A Loss for Words
Teaching is the center of my life and I’m happy to say, I think I’m a good teacher. I have a lot of students in positions in symphony orchestras and other ensembles all over the world, many with high level teaching positions and a few soloists, frankly I’m proud of that. I’m sure part of that success comes from my belief that positive reinforcement helps build the self-confidence to guide students to believe in themselves. I love to tell the story of the image of a baby taking its first steps; the father holds the hands of the child and says, “Now walk to mama” and the baby takes a few steps before it falls down. At this point there is a traditional small family celebration with hugs and praise for the baby having successfully taken its first steps. I believe in world history there have been very few instances of the parents slapping the child and saying, “Stupid kid, just three steps and you fell down!”
On the other hand, the most difficult part of teaching is finding the right words to say, ‘you’re not playing at the level that’s expected,’ ‘the competition’s going to be tough,’ or ‘prepare that you might be disappointed’. Highly respected teaching colleagues have told me that it’s very important how we say those thoughts. I’m still working on it.
There’s a very delicate balance between those hard realisms and that of totally positive reinforcement. And, of course, the optimum words will differ enormously from one student to the next, but that’s the beauty and fascination of teaching. Plus, I’m reminded, yet again, that teaching is a growing process, we need to be flexible with the times. Even in languages there are linguistic changes through time; the English I heard in my youth has changed greatly in today’s world.
The changes we face now are vast, first and foremost is the fact that the level of playing is growing at an amazing speed, particularly in parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America. There is no reason to think this amazing evolution is going to slow down and the only way to help students prepare is to anticipate the new excellence that is rapidly and certainly approaching.
Another amazing change that is taking place is the improvement in the development of instruments. Instrument makers deserve enormous credit for the development and availability of new and finer equipment. However, sometimes it’s difficult to discriminate between finer instruments and instrumental fashion trends, not unlike cars or even the constant changes that take place in the trends of high fashion.
Perhaps the most amazing change in both teaching and being a student is the abundant availability of example. (When I was a boy there were no tuba recordings) Today there are huge numbers of recordings available in virtually all the media. Practically everyone has had to opportunity to hear true excellence.
Perhaps the most influential aspect of learning from example is the huge array of large tuba studios, many times international, that we see today in the music schools of the world; these collectives of students in one mini community, whether long term in a music school or in a weekend masterclass, enable our students to both listen to and discriminate.
Each teacher is different; each student is different. Finding the right words to encourage and to prepare the students for the tough realities of the musical world are imperative. Beware of isolationism; it’s the responsibility of a teacher to encourage exposure to as many ideas and examples as possible.
Roger Bobo, Oaxaca, Mexico, October 26, 2015