The Virtuoso Teacher – seminar with Paul Harris

Renowned educator, writer and clarinetist Paul Harris, author of innumerable books on sight-reading, music theory and music teaching as well as original compositions, led a seminar based around the ideas set out in his seminal book T’he Virtuoso Teacher’ (Faber, 2012).

The book focuses on the core issues of being a teacher and the teaching process. By examining topics such as self-awareness and the importance of emotional intelligence, getting the best out of pupils, dealing with challenging pupils, asking the right questions and creating a master-plan taking the stress out of learning teaching for the right reasons, Paul Harris offers an inspirational and supportive read for all music teachers, encouraging everyone to consider themselves in a new and uplifted light. The book formed the basis of Paul’s presentation, with plenty of opportunities for discussion during the breaks and in a Q&A session at the end of the seminar. I read Paul’s book when it was first published and found it very empowering, yet much of what he suggests is both simple and easy to put into practice in the teaching environment.

These are my notes taken during the seminar; by no means comprehensive, I hope they will provide a useful overview of Paul’s approach and the philosophy of the Virtuoso Teacher.

Definition of a ‘Virtuoso Teacher’

  • Not someone who teaches virtuosi
  • Nor a virtuoso player themselves (as Paul said, virtuoso players may be fine instrumentalists, but are not necessarily the best teachers)
  • A virtuoso teacher takes teaching to a virtuoso level through being collaborative, imaginative, engaging, non-judgmental and energetic.

Just as a virtuoso performer has qualities such as a sense of communication, secure technique, and a sense of artistry so the virtuoso teacher has the same qualities. But instead of playing to an audience, the virtuoso teacher works with students.

The virtuoso teacher has a heightened awareness of what is happening, is mindful, has a profound understanding of the instrument, technique, musicality and a deep knowledge of our pupils. The virtuoso teacher encourages pupils to reach their own infinite potential.

WHAT WE DO

The special things….

  • Teach music for its own sake
  • Guide pupils
  • Show possibilities
  • Open minds
  • Enable pupils to become independent learners and teach themselves

The word “teach” comes from the Old English world tæcan (“tee-shan”) meaning to “show”, or “point out”, but not “tell”.

The virtuoso teacher does more than teaching the instrument and pieces: the virtuoso teacher encourage pupils to really know music and enable all pupils to achieve, taking into account the needs and desires of all our pupils.

For the virtuoso teacher the process is more important than the outcome (i.e. exam or competition results, assessments or performances, all of which are stressful situations and which lose the enjoyment of “now”). For the pupil, learning to play an instrument or sing should be a happy experience. Unhappy or stressed students don’t learn (physiologically, the brain stops releasing hormones which enable us to take in information when we are stressed). We develop our pupils’ self-responsibility and turn mistakes into opportunities. We share our love of music and encourage our students to develop this love too. We make our students confident and independent.

Personal qualities of a Virtuoso Teacher

  • An excellent communicator
  • Certain, but never absolutely sure
  • Open-minded
  • Adaptable and flexible
  • Still learning
  • Focused (on the pupil)
  • A good role model
  • Good-humoured
  • Patient
  • Proactive
  • Innovative
  • Having good judgment, but never judgmental
  • Kind and caring
  • Reflective

How we teach

The “process” of the lesson

  • Warming up (e.g. stretches away from the instrument or use an aspect of the first piece as a warm up exercise)
  • Find ingredients and connections within the piece
  • Offer achievable, well-explained instructions (done well, this is unlikely to lead to mistakes, or will reduce mistakes)
  • Give well-expressed, clear feedback
  • Ensure the lesson is energising and always moving forward

When giving feedback, first wait and then notice the way the pupil reacts to the feedback. Positive feedback motivates and allows us to be effective because it empowers the pupil. We need to nurture, not control. As a result, pupils are

  • Confident
  • Happy
  • Enthusiastic
  • Motivated
  • In sum, the “virtuoso pupil” knows how to learn.

Dispelling the “myth of difficult”

  • Learning how to achieve
  • Removing obstacles
  • Encourage through a thorough and meticulous approach
  • The quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work.

High-satisfaction teaching allows the lesson to flow and for pupils to be musical. They will also make fewer mistakes, feel less stress, feel less constrained by structure, which allows them to achieve. Lessons become positive with a spirit of discovery.

  • Simultaneous learning and simultaneous practising:
  • Teaching proactively
  • Making connections using the “ingredients” of the piece
  • Positive
  • Non-judgmental

Pupils need to practise in a way which matches this

  • Integration – refer to practising during the lesson
  • Representation – make practising interesting and engaging
  • Connections – ask how the practising went in the intervening week between lessons

This enables pupils to see how lessons and practising join up.

