Updated: Jul 20
One of the greatest joys of my professional life is when my students ask me how they should approach teaching their first lessons. This big step heralds their entrance into a gratifying and important part of their careers. Sometimes we assume that as trained clarinetists, we are also automatically skilled educators. But familiarity with a subject as a performer doesn’t always translate into being a good pedagogue. So what can you do at the beginning of your career to make sure that you are an effective teacher?
Disclaimer: this article deals with philosophical ideas and less with the practical considerations of teaching. I have listed useful links on the latter subject at the end of this post.
Observe great teachers
In my over 23 years of college teaching and 30 years with a private studio, I have had the chance to teach thousands of lessons and to also observe fantastic clarinet pedagogues. I was the recipient of great instruction as a student and had a dissertation topic that allowed me to observe several great pedagogues. The Pedagogy of the Clarinet Masters of the Aspen Music Festival centered on three teachers from Aspen in the 1990s and early 2000s: Bil Jackson, Ted Oien, and Joaquin Valdepeñas. I recorded hours of lessons as an impartial observer, which allowed me to watch without having to actually execute the material on the clarinet. I found that the ability to synthesize information as an impartial observer was enormously helpful in terms of retaining concepts. After all, I didn’t need to react to the teacher or execute the changes on the clarinet. I could just sit there and watch.
Throughout the years, I have been able to repeat this observation through guest artist classes that I hosted and while I was teaching at festivals. I have found observing other teachers to be very informative and inspiring. The clarinet world is filled with empathetic, knowledgeable, and highly skilled teachers. See if ones that you admire will let you observe lessons in person or by Zoom. There are also so many great masterclasses available on the internet. I have linked this article to some favorites below. I am also fortunate enough to have my clarinet class structured in a way that I get to hear a lot of teaching from my own students, who also bring their expertise and perspectives to the studio.
Listen to your students
As performing artists, sometimes our approach to teaching can be similar to a specialist in the medical profession, in that we aren’t always looking at students holistically. We can get bogged down in minute detail before we get a complete picture of the person and their individual goals. Because of this, I suggest that each lesson start with a verbal check-in; inquiring about the student’s general well-being, their practice routine for the last week, and goals for the lesson.
Before a student embarks on a course of study with me, I listen to their short and long term goals. I enjoy teaching a diverse groups of students, some of whom go on to work as university professors and orchestral performers, and others that become music educators and music therapists. Sometimes I teach students that aren’t majoring in music but love the clarinet and want to improve. Each of them brings something unique and important to the studio. We can hold our students to the highest standard of musical endeavor without forgetting who they are and what they want to do in music. The joy of the job is keeping strong musical integrity as a teacher while working with the student in a way that fits their goals and learning styles the best. Foster a healthy environment for your students to learn.
Get good mentoring
The best way to teach is to get mentoring from more experienced teachers. Feedback from students is also really helpful so have the kind of rapport that they can tell you things and not just the other way around. It’s possible and beneficial to have open lines of communication in lessons.
When just starting out as a clarinet teacher, it may seem possible to keep all of your students’ assignments straight in your head. But when you begin teaching a larger studio, you will find it useful to write things down. I record a grade after every lesson and take copious notes on what we worked on and assigned for that week. There are many effective means to do this: sharing documents, using apps such as Teams and Blackboard, or simply keeping records in a notebook. Ask your mentors and teachers what methods they prefer and then see what works for you.
Teach your students how to teach themselves
Your goal as a teacher is to make yourself obsolete. Give your students the gift of effective practicing and discerning ears. Remember that a small percentage of your students’ time on the clarinet will be in lessons if they are practicing adequately. Even if you have your students in lessons, studio class, and maybe an ensemble or pedagogy class, this is still a very small percentage of their total hours on the instrument. Fostering independence and empowering students to teach themselves is one of the most important things that you can do as a teacher.
Teach them to record themselves
Use metronomes, tuners, and integrate newer technologies
Teach them how to practice healthy and effective self-critique
Introduce them to basic research and analysis tools
Have high expectations of what your students can achieve in their own practice time
Make sure they are listening to recordings and attending live concerts
Research teaching and methodology
This is especially important for those of us with backgrounds in performance who come at teaching without the benefit of music education classes. There is so much research on pedagogical methods and the psychology of teaching. If you haven’t had a class on some of these subjects (and even if you have), do a deep dive into research on effective teaching. At the University of Kansas and at my previous gig, The University of Wyoming, I was able to talk extensively with my music education colleagues to make sure that I was keeping up with the most recent work on the subject and not just my narrow clarinet view. These educators understand everything from the optimal number of things to teach in a lesson to learning styles. Did you know about VARK, for example? This idea is that people learn optimally in much different styles which can be visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. This is just one example of the research that I wasn’t aware of when I started teaching but that I now find very useful in lessons. By combining science-based methodology with the intangible emotional potential of music in our teaching, we can help students become simultaneously more accurate and expressive as artists.
Remember that lessons are really all about the student. Don’t go into teaching music with a rigid mindset. Different students require and deserve slightly different approaches to learn at their full potential. Being an open listener and letting your teaching evolve over the years is supremely enjoyable. Which brings me to my last point:
Teaching and playing a musical instrument are some of the most wonderful things to do for a living. We are fortunate as studio instructors to teach in a one on one setting. Which means that even before the first lesson, you have selected the student and they have chosen to study with you. You are going into lessons with someone who is receptive to learning from you. Bring the joy and privilege of being able to teach music for a living into every lessons and you will experience the joy of teaching everyday of your career.
I will post more on materials and pedagogy in a future post but in the meantime, enjoy teaching your first lessons!