I’ve recently started following a fellow violin teacher in Utah who goes by the catchy moniker “The Plucky Violin Teacher”.
Her name is Brecklyn Ferrin (You can check her out at www.pluckyviolinteacher.com/!!) and I have found her blog posts and teaching tips to be both helpful and inspirational. In addition to sharing weekly pointers she and her sister started a book club for violin teachers!
In my 37 years of life I have never been a so-called “book nerd” and I have never been a member of a book club (nor would I have considered such a thing and definitely not admitted to it). But a lot has changed in my life in the past year. A lot. And I am here to say that I am not only a proud member of a book club but I have found that sharing this experience with other like-minded people is very fulfilling.
The book-of-the-month for January 2016 is titled “The Savvy Music Teacher – Blueprint for Maximizing Income & Impact” by David Cutler. I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first. I didn't think that this particular choice of reading material would have anything to offer me personally. I mean, maximizing income seemed like a no-brainer (teach more students, make more money) and maximizing impact is something that I already strive to do on a daily basis. I had no idea what was in store for me. My life has been forever changed by this book and I’m just talking about the very first chapter!
The first topic that is addressed is the “very, very, very important work of savvy music teachers”. I rolled my eyes when I read this because while I think my work is very, very, very important, I'm pretty sure that I am not held in such high regard by anybody other than myself. I continued curiously to read that I, a savvy music teacher, am a “unique character in the lives of students, particularly children”. Well, they got that right. I am definitely unique and have been called a character on more than one occasion.
With one-on-one weekly lessons that (often) span years, I have a front-row seat for many of my students' important milestones: learning to read, pursuing hobbies and relationships, graduating from elementary to middle to high school, and the hunt for college or career. Aside from their parents, what other adult figure has this kind of continuous access and influence? Playing this role is a privilege and an honor, accompanied by significant responsibility. Wow. I do not take this lightly, and as I continued to read about how important I am in my students' lives, I began to look inside myself and became very aware of what this means to me.
As I thought about the opportunities and challenges that my role presents, I naturally started thinking of innovative ways to better my approach and amplify the impact I have on my students. How do I enhance their engagement, enjoyment, and achievement all while “simply” teaching them how to play the violin and love music? That seemed easy enough at first thought. Perhaps I just need to put more time into my lesson planning and make my teaching more fun. Or maybe I should be more assertive and serious when I express the importance of practicing their instrument at home. Is there a happy medium between the two? My mind went on an adventure as I pondered this goal and continued to read.
And then it happened. A question much bigger than the ones I had been exploring was presented to me. There it was. THE question. Why do you teach music?
My initial reaction was to quickly "spout off" what I thought were the correct answers. Everything from “it pays the bills” to “it’s what I studied in college” to “I love kids” crossed my mind without hesitation. But it was suggested in my reading that these surface-level answers are not at all what is being asked. The question of why is much, much bigger than that.
I was challenged to dig deeper into myself and define the driving force behind my instruction. To define this so-called “essential question” of why, I was told, is imperative to being successful. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
So my journey began. To answer my essential question, I had to explore quite a few preliminary questions of my own. What is the driving force behind my instruction? Twenty years from now, when current students reflect back on our time together, which benefits do I hope they cite above all others? How can I help students experience a well-rounded musical existence? How can I help them develop confidence in life? And not just as violinists but as people? The answers to these questions far outweigh any methodology, stylistic emphasis, or trick of the trade. Once I started to define my reasons for teaching music, the answers to every question I’ve ever had about the how were answered with my why.
I put down this amazing book for an entire week as I worked diligently to define my essential question, my reason for teaching music. What are my desires as a teacher of music? I was able to narrow it down to 5 questions that are (in no particular order) so important to me:
These are huge. My true essence lies in guiding these human beings in their journey to become amazing people. My role is not simply to show them the correct way to hold a violin, to learn how to count dotted rhythms, to read music, or to graduate to the next song in the book. My role is much more impactful and meaningful than that. Teaching a student to play the violin is just a small part of what I want to do and why I do it.
Of these 5 questions I couldn’t help but be drawn to the fourth one…the most difficult one, I believe. How can I help my students to find more meaning in life? It figures that I would end up defining my essential question with one that seems impossible to answer… but that is what I feel is my purpose even though I haven’t (or hadn’t) the slightest idea how to go about it. So I did what I have learned to do with everything in life that I don’t know how to go about and that is to let it go. I handed this question, this desire, over to the universe and its almighty power that is much greater than myself. What happened next is truly out of this world.
Over the course of this past week I have been shown and told by a number of my students that their time with me each week is necessary. Not just for learning how to play the violin and make music, but necessary for their well-being. I know this may sound crazy but trust me when I tell you I hardly believed my own ears as these feelings were shared with me by my students (and, in some cases, by their parents). Each student expressed to me in their own way the impact that I have had and continue to have on their lives. A-6-year-old girl showed me by giving me an unexpected (and out of her nature) hug, an 11-year-old girl from a broken family 'snuck' an “I love you” note on my chalkboard, and a parent brought in a homework assignment that her 8-year-old completed for his school project about somebody in his life who is a role model...he wrote about me, his violin teacher.
This kept happening over and over again, unprompted by myself of course, and clearly coming to me as some type of affirmation that I am fulfilling my desire simply by being aware of it. To be told by a 13-year-old girl that missing her lesson the previous week was “the worst thing ever” and that she was “so happy to see me” was just another piece of evidence for me to rest assured that my “unanswerable” essential question was being and continues to be answered simply because I found within myself the number one reason why I do what I do.
I am humbled and grateful to be on this journey of life and want nothing more than for my students to feel the same. My goal is not to create the most disciplined and studious violinists, although that would be a nice achievement...not every student I encounter has that desire. But for one reason or another we have been put on life’s path together, even if just for a brief moment in time, and what I do with that precious time is what is important to me. Together we can find more meaning in life, through music.