Sunday, May 28, 2006

Ahh, summer...time to reflect on balance

Summer's here and I can just feel my brain going soft. Well, not soft but certainly down-shifting the gears (a momentary escape from the to-do list that threatens to become my identity during the school year).

Being on a 9-month contract at USC, I am effectively unemployed for three months in the summer. I gotta admit, I love it!

This gives me time to reflect on the past year and plan for the next. I'm quite happy with how the year has gone but, of course, it can always go better. Many of the big questions can be reduced down to balancing acts.

Balancing Act #1: Leading or Following/Guiding

In my syllabus I ask my students to do three basic things: show up, prepare and show initiative. It's that third element that is the most interesting. Although asking students to show initiative may lead to unexpected results, it also leads to moments of great satisfaction. I am still seeking that optimal balance between stepping to the fore and saying, "This is the way it's going to go," or hanging back and seeing what will transpire. I am supposed to be the big expert but what little expertise I have acquired tells me that self-motivation is the most powerful force around.
Of course, it is different with each student and from year to year, even week to week sometimes. Some students want me to provide a clear structure. Others insist on finding their own path.
I need to remember a few basic ideas:
I am teaching students to teach themselves.
In essence my job is to make myself unnecessary.

Balancing Act #2: Work vs. Family
As the studio gets stronger, my students naturally want more growth still. Part of me would love to run with them as far as they are willing to go:
Trombone ensemble twice a week with concert tours? ... sure
Daily group warm-up sessions? .. absolutely
Orchestral excerpt coaching sessions? ... great idea

It may seem like a cop-out to my students, but I simply can't offer that level of commitment without short-changing my kids. So, I strike the best balance I can and try not to get down about not being there enough for either constituency.

Balancing Act #3: Technique vs. Music
As a student prepares a piece, so I often I can see aspects of their fundamentals that are holding them back. (The usual culprit: tension.)
Yet I can also see that, quite naturally, they would rather play music than exercises. So, I continue to seek ways to improve technique through good musical selection and to make technical material more musically satisfying. If I'm not careful, I can easily fill an entire lesson with technical material and drive most everyone nuts.

Balancing Act #4: Rising to the Point of Defection
You've heard the saying, "Rising to the level of one's incompetence." Here's an interesting parallel: I work to recruit better students. But as the studio gets stronger, it is natural to enroll students who are eyeing better schools. I have an increasing number of trombone players disappointed that they couldn't get into Juilliard, Eastman or Curtis. When a (usually highly motivated) student tells me they want to audition to transfer to a big-name school or are taking lessons with a prominent teacher/performer, I have to remember not to feel threatened. Ultimately I am here for them and not the other way around. I suppose it is natural that, as students here get stronger, they're going to look around at this music school and wonder if perhaps they could do better. Don't get me wrong, this is a good (and growing) program but I can't deny the significance of that first question asked by almost every top prospect during auditions, "Am I going to have to do marching band?" (Hmmm, maybe if Juilliard had a big-time football team...)

Anyway, a last themes which come to mind about this last year:

Playing is an extension of breathing

Sing it/Say it and you can play it

Play with others frequently

90% of success is showing up

Maintain a teachable spirit

Experience is still the best teacher

Yes, getting enough sleep really does make a difference

Stress lowers the I.Q.

When all else fails, play a pretty tune.

Have a great summer. I'll post from time to time.