Friday, July 01, 2016

Language in Teaching

Yesterday I returned to my home, Oaxaca, from the University of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania from an extraordinary week of lessons and masterclasses. I’m proud the event was called the Roger Bobo Festival of Brass but that will be for another article.

However, the week seemed to be especially successful and very satisfying; I had somewhat the same feeling a month ago while doing my annual lessons and masterclass at Pasadena City College near Los Angeles, California.

I’m fortunate to present such masterclasses all over the world and, although I don’t think I have experienced any failures, These classes mentioned above stood out in my memory, The common denominator, of course, was the classes were all presented in English with the students all being English as their first language.

Arnold Jacobs had warned me many years ago that the success of my classes would be contingent on the language skills of both my students and me. As usual, he was right.

That the trip I just returned from was called the Roger Bobo Festival of brass is not the reason for its success, it was that the principal language of both the students and me was English.

I have lived and taught in Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and Mexico. Although I have had good results in all those places, resulting in students making a good living in music, it was clear to me that the students only understood a small percentage of what I had tried to teach.

Several years ago while attending a tuba event at the University of Redlands, I was traveling with a few Japanese students who were participating in the week’s festivities. The Japanese students were stunned by the spontaneity of my masterclass; they had never seen that spontaneity in Japan. They advised me at the end of the class to return to a country where English was the mutual language of both teacher and students.

Of course, my Japanese friends were right and I gave their advice a lot of thought only to leave Japan and move to Mexico. The language problem remained in Mexico but the spontaneity changed enormously.

An obvious short-term solution to communication, with students who didn’t understand English, is the use of a translator. This usually works better than nothing, but there are a few problems that need to be addressed.

There are several types of translators:
First and best is my translator, Shuko Kuramoto, who has translated my monthly articles for the passed 12 years for the Japanese band magazine, Pipers. When there is anything I didn’t make clear, which is frequent, we met on-line and fixed it. That’s translation at its best.

Then there are the translators for lectures, masterclasses and private lessons; these come in several types.
Type 1: The musically and instrumentally sophisticated person who speaks the other language fluently and without hesitation. With type 1 you can present your classes knowing the translator is doing an accurate job.
Type 2: The good-hearted teacher or student who wants to help but doesn’t speak the language very well that he or she is trying to translate.
Type 3: The professional translator who knows very little about music or performance issues and has no knowledge of that vocabulary.
Type 4: The teacher who, after making an acceptable translation, adds his or her personal views even when they are contrary to what has been said by the lecturer.
And Type 5 (Rare): Usually a fellow teacher who, because of jealousy or institutional politics, modifies or totally changes what was said to coincide with his thoughts or political well-being.

Personally, I have been in situations where I understood the language well enough that it was necessary to stop and correct the translator, of course, that slows down the class.

The world is shrinking; globalization is here and here to stay even in the pedagogical world of masterclasses in the musical community. English seems to be emerging as the principal international language but not yet fully accepted. I dream of a future when I can just buy a language chip that I can insert in my brain and be perfectly fluent in any language of choice, in the mean-time I expect to be cooperating with translators.  

July 1, 2016, Oaxaca, Mexico