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Inspiration is the Key

By Alison Barr, NCTM, ED Certification Commissioner
September, 2013

Inspiration Is The Key!

I could never have predicted that being allowed into the studios, minds and hearts of certification candidates would foster SO much deep reflection on my own teaching, especially after the 37 years I’ve been at it. I find myself opening each video lesson with the eager breathlessness of a kid on the way to the amusement park. And, it’s in this same manner that I try to approach each of my own lessons! Watching these videos has encouraged me to look at my own ability to inspire each student, to go above and beyond the pedagogical caveats I’ve learned through the years and up to that place where expression and creativity soars. 

What I hope to accomplish in my teaching and see in the videos is this—a personal and exciting interaction between two human beings. First, I hope to see the teacher serving as a mentor, facilitator, guru, sage, observer, evaluator, even an authority—always stimulating and driving the lesson forward towards that “aha!” moment when the music flows with beauty and deep expression. Second, I hope to see the student responding as an engaged and committed participant in the thrill of learning—questioning, experimenting and moving toward his personal best for the sake of the music. Of course, there are moments when the student's engagement falters and her commitment needs rekindling, and there are also moments when the teacher is tired, frustrated and at her wit’s end with a student’s lack of preparation or focus. Both parties are “human,” after all. However, these flagging moments should be, on balance, far outweighed by the moments of genuine excitement that each lesson potentially brings. 

Here are some questions I ask myself and which can also be asked of candidates in the video production process:

Do my face and body show that I am involved, love the music, love the student, love the act of teaching?
Am I moving, smiling, concentrating on the sound, lifting myself from my chair at appropriate times, moving around the room (within reason) conducting, beating time, humming, singing or just being enthralled by the sound? 

Am I setting up a broad context for the music?
For example, In the Hall of the Mountain King—what’s the setting of this piece and what emotions might Peer Gynt have felt when he entered the hall to see the “Old Man King,” surrounded by troll attendants, family and friends? Does the student know where Norway is? When has the student ever been in a similar position to Peer Gynt? Has the teacher been to Norway, and, if so, could he perhaps share the feeling of rugged terrain, dark woods and breathtaking fjords?What might make the music sound like it’s an expression of that experience?Obeying markings on a page is the beginning of interpretation, but helping the student musician dig for a deep feeling of his or her own experience is another level altogether. 

Am I flexible and open to straying from my expectation of what the lesson should be? 
Children are complex and varied individuals and they are growing up in a complicated and demanding time, requiring our keen attention to spoken and unspoken cues given by that individual on the bench. I believe that the lesson should primarily be about the music and I know that the time we have is precious. However, the human interactions that undoubtedly make the largest and most lasting impressions are the ones that depart from the expected, moving away from play-by-play directions in a pedagogy text. Walk outside, look inside the piano, put the lid down and chat, talk about life in general and the student’s life in particular with genuine interest. All of these experiences are relevant to the music; we have only to make them so. 

Am I fully integrated as a human being and a teacher?
We must, of course, be appropriate and professional in our demeanor and language while teaching. However, if we are stiff, humorless and excessively businesslike in the studio, while our family, friends and colleagues know us to be energetic, warm, humorous and emotionally alive, something is being lost in the quality of teaching in learning. 

So, sit back and enjoy that rolling camera and the inherent flow that each lesson brings, be yourself, and let the student experience the full value of your passion for music and teaching. That passion is why I’m still teaching after all these years, and I trust that’s why our candidates are aspiring to the Nationally Certified Teacher of Music credential.