The Beginning: Freelance Teaching in Boston

To make things clear off the bat – this internship was originally going to take place at the EKS Music School in Quincy where I am faculty.   Because I have yet to teach any brass students at the school, I will be focusing on the teaching adventures with my own private students and the strange way that I acquired them:

Strange, because I never thought I would be the kind of person to “buy into” this kind of thing.  It seemed too convenient, too easy, yet after only two months of making a (minimal) online account, I acquired my first piano student.  Fast forward three months and many MIE 501 readings later, and I have acquired some very interesting and life-changing perspectives regarding music and music-in-education.  But that’s for later – for now, we must set the scene of the beginning of true freelance teaching in the Boston area.

I had freelanced my first year in Boston as a horn player and a collaborative pianist specializing in the Suzuki Method, but never had I had any students.  Late summer going into my second year of my master’s, my friend told me that he had acquired a piano student via this website.  Intrigued, I began an account and filled in all the appropriate information.  I had never really written down or contemplated my own unique, logical teaching philosophy before, and when I saw this requirement on the website, I simply wrote what I had always thought:

Through all these experiences, I can safely say that my theory of teaching and learning music is that it’s all about connections. To learn music is to learn a completely new way of looking at the world. It is an inward journey of strength and discovery as much as it is an outwards one, learning to successfully and compassionately communicate with fellow musicians and anyone else who might cross your path. I have collaborated with individuals in both the instrumental and vocal realms – trumpet, trombone, tuba, (French) horn, clarinet, flute, violin, viola, bass, sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, baritones, and have taught piano, horn, and beginning/intermediate wind instruments in both private and group settings. I love music, and even more, I love teaching music!

For areas that I taught, I put (using their categories) Accompaniment, Accordion, Audition Prep, Classical Piano, Ear Training, French Horn, Music Performance, Music Theory, and Piano.  Fair enough, I thought.  I had played accordion all through high school and undergrad, busking on the streets of my beloved college town, but never had I thought that I would teach the instrument (little did I know).

The account sat there for awhile, being added to with various pictures and videos, when all of sudden, I received a notification from TakeLessons saying that someone from Milton has signed up for piano lessons.  TakeLessons in a way is more reliable than the old-fashioned show-up-and-pay-as-you-go method.  People must pre-pay for lessons, specifically five to start out with, and then can only withdraw from lessons if they seriously dislike their teacher.  The teacher is paid either way, whether or not the student shows up, by direct deposit.  The only catch is (and I know you’ve been waiting) is that for the first fifteen lessons, trust must be established, and that trust comes in the form of 25% of your lesson going to the website that so conveniently hooked you up.  You set your own rate of pay, however, and after fifteen lessons, you can earn 90% of what you charge.  It’s just a switch of convenience – either have the student, that either you or a friend has recommended to you, hopefully pay you after the lesson has taken place (and not give you a check that bounces or not show up and you’re out that time unless you have a no-show plan), or have the money from the student who chose you amongst a list of individuals on a conveniently accessible website go straight into your bank account with a slight cut for the middle man.  Personally, I’m enjoying the latter option very much as it is very convenient and everything you could ever need to access regarding the financial state of these lessons is stored in an online account.

So, I had my new student.  Awesome!  How did that happen?  Why did she choose me?  I’ve honestly thought quite a bit about this, comparing myself to the other profiles of piano teachers in my zip code.  One thing I am sure sticks out, and this is not in any way facetious:  I’m a friendly looking, 20-something female who doesn’t have any particular instrument in the picture with her to alienate those who aren’t looking for that particular kind of lesson.  I would look up people who were listed as horn teachers, and when they had a trumpet in the photo with them, I would be taken aback and shake my head.  What are these people thinking?  You can’t claim to teach violin and have a harp in the picture.  Silly, silly.  So, common sense aside, what else set me apart?  For the piano side of things, I teach all piano, not just classical piano.  Most people (and I used to be one of them) seemed to be in the classical rut.  I wanted to teach only classical because that’s the best rep and you can collaborate and blah blah blah. . . Look, some people just want to play an awesome song they heard once, and to me, that’s so much more genuine than sticking to a canon because of archaic constraints of “classical music” and the days when ladies were “bred well” because of their literal “parlor tricks.”  Nah.  Done with that.  If that’s your thing, though, of course I’ll teach you the parlor tricks.  Hell, I’ll teach you ALL the tricks.  But if you just happen to really like that Yann Tiersen song or that one song by that techno band that for some reason decided to compose a beautiful piano piece, that desire is so beautifully genuine, and I will more than help you learn it.

