I think it seems logical to say that 35 years of experience counts for something. And, it’s true that one of the big reasons that I’m a better bassoon teacher today than I was when I began teaching over three decades ago is that I am older, but hopefully wiser. Still, I think there are a number of specific ways that I’ve become more effective as a teacher.
I always valued patience, despite my innate tendency to be impatient. When I started, I was much more likely to express exasperation or to treat students with too much INTENSITY. I’ve learned that students grow gradually and individually. They need different things at different times. And, when they become the best bassoonists they can be, it is well worth the wait. To be encouraging and enthusiastic is a far better approach.
I now understand that there are numerous ways to meet the goals we set out to accomplish. I love the Weissenborn method and the Milde op. 24 studies because they are SO GOOD, but some students need the same technical work presented in a different way in order to actually commit to the non-negotiable hours in the practice room performing the repetitions needed to improve. Also, I’ve found that while we value the “canon” of great (or even popular) works for bassoon, e.g. the Mozart concerto, teaching the bassoon should be about cultivating musicianship. I know much more music now than when I started, and I feel comfortable adjusting repertoire requirements to lead students to the next plateau.
As a 25-year-old rookie bassoon prof., it seems to me that I was barely able to turn a phrase. If there is a bassoonist equivalent of a “valve jockey” . . . 🙂
I had a great major teacher (Sanford Berry) and he prodded and pestered me to play musically for more than six years. When I set out on my own, though, I wasn’t there yet. It took time, and considerable attention. I always played with heartfelt expression, but instinctive musicality must lead to a mature, even sophisticated understanding of the line, the phrase, and the nuance.
This musicianship extends beyond merely playing the bassoon. We have so much to learn from singers, string players, conductors, pianists, etc. A year hasn’t gone by that I haven’t felt energized by another performer, piece, ensemble, etc. Exposure to so much music has made me a teacher eager to inspire students to play musically, and beautifully.
One musicologist professor of mine suggested that we couldn’t possibly study hard enough in one semester to really get everything out of the subject we would ultimately absorb over the next ten years. I think that was very true. I did keep all my notes, textbooks, scores, and reading lists. Little by little, I acquired my own copies of the great books, scores, recordings, etc., and revisited the subject matter year after year. I found myself appreciating so much the lectures and discussions I had with my professors at the university, even more so after ten, twenty, thirty years.
The same is true with bassooning. After hundreds and hundreds of reeds, I’m so much better at knowing which reed(s) are worth the time, which ones need to be cast aside, which reed making steps must be followed in detail, and how to tell the difference. For this, I’ve relied on the wisdom of a great many bassoonists and reed makers, past and present. It’s hard to mess up a truly great piece of cane, and it’s almost impossible to get a mediocre piece of cane to spring to life. But, most of us need to know how to coax a bit more from an average piece of cane, at least until we stumble on that truly great piece of cane! I think it’s true that “we are only as good as our best reed,” and that “there is safety in numbers.”
Bassoonists are fortunate in that their performance life expectancy can go on almost indefinitely. This is in contrast to those who play instruments that are high stress and/or physically demanding. Sure we do experience the effects of aging, but the nature of the instrument allows us to remain effective as performers for a very long time. What a blessing! If you love playing the bassoon as much as I do, wouldn’t you want to keep doing it for as long as possible?!?
There is something reassuring about having a surgeon who has done that operation thousands of times, or a medical doctor who has seen hundreds of patients over a long career. While we certainly value that brilliant medical student, we do want to consult with the seasoned MD. There really is no replacement for the years of experience that lead closer to “I’ve seen everything.” Maybe I haven’t seen everything, but because I’ve seen/heard a lot, I’m better equipped to make an educated guess about what every unique student really needs.
Though I was always interested in and sensitive to what makes people tick, I was much more self-absorbed as a twenty-something than now, so many years later. The student matters to me now so much more—I really want to celebrate student success no matter what it means about me as a teacher.
I probably could have been even more narcissistic when I was young, because there is pressure on young faculty to produce at such a high level in order to gain tenure and advancement. But, my father—the experienced teacher—told me that I should focus on doing my best and the rest would take care of itself. He said, “if they want to keep you, they’ll figure out a way.” That really did help me get over myself and focus on doing my best. As I’ve told students, “you do your best and I’ll do my best.” This is a fairly healthy equation, don’t you think?
What would a new student of mine gain from all of this? More to the point, why study with me at this stage of my career? Well, I think you get the best me ever! I think I was a nice guy in the 1980s and 1990s, but I have so much more to offer now. In fact, my best students are those who are always pressing me for more. More music, more ideas, more reed making techniques, more bassoon lore, more time in the practice room, and more strategies for success. Come to think of it, I was that student in the 1970s!?! I don’t think I ever had a class or a lesson that didn’t help me along the way through an ongoing teaching career that I expect will continue on for some time to come.