Pedagogy Saturday and Permission: A Sober MTNA Conference Post

When one chooses (somewhat chaotically) from 5 possible tracks at a conference, criss-crossing from one theme to another specialty, as the spirit moves, throughout the day, it can be difficult to sense a theme or make an assessment as the zeitgeist.

Today I attended sessions from the Artistry, the Disability and the Jazz/Pop tracks, and to my surprise there really was a distinct theme running through the whole of my day: permission.

From Forrest Kinney giving teachers and students permission to improvise without ‘knowledge’ through to Peter Mack giving teachers (and by extension, students) permission to be musical in the way they perform/interpret notation, to Barbara Kreader giving teachers permission to broaden their curriculum beyond classical repertoire and Scott Price giving teachers permission to alter their teaching methods to meet the needs of children with autism – everyone was doing it: giving us permission.

What I liked about this was the sense of being in the middle of a tsunami of professional change: all the presenters were saying “you don’t have to do things the way you’ve always done them”, in so many disparate ways: Deborah Rambo Sinn discussing fingering for small hands, for example, and Kristin Yost demonstrating ideas for recitals with a rhythm section.

But, on the negative side of the ledger, I figure that all this permission-giving reflects a series of lacks in our profession:

  • a lack of confidence in ourselves,
  • a lack of competence at things we intuit are important,
  • a lack of understanding of current educational thinking,
  • a lack of general knowledge about the world, and
  • a lack of critical thinking skills.

Of course, that’s what people come to conferences to address: the lacks they feel they have in their professional praxis. But the presentations were each, in their own way, more about saying “It’s OK to do this” than about anything else: the nuts and bolts were very frequently less important that the over-arching idea that teachers should feel free to do things in ways that make musical sense.

I’ll repeat that: teachers should feel free to do things in ways that make musical sense. And I can’t for the life of me understand why music teachers need to be given permission to do that.

How did music education reach this point – where musical sense has such a low priority that we run conferences to assure ourselves that is, after all, important?

Sober thoughts, indeed, at the end of my 2013 Pedagogy Saturday!

14 thoughts on “Pedagogy Saturday and Permission: A Sober MTNA Conference Post

  1. Thanks for your posts….it’s the next best thing to being there. Thanks too, for the reminder that we are free to do what makes musical sense; in our own performing and in our teaching. If teachers are so timid about this, what are we subliminally teaching our students?

  2. Perhaps all of this has to do with the over-arching emphasis on perfection. With the advent of recorded performances, CD’s especially, there now seems to be “the one” way to play a piece – an ideal which everyone strives to live up to. I once heard a young, internationally famous, pianist who performed the Ah, Vous Dirai-Je variations – and while her performance was perfect and flawless it was perfect to the extent that every repeat was a literal, perfect, repetition of the first time through. It was impressive, but to me it wasn’t music. When you listen to “old” recordings on YouTube, there are wrong notes, musical imperfections (accidentally too much cresc or such), all over the place. These days, if an aspiring pianist plays one wrong note in an audition or competition, that’s the end – an attitude which seems awfully limiting, stifling. So, perhaps just like I (and most teachers I would assume) tell my students that a wrong note isn’t the end of the world as long as said wrong note was played beautifully and appropriately (for the style of music), and that mastery is more important than perfection, teachers in general need to be told that it’s ok to be different, to do their own thing. Yes, ideally, we know that we get to choose how we do things, but perhaps some teachers feel the need to have some outside validation / permission. ?

  3. Elissa … its not just music teachers. I recently came across a comment that summed up my thoughts on many of the negative thoughts you listed, especially critical thinking, namely, we seem to be caught up in a hankering for “… the promise of near instantaneous effects with minimal effort”.

    Dont think, I want an answer, I want results and I want them now.

  4. Thankyou for sharing the conference with us. I much appreciate hearing about something I probably will not get the opportunity to go to. Thanks again

  5. Thanks for sharing with those of us that could not attend this year!! it is indeed very different these days. Children are overbooked with too many activities, and trying to be ” jack of all trades and ultimately master of none” teachers are frustrated , not necessarily insecure just struggling to find a way to try and make future musicians !

  6. Elissa,

    Interesting post. I attended RMM track, and the ideas there were also similar. One speaker in particular identified Brian Chung’s idea of two models: a “Performance model” and a “Participation model.” It is not a wrong idea to focus on the outcomes or teach to achieve particular goals. But at the same time, a participation model is also a viable option. A class whose sole focus is on “music-making” without regard to hand position, proper technique, a particular reading approach, and even correction of mistakes is also legitimate. The two models are both necessary in a variety of forms.

    In terms of permission, much of pedagogy and education in general focuses on the Performance model. We see discussions of how good or bad a teacher is based on how their student performs. Teachers whose students win festivals are highly lauded. Teachers dismiss students who do not live up to the expectations of their practice or performance standards. Again, this model is necessary to keep the classical tradition and high level performance alive and well. But to focus on this only in pedagogy undermines a large group of people who would like to participate in music but cannot or will not achieve those standards. This also leaves some teachers feeling their reputation is at stake when teaching those kinds of students. Hence the “permission-giving” that just because you’re not requiring the same performance standards for every student, it does not make you less of a teacher, nor does it necessarily give your students less of an authentic music-making experience.

    • Nice post. There is so much more than mastery or performance upon which to base our success as teachers. For example, I recently had an adult student (79 year-old war veteran) tell me that the only time he didn’t have horrific war images running through his brain is when he was playing the piano. Now, this man can barely put two hands together – but the benefits he receives from playing his simple pieces are the same as when you or I are playing more advanced repertoire. Is this success? I say whole-heartily, “Yes!”

  7. Very good food for thought. Maybe it’s not the teachers who need so much permission but the “experts” who are finally acknowledging that there are teachers who are doing things differently than “traditional” models and are qualified and worthy of respect.

    Curious about your list of bulleted negatives and would love to have you expound on them – particularly the last three.

  8. I 100% agree with you and that this NEEDS to be the direction that Music Education takes. Opening up to the idea that EVERYONE should be given the opportunity to play; that everyone LEARNS in different ways; and that NOT EVERYONE has ambitions to become a concert pianist. People just want to PLAY! I often tell people, “The piano is very snobby”… meaning that it is the only instrument that can produce all elements of sound (the bass, the harmony, and the melody) at once, but I’ve found many of it’s educators to be the same way. And, as a society, there is the social stigma with Piano Lessons that you must be born with talent, you must SUFFER for your art, it won’t be fun and it will be filled with boring scales and take years before you can play any real music! Why does society ACCEPT THIS? If you enroll your child in gymnastics, you will most likely decide after 2 months that “this isn’t for them” if they can’t do a cartwheel. Yet, with piano, there are continual tales of children playing for years with no enjoyment or results! Why is this acceptable? I don’t think it is… and that’s not the way I teach. My goal is to give everyone the opportunity to experience music and express themselves through it. EVERYONE! That’s why the majority of my students dropped out of “traditional” training because they couldn’t handle the drills, the standards, the CONTROL! Yet, when you speak with many well known PROFESSIONAL musicians, they themselves can’t read music. Does that mean they aren’t talented? Because they don’t fit into the standard BOX that Piano Education has created? BOY, am I GLAD that no one ever told Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder…. “You have to read music if you want to play the piano!” Yet, the sad truth is that many teachers would never have even given them the chance.

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