It turns out that this student was one of the “Classical Piano” students, which is great, because that’s my forte (pun completely intended).  And, because she’s fourteen years old and her mother enrolled her in piano lessons, she is one of those modern incarnations of the well-bred individual.  In modern society, girls of the middle class are still taking music lessons not to be married off as acceptable stock, but ALL children are as a part of this new over-satiated-with-activities generation.  I am so incredibly grateful that I was able to be the multi-faceted artistic individual that I was throughout my childhood and young adulthood in a specialized sense.  I loved creative writing, I loved language, and I loved music.  Done.  Sports, nah.  Acting, not so much.  Visual arts, yeah maybe.  I took ballet.  I took vocal lessons.  I took violin lessons then switched over to viola because duh C-strings are awesome.  But these things were all eventually sloughed off of my extracurricular epidermis.  I wasn’t shoved into French club, Greek school, baseball practice, basketball practice, CCD class (aka “Catholic Church Detention” because we were clever) – my mother rode that line of respecting me and my right to choose as an individual while guiding me because I was not yet an adult, but when I decided on something, boy, did she crack down.  (We could open the whole can of worms on parenting and discipline, but the energy required into writing that would manifest in the form of an entire article – not now, but perhaps stay tuned!)

To elucidate, I am not one to belittle the act of taking music lessons, much less exploring the world around you; but exactly that, exploring the world around you, doesn’t always come in the structured form of a lesson.  Exploration and curiosity are things to be bred, for sure, but to satiate our kids so that they have no room to breathe, no room to feel like they can explore, no opportunities for them to discover how they learn, how they can explore, is more of a disservice than a leg-up on life.  Trying to reschedule with this particular student is a nightmare.  This time, inconveniently placed for the traveling music teacher at the peak of rush hour, is the only time she can receive lessons.  And to what end?  To show that she practices?  That there is that spark of intrinsic, volitional learning?  Why take music lessons at all if you’re not one to take time to develop a craft and through this craft realize these subtle truths?  of your nature?  of life internal and external?  of these connections that hang, suspended in this vast network of life, just out of reach until some sort of realization hoists you up, and at last you realize the awe-some depth of existence, and that everything connects to everything else, and at this same moment you paradoxically admit to knowing nothing?  (That escalated quickly. . .)  But in all seriousness, why continue skimming all these surfaces hoping to find hidden treasure just bobbing at the top?

One can probably tell by now that I am a teacher who lives in the fractal paradox (don’t worry, I don’t usually tell people that).  By that I mean the lesson is a constant ebbing and flowing of specialization, via technique, music theory, and broad application, playing through a piece to see where we are, discussing general musical ideas.  This in addition to personalized Socratic methodology, in which I guide the students to the answer based off what they know and their way of learning and discovering.  This has been a heavy-hitter for a first of three articles, so I shall divulge more information regarding my teaching methodology throughout the next couple of articles.

The MusicLaunch Mosaic – Entry #1

Well it’s the beginning of my Music Launch internship and I’m curious to see how things with develop over the next semester as I get to know the kids better and they become more comfortable with me. This week was a tough week as it was a new setting and a new dynamic for everyone.

Coming into the classroom we needed to get accustomed with the vibe of the room immediately. The kids introduced themselves to us and we to them.

