One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow,
and called out,
''Help me up! Help me up!''
A monk came and lay down beside him.
Chao-chou got up and went away.
- Zen koan
The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is a reaction, both are transformed.
- Carl Jung
Teaching revolves around two dependent poles: generosity and selfishness.
One of my conducting teachers loved to say, Show yourselves to be generous souls! Generosity is the key to great artistry! And how right he was.
The first and obvious reason to teach is to give back what you’ve been given. You've been blessed with teachers and mentors who gave beyond the call of duty to your development, both personal and pianistic. In these increasingly bleak days of classical music culture, those who have received training are needed to maintain a living tradition. It’s not inevitable that the living music tradition could become extinct and need a Renaissance several centuries from now.
Every student is unique and needs a personal approach. Teaching piano is rarely about teaching concert pianists or even professional musicians. The path of the musician from a practical standpoint is often so difficult and demanding that many choose to follow other professions. But many who leave serious musical ambitions for a time come back to music later in their lives for pleasure. And many who have connected with music as children encourage their own children to study music.
My goal in teaching is twofold: 1) instill a life-long love and enjoyment of music – all music. And 2) teach the student how to become a more mature human being through the study of music.
I’m always fascinated by the relationship between real life and the study of piano. If you learn to overcome a problem at the piano, you will likely have overcome the same problem in your life, and vice-versa. They’re ultimately inseparable.
If I’m privileged enough to come across a student who might ultimately make music his career, the obligation is generally greater. You need to create frequent opportunities for him to perform and test his abilities. Goals need to be nearby, tangible and attainable. But most of all, the joy and passion for the study of music must remain. Otherwise all is lost. Many teachers in their ambitions forget what really counts.
I sometimes wonder which of my students will be left with the most lasting impact and which will have impacted me the most. I was the most talented and ultimately successful piano student of my first and most influential teacher, Patricia Reeve, at least from a professional musical standpoint. She nurtured me from the time I first began lessons at the age of seven until I gave my first solo recital and debuted as soloist with orchestra at the age of twelve. Then she had the grace to pass me on to a concert pianist who would be able to continue guiding me through me teenage years. I doubt though that she feels she affected my life as profoundly as many of her other students, many of whom never became professional musicians or even possessed enormous musical talent. She used music to teach people how to grow and express themselves, to better themselves. Shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal?
Seeing my talent immediately, she made me see the beauty of pursuing a career as a concert pianist. She opened up a path to me and encouraged me tirelessly along the way. With each student the path was different, and she encouraged each along his.
How do you know which student is talented? Although you can usually see some kind of spark, you can never really know until you start seeing fruit, and even then, you don’t know how long the joy and drive will continue. Life is too complicated to predict a young person’s future.
But you have to always hope. Hope not that the student will develop into a great artist, but hope that they have more potential than you imagine they might. Hope that they will grow and become greater than you expect them to. Give students the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes being generous with your encouragement may produce results that surprise you!
On the other hand, how easy it is to kill talent! Treat a kid with real talent as if he’s untalented, and soon enough he’ll prove you right.
Teaching is an enormous responsibility and a great joy.
They say, give and you shall receive. In order to possess knowledge, you have to confess it. You have to translate it into actions and words, and share it with people. Few lessons go by where I don’t consciously realize that I’ve just learned something myself. Teaching is a necessary part of growing as an artist. The two greatest and complementary ways of claiming knowledge are performing and teaching. One without the other suffers.