I've had the pleasure of teaching children for about ten years now, and because of that, I thought that I had established a fool proof way of reaching and instructing them. However, recently, I've had to change my strategies, a lot. What was once a completely structured format, is now a conglomerate of dancing, playing music games, literally throwing sticks and the students asking, "Can I be better than a professional," everyday. At first I was worried that I wouldn't be able to "do my job correctly," but, I realized that because of the changes I made, I actually was doing my job perfectly. This reminded me of a couple things I hadn't thought about in a while:
- Flexibility within structure
- "Playing" while playing music
- Being relevant in order to reach others
I am a huge fan of "Un-Structure," where I have a guide and I'm free to do anything within it, taking advantage of what's not stated, and pushing the limitations of what is. That being said, I'm a little surprised that I didn't begin my new year of teaching with that mindset. No one can really know how things will go, or how people will respond to what you say or have to say. One thing we can all count on about kids though, they love to have fun! My first instinct, when I spoke to them about practicing, was to tell them about getting good at drums. But I quickly switched it from getting good, doing cool stuff. Rolling is cool, playing fast is cool, doing dynamics is really cool, that sort of thing.
I wanted to monitor and manage that mindset of "good and bad" in the beginning, and if one of them said it wasn't good enough, I always countered with, "you just started though," or "yet." It's good that they can see and hear that what they did wasn't "correct," but rather than disappointment settling in, I likened the situation to a video game. We have to learn how to get through the level in order to beat it. It'll take a couple tries or one try for some, but it's just another level. Constant encouragement, something I was blessed to have as a child, and I want to give that to any student I have, even when things aren't "right." If that encouragement can come from school teachers, friends, family, strangers, or private teachers, the students can't help but be inspired, perhaps not for continuing in music, but definitely for something in their future.
I can barely remember when I played music just for the sake of making noise, or having fun. Nowadays, it always has a purpose of improvement, for good reason, but having a space where I can just "play around" is really important to me. So, with my students now, whether they be younger or older, I try to impress that mindset on them. My students now have time to just hit their pads or bell sets, properly, for 5 minutes. Of course they play loud and fast the whole time, but the fact is, they are actually "warming up," they just don't know it yet. Or when we play stick control and I ask them to play softer, until they all go to the edges of their pads, no one is thinking about technique. It's usually the "competitive encouragement" we hear. "Anything you can do I can do better," but never in a mean way. They always laugh and smile, and then it's so soft that they try weird things to make it softer. Some choke up on the sticks, others put their first finger on top of the stick to land on the pad slower. They just, try things, instinctively, just like a kid. If anything, that reminds me to do the same sort of experimentation in my practice. Just playing around to see what works and what doesn't.
The kids still think I'm lying about my age, and insist that I'm 18, but I always thought that my youthful look gave me an "in" to reaching younger students, and sometimes it does. I am still young and can recall a lot of the same experiences that they are having or have had. Other times it doesn't. But being young coupled with being a person of color, specifically for older students, also gives me a level of respect and attentiveness from a class. Now, I don't rely on that, but I do use that as a springboard in clinics at middle schools in my old neighborhood specifically. If the students know that you grew up in the same hood as them, and can be exposed the possibilities that are there for them, who knows where that can lead. And even if a teacher isn't a person of color, or grew up in the same place, sharing and, especially, being real and honest about a life experience is really worth something to them. That, I think, is what makes someone relevant to students these days, and so far it's worked, for me.
I've always loved to teach, but it's because I've had such great teachers that it was even a thought in my head to do it myself. I also loved to learn how to do things that others couldn't, or to do them better, because of how my mom and dad encouraged me to be great at what I did. Above all, I loved sharing with others. Not teaching, but just talking about discoveries or cool things I could do, because friends of mine in high school would tell me how cool it was, or ask if I had anything cool to play that day. One even encouraged me to write a book of them, which I eventually did. All of that makes me want to give children, especially, a running start when it comes to their dreams. "If I can do it, you definitely can do it, and do it better. In fact, I want you to do it better." They inevitably ask, "Better than you?" and I say, "If you practice, and don't give up." It's been a wonderful start of the school year, and I look forward to learning more from everyone I come in contact with. I hope you also find new things to inspire, encourage and teach you, as we all grow, and improve as musicians and as human beings.