 

Teaching a new piece using the Simultaneous Learning process

Know the ingredients of the piece:

  • Key
  • Rhythm
  • Pulse
  • Time signature
  • Dynamics
  • Character

Don’t overload the pupil with information but know how much the pupil can take in.

Allow the lesson to unfold around the ingredients using various element, e.g. improvisation based on a rhythm or short motif within the piece.

Use Q&A and demonstration. Talk about practising as you go along. Practising should be fun, engaging and collaborative.

  • Don’t hurry
  • Make connections
  • Empower the student
  • Check the student has understood all the instructions given
  • Teach the right things at the right time
  • Be imaginative
  • Encourage flow
  • Collaboration
  • Encourage students to know their music
  • Encourage students to become independent

 

WHO WE TEACH

We need to get to know our pupils (but never interrogate them!)

  • Interests
  • Prior learning/knowledge
  • Vocabulary (important – so that we can communicate with them at the right level)
  • Preferred learning style, i.e. visual, auditory or kinesthetic
  • Gender difference
  • Relative speed of learning
  • Level of motivation
  • Expectations (pupil’s and parents’)
  • Psychomotor skills (e.g. finger dexterity)
  • SEN
  • R/L brain development
  • Experience and background
  • Maturity
  • Parental involvement

Having this information allows us to personalize our teaching to be more effective.

 

Managing expectations

We live up and down to expectations (the ‘Pygmalion Effect’)

“As the teacher believes the student to be, so the student becomes” (Rosenthal & Jacobson)

 

  • We should have high but appropriate expectations and the student will live up to them.
  • We have different expectations for different students
  • Don’t base expectations on pre-determined criteria (e.g. exam results)
  • Don’t compare students, especially negatively
  • Discourage pupils from comparing themselves to their friends/peers – explain to a Grade 1 student that the Grade 7 student is not “better”, just “more advanced”
  • Focus on achievement rather than attainment: pupils can achieve continuously
  • Encourage self-comparison: “How am I doing?”
  • Encourage students to hear friends playing in a positive context: peer support is very important.
  • Celebrate every student’s strengths
  • Have positive and appropriate expectations
  • Create a positive teaching environment
  • Labels are not helpful – there are no “bad” pupils! (but there are plenty of bad teachers!)
  • All pupils are able – different, but able

 

Giving praise

It needs to be appropriate and appreciative. Judgmental praise causes dependency and builds up an ego which can produce anxiety

 

Examples of appreciative praise:

“I enjoyed that”

“that was really accurate/musical”

“That practise has really made a difference”

 

This allows pupils to draw their own conclusions about their playing

 

Praise what they are doing or their effort, not the ego or talent.

 

Praise followed by criticism is not helpful.

 

Sincere praise goes a long way and creates a sense of trust.

 

 

Using questions in lessons

Good questioning is very valuable and can be used to

  • Check knowledge and understanding
  • Encourage understanding
  • Encourage recall of facts and information
  • Diagnose difficulties and involve the pupil in the “cure” (e.g. tension, problematic fingering scheme etc)

 

Questions also encourage students to think, engage, apply and reflect. Use open-ended, thought-provoking questions, e.g. “What do you like about this piece?”

 

 

Getting the best out of our pupils

 

  • The way we are and how we respond to our pupils
  • The way we manage expectations (of pupils and parents)
  • The care we invest in teaching methods
  • The level of positivity and love of our subject
  • Ensuring pupils understand what they are doing

 

 

In conclusion

 

Our values and beliefs colour the way we are and drive our thinking and teaching. We should be certain, but never absolutely certain, and we should always look outwards.

 

The present

  • The Power of Now
  • Living in the moment
  • Grasp opportunities and run with them, while always keeping an eye on the future
  • Using aspects such as applied psychology and physiology (e.g. understanding the reasons for warming up before playing), and using technology to enhance our teaching (e.g. internet, apps).

Teaching now

  • Teach laterally and holistically
  • Be proactive
  • Take care of our personal accountability
  • Make connections
  • Understand and appreciate what our pupils need
  • Use wisdom – how do we use our knowledge? We guide our pupils to enable them to progress.
  • Be honest (i.e. honest evaluation of our students, and in our dealings with parents)
  • Have courage – take risks and be prepared to tackle issues
  • Give our students our unconditional support

The Virtuoso Teacher wants to create well-balanced musicians who are driven by a love of music and a desire to sustain this great art.

 

Never forgot – teaching is A PROFESSION!

More about Paul Harris and his publications and other resources here

 

 

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