I love to teach. I especially love to teach trumpet lessons. I’ve taught students with tremendous musical talent, and others whose strengths are in different areas. I’ve taught self-motivated students, and students who only showed up because their parents made them. I’ve taught quick learners, and kids with learning disabilities. I’ve taught students who truly love the trumpet, and those who simply love band for the social opportunities it affords. I’ve been tremendously blessed by each of them, and believe that I have been able to teach and connect with each of them through music in ways that other types of education simply do not offer.
Every student has different strengths and weaknesses, different goals and interests. There is one musical concept, however, that seems to be a common struggle for nearly all students: It’s okay to make mistakes.
So often, my trumpet students are paralyzed by performance anxiety and a fear of failure. They play timidly, in the hopes that their mistakes will go unnoticed. They do not understand that, because air support and confidence are such vital parts of good trumpet playing, their timidity is actually CAUSING many of their mistakes. The concept is foreign to them that playing with confidence, a good tone, and musicality is far superior — even when it results in a few spectacularly obvious missed notes — to playing all of the “right” notes with a poor sound. After all, when playing properly we only sound bad on the wrong notes (and even then, most audiences won’t notice), but when playing timidly we sound bad all the time!
Perhaps this is simply an area of weakness for myself as a teacher, and my students are the only ones who demonstrate this problem. I suspect, however, that this challenge is more universal, and is indicative of a much larger problem in how we teach our children in all areas of their education.
When students come to their after-school trumpet lessons, they are coming from a learning environment that has taught them that what is most important is knowing the correct answers on their homework assignments and tests, nevermind whether or not they actually have a firm grasp of the material. Why should I be surprised then when they feel that what is most important in music is the ability to play all the right notes, whether or not they are actually learning how to become a good musician?
And I’m not just talking about political issues such as “No Child Left Behind”, though I know few teachers who approve of that particular hand-tying legislation which forces them to teach in this manner. Our entire culture is plagued by this performance-oriented attitude that promotes the “what” at the expense of the “how”.
The great irony is that skills-based teaching results in better performance. Whether it’s math, science, or anything else, the students who go on to achieve the most success are the ones who have studied diligently to learn the fundamentals and theory of the subject. In music, this is especially important. You might be able to pass a math test by memorizing answers to a few problems, but you can’t cram for a recital or concert!
I’m so thankful for the opportunity to work in an environment that is structured in a way that so uniquely seeks each student’s success. It is tempting in any music education environment to feel like the recitals at the end of each semester are an end in themselves, but at our School of Performing Arts the recital is just one step (albeit a very important one) in the instructional process. It is the chance for students to apply what they have learned, to overcome their anxieties, and to share their gifts with others. Often, and perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity for them to be rewarded — not because of their mistakes, but in spite of them — by the sincere applause of an appreciative audience. This helps students to overcome their paralyzing fear of failure and to learn the value of diligent self-application in the pursuit of “doing things the right way”. These are character-building traits that lead music students to become the disciplined risk-takers that will make them successful in whatever vocation, ministry, or course of study they pursue in the future.
I am indebted to my trumpet teachers, Alan Severs and Charlie Decker, who instilled these traits in me, and it is my driving passion to see each and every student that comes to our school go on to great things once they leave us.