excellent trumpet player taking time out of his day to help me to achieve a goal that is very important to me. What's it to him if I play the trumpet better than I do now? I will probably never play as well as he does, because for me it's just a hobby, a diversion. For him it is his career. Soon he will be gone, playing in some orchestra or other, and in all likelihood he will never see me again, let alone hear me play. He will have no access to the fruits of his own labors, and yet he takes great care, utilizes great patience, to help me to reach my goal. Granted he gets paid for his services. I don't actually know how much he gets paid, since I wrote a check to the school in exchange for the ten 45 minute lessons, and I don't know how much they give to him and how much they keep for administrative costs. What I do know is this: his expertise is freely dispensed as though his primary concern is the dispensing of the expertise itself and not the remuneration that follows. Because of him, the world will have better trumpet playing in it, and that is what appears to motivate him. As St. Paul said, the laborer deserves his wages--the fact that teachers are paid to do what they do in no way diminishes the nobility of what they do. We have lots of little colloquialisms that express this idea: when someone thanks us for something we've done for them, we sometimes say things like "It was no trouble at all", "It was a pleasure", or "Glad to be of service." No need to thank me, these expressions say, I got as good as I gave.

How to replicate this result in my own work? I am a teacher, after all. At least some people think I am. Learning to play golf or a trumpet is one thing, but learning to think like a philosopher is arguably a lot less fun, and perhaps is not high on the list of priorities of most students. In one sense I am luckier in this respect that many other teachers, since my classes are not required of anyone, so the students who take them tend to self-select a little bit. It's true that Philosophy 101, an introductory course, and Philosophy 130, an introduction to ethics, are the sorts of courses that fulfill general distribution requirements, but most of the classes I teach are for folks who are deeply interested in philosophy and who take it because they want to (well, in some sense of the word "want", anyway). But it can be difficult, on some days, to make that connection, the one I have as a student of my trumpet teacher, the connection that ignites a spark of interest that turns quickly into a flame of passion.

The irony is that philosophy, at least so it seems to me, is the discpline that, above all others, is all about sparking the fascination with learning and intellectual growth. I feel as enthusiastic about teaching it as I do about learning to play the trumpet or golf, but I understand perfectly well that most students do not come away from my classes eagerly looking forward to the next lecture the way I leave my trumpet lesson eagerly looking forward to the next one, nor do they go home and plow into their texts the way I go home from my lesson and immediately start looking for some down time in which I can close the door and play that trumpet some more. I certainly was not like that when I was a kid, so why should I expect anything different from my students? Of course, now I have that sort of attitude towards what I do for a living. I'm particularly geeky in my spare time, reading books about Plato and Aristotle or, when I really want to get away from it all, books about theology or renaissance history and culture. Sometimes I read trashy stuff, as I've mentioned before, but more often than not my leisure time is filled with stuff that would make most people want to run away. When I'm not playing golf or the trumpet, that is. Certainly I don't expect kids in their 20s to live life the way an old academic turd like me does, so what does one do to begin to inculcate in them the excitement that they not only need to have to do well in school but more importantly have a right to? What I mean by that is, education is a very important thing, and in particular the education that is a liberal arts education is what completes us as human beings, makes us capable of participating in society in such a way that the common good really is fostered, and we all have a basic right to that simply by virtue of our dignity as human beings. We should all be excited by the project of fulfilling our ends as human beings--it is a degenerate culture that places a premium on the transitory and material enjoyments of the moment, but sadly that is more and more what our popular culture is becoming.

There is hope, however. When I was on that field trip with my son's 6th grade class last week I spent a lot of time with one of the teachers, Mr. David House. I won't sit here and tell you that he's an idealistic young man out to change the world one 6th grader at a time becuase, in addition to being trite and sacharine that would also be false. He has a very healthy understanding of what he is doing and what he is up against. He is also, however, one of the most exciting and inspiring people I have been around in a long time. He has an enthusiasm for--not his work per se, but for the content of his work, for teaching and learning as such. He is particularly interested in science, and so we talked about a lot of interesting issues surrounding science and science education. We even talked a little about the demarcation controversy and how to distinguish creationism from real science. His energy levels were much higher than my own, but then he's 18 years younger than I. Even so, his energy was infectious, and by the end of the trip I felt pumped up, ready to get back to work and spread some intellectual cheer of my own. Best of all, he helped me to see how much fun it can be to approach the task of teaching with energy and good will, and in particular how to interact with kids like my son, who sometimes can be hard to communicate with.

So I'll keep at it. I'll do my best to communicate my own enthusiasm to my students. It won't catch on with most of them, of course, but if it ignites a few, then there will be more interest in philosophy--in the life well-lived--in the world, and it will be there, at least in part, because of me, and for that I can be grateful.

Glad to be of service--it's a pleasure.

1 comment:

MrsDarwin said...

Wonderful essay -- it would be a pleasure to be one of your students.

Of course, I too am removed from my college days (though not as far as you are!) so now I desire to study for the love of acquiring and using knowledge, rather than to keep up my GPA or to survive a class. Not that I slacked off during college, but I wish I had the opportunity to re-take and to enjoy many of the classes I had.