It’s always hard to gain the trust of students in a brand new setting.  The kids wanted to check us out to know that we were teaching the right material, but they were also were shy and didn’t want to be singled out at any point. This made for an interesting classroom dynamic.

Yen and I struggled having 7 or 8 kids of different ages, varying from 4 years old right up to 8 or 9 years old. The age gap was too much and put restraints on the type of things we could teach and how effective we could be at communicating. In the end, we divided it up and Yen taught one thing while I assisted with the younger children, then we switched places.

Yen has a real gift of coming along side kids who don’t quite know what they are doing and nurturing them into learning a new the concept.

It was difficult to hold the concentration of the class due to their age differences, but also because some of the kids were related to one another (brothers and sisters) and they all knew each other previous to the class beginning, This meant that Yen and I had to define some strong boundaries and parameters for the kids to operate in. I tend to frame the boundaries in “releasing statements” like: “You can hold the bell sets this way” and “It would be great if we didn’t talk now.” The positive statements help create a happy vibe in the room, whilst giving the students the comfort of well defined expectations and objectives.

All in all that was a tough week and I think in future we should divide the kids up and get possibly two different groups going.  It will be interesting to watch how this thing develops.

Susan Bailis Music Outreach

My guided internship this semester is with Susan Bailis Assisted Living. I am working with the residents there for a year-long service project through the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. My project involves one weekly music appreciation class and one weekly “sing-along.” The project took most of last semester to really get off the ground, but I feel this semester we found a combination of activities that seems to work well for the residents in terms of their interests and needs. The outcomes for this project are focused less on the acquisition of specific musical skills and more on improving the overall well-being and quality of life for seniors. My later blog posts will focus on the progress of the classes and sing-alongs.

Introduction to My Experience at MusicLaunch!

Hi Everyone! My apologies for the very late introduction to my internship this semester.

For Spring 2012 I am doing my MIE guided internship with NEC’s MusicLaunch Program at the Wang YMCA in Chinatown. MusicLaunch is a program with 13 students between the ages of 4 and 15 who meet every Saturday morning to learn music for an hour and a half. With these students, we use both traditional and innovative teaching techniques to work on basic fundamental music skills (rhythms, pitch, solfege) as well as learning instruments. Coordinating the program is Devin from NEC. The other instructors include fellow intern Salinla and middle school music teacher Johnny.

We spend a lot of time splitting the students up in small groups determined by age and instrument. In my small group I have four students from ages 10 to 13. Two of them play clarinet, one plays alto saxophone, and one plays trombone. When I first started I noticed that the students already had a decent amount of experience reading music and understanding notation. However, the students had very little experience playing their band instruments. I immediately saw the challenge in meeting in instrument groups for such a short time once a week: the students would not get reinforcement as often as most people get when learning these instruments. With band instruments, it takes such a long time and a lot of practice to develop the muscles for the proper embouchure, to reinforce good position/posture habits, and to get comfortable using so much air.

The other main challenge I noticed coming in was negative behavior in the class. Fortunately two of my small group students showed me right away that they were very polite and cooperative, but unfortunately, the other two showed me the opposite. One of the uncooperative students is the disruptive, antagonistic type. He constantly complains, talks back, and is not shy about saying that he doesn’t enjoy being there. His younger sister barely speaks, doesn’t want to participate, and has been known to cry in previous semesters in order to get out of participating. Neither of these students had shown any evidence of ever having practiced the material between classes.

I noticed immediately that my personal goals for this semester would need to be modified. As you all may have seen in my proposal, my main interest was getting the students to be comfortable using their ears in addition to what was on the page. Because of their lack of experience on their instruments, and because of the importance of reinforcing practice and study on these instruments in order to make progress, I had to put that main goal on the back burner. I am hoping that, in time, I will be able to reintroduce ear training of sorts into my lesson plans.

Thank you all for reading and please stay tuned for more posts!