As part of an education course during my undergraduate studies, I was asked to write a statement of teaching philosophy. What initially seemed like a routine writing assignment soon consumed all of my attention. Who knew it would mean so much to me? I found myself pouring into it. “Best paper out of three classes!” wrote my professor. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that statement, but it felt good to know that I might be on to something.
My teaching philosophy has evolved, of course, and always will. Writing and revising it remains, for me, an outpouring from the soul, and an experience I love to share with others. I now feature the assignment in my own course syllabi and relish the inspiration I see it bring to my students.
I hope to inspire you too…
A fundamental part of my teaching philosophy revolves around diversity, equity, inclusion, and my belief that music studies should be accessible to students of any age and level. I strive to cultivate a learning environment that is nonjudgmental, supportive, and collaborative, so as to facilitate awareness of oneself and others, create community among students, inspire freedom of expression, and motivate people toward achieving their collective and individual goals. I also emphasize the importance of relieving excess tension, both physically and mentally, by countering the psychological and social factors that may inhibit a student’s study, health, and well-being.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
A focus in diversity, equity, and inclusion requires respect for different perspectives, respect for oneself, and respect for others. Furthermore, it calls for addressing each student’s individual needs to ensure that all students receive the unique types of support that will enable them to succeed. For this reason, I feel that students should be granted a certain level of autonomy in making their own decisions related to the content and methods of their studies. As a teacher, I inquire deeply into each student’s interests and invite students to incorporate materials that are personally relevant to their cultures, backgrounds, and aspirations. I then see it as my responsibility to give students the guidance they need so that they can discover the learning strategies that are most efficient and meaningful for them, and to assist them in selecting content that is appropriate for their current skill level and future ambitions. I have found this method of teacher- and student-directed learning quite effective in the studio environment. This has led to many interesting projects in my current violin/viola studios, with students programming works by composers such as Leslie Adams, Amy Beach, Jennifer Higdon, Manuel Ponce, Charlton Singleton, William Grant Still, Reza Vali, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and performance projects involving transcriptions of jazz music and improvisation.
An inclusive approach to stringed instrument instruction also entails providing exposure to diverse styles, musical languages, and repertoire. Programming and performing a diverse repertoire are important in this regard. Equally as important are collaborations. For example, I do not self-identify as a jazz musician, but I enjoyed performing in a jazz string quartet thanks to a collaborative project between the jazz and string departments during my undergraduate studies. For me, this was a valuable and enlightening experience; for one of my friends, it was transformative, leading him into a completely different career trajectory. Such is the potential of cross-collaborations. Meaningful exposure is also accomplished with the engagement of performing artists and clinicians from all walks of musical life and disciplines. This year, several colleagues and I have organized eclectic programs of diverse styles (with works by composers such as Rhiannon Giddens, Astor Piazzolla, and Caroline Shaw, to name a few), and I took advantage of the opportunity to engage with composers Missy Mazzoli and Bright Sheng for a collaborative performance of their works in February. During my previous work as Senior Coordinator for the Illinois String Academy, the intentional use of folk songs from throughout the world and works by underrepresented composers is one way I sought to increase cultural competency in designing our curricula for use with children.
A nonjudgmental learning environment ties all the other components of diversity, equity, and inclusion together. Leading by example, I work diligently to cultivate a community of support in my classes and violin/viola studios. I want to help my students realize that they have much to offer regardless of their perceived abilities. To accomplish this, the environment must be a safe place in which all members have the freedom to make mistakes. I believe most of the difficulties that stringed instrument students experience in performance and throughout the learning process are caused by tension. Physical tension, which hinders performance quality, often arises from mental tension, which can be caused by a myriad of psychological factors such as defeatist attitudes, perfectionism, and general stress. I dismantle mental tension by encouraging my students to view mistakes simply as information and to be nonjudgmental toward themselves. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and a nonjudgmental learning environment work in conjunction to inspire freedom of expression both in performance and throughout the learning process.
Throughout all my endeavors, I continually approach each student and situation with an open mind, seeking to make improvements and learn from my failures just as from my successes. I believe that to develop the skills and tools needed to work effectively with people from a diverse range of backgrounds, one must actively seek out diverse opportunities. I have endeavored to do just that—working with under-resourced children in inner-city Toledo, Ohio and Danville, Illinois; fundraising to provide student financial aid at the Illinois String Academy; giving presentations at local schools and actively engaging with the larger community; teaching in a wide range of educational environments; and participating in workshops with string teachers on six continents. I seek opportunities not just to move outside my comfort zone or “think outside the box” but to eliminate the box completely.
The Nuts and Bolts
Much of my work as a stringed instrument instructor revolves around establishing a technical foundation that will enable freedom in performance. This requires helping the student to develop a nuanced understanding of efficient technique on the instrument, which includes the identification and release of excess physical tension. In this regard I must give credit to my many mentors and teachers over the years as well as the pedagogical expertise of Paul Rolland and Mimi Zweig (and countless others) in addition to my own personal experience. A healthy technical foundation more often than not begins by addressing postural issues, particularly in regard to the general stance of the body and the relationship of the head, neck, shoulders and back. I utilize my knowledge of Alexander Technique, anatomy, and ergonomic equipment when addressing these issues. The building of healthy reflexes and muscle memory is accomplished through consistent, daily study of motion patterns, fingering patterns, scales, arpeggios, bow strokes, and associated etude work, all of which are designed around and prescribed to attend to the individual needs of each student.
Addressing difficulties encountered in the repertoire often requires modeling as well as looking at a whole task and breaking it down into manageable parts. However, as often as possible, I find that the more effective approach involves scaffolding students in their performance of a whole task by systematically building upon their experiences and knowledge as they learn new skills. As a result, I prefer to expose students to new techniques and skills through the use of etudes and exercises before they are encountered in repertoire. Repertoire recommendations are then guided by my assessment of an individual or group’s ability to perform 100% correct notes, rhythms, and techniques required for a given piece within a reasonable time frame. I sometimes make exceptions to this guideline when a student’s motivation to study a particular piece is overwhelming, or when I determine that they are ready for a push.
Also central to the study of repertoire—or even of technical exercises—are discussions of historical and cultural context, style, musical character, and phrasing. These are at the core of our combined goals as a whole. Considerable investigation into the background of a piece and the composer is necessary to understand the message and style of communication that can or should be employed. There are many ways to talk about aspects of musical character such as emotions, sensations, storylines, and/or colors. Students must also understand that convincing phrasing involves much more than a simple crescendo/decrescendo. Identifying points of arrival, tension and release, and engaging in harmonic analysis are necessary, as well as considering all the tools one may employ in order to increase intensity (e.g. bow speed, weight, contact point, vibrato, articulation, rubato, etcetera). Consistent discussion and experimentation in this regard provide students with valuable tools to express themselves in their music and communicate with their audiences.
In my violin/viola studios and elsewhere, I have been proactive in outreach. I wish to bring my expertise to those who may benefit from it instead of expecting them to come to me. This energetic outreach activity enhances equity, inclusion, and access while also expressing respect for diverse backgrounds, interests, and desires. Moreover, it helps me become a better, more sensitive, and more respectful person today than I was yesterday and thus enables me to continue growing as an effective teacher.