Recently, I was asked a few questions about teaching music, and the challenges of doing so. I was asked this in conjunction with Alberta Arts Days, a celebration of Arts in Alberta. One of those questions was "what is the most difficult concept to teach?"Some of my colleagues chose musicianship. Others chose appreciation. I find those easy to teach, if you have passion for the subject matter, and I most definitely do. The most difficult concept to teach is Risk-Taking.
Every time a student picks up an instrument, they are taking risks. With Math, English, and most other courses, mistakes are inaudible, private ones. If you make a spelling mistake, it is not announced to the whole world. If you don't line up the decimals, it doesn't sound awful with the neighboring student. With music, this is not the case; an out-of-tune note, inaccurate rhythm or strange dynamic is easily heard, and can be quite embarrassing. However, beautiful music cannot be created by being safe and quietly playing, hoping your notes aren't clashing.
Therefore, teaching risk is very difficult. Especially with teenagers, who are at one of the most insecure stages of their development, risks can be hard to try, without peer judgement. The fact is that I cannot teach students to take risks. All I can do is set up an environment of acceptance, including accepting that nobody is perfect, that errors will be made, and that they must be made in order to learn how to succeed. As 4-H suggests, learn to do by doing.
So in my classes, no student is allowed to make a mistake without laughing about it. By giving students permission to find the humour in errors, it takes away permission to get angry at themselves for their mistakes. It also gives students permission to try new things, and see just how awful it can get. By extension, it adds a positive note to the errors, and rather than chiding a student for mistakes, encourages them to try again, try again, and try again.
In my classes, no student is allowed to laugh at another's mistakes until they laugh at it first. Instead, each student is responsible for helping their neighbor correct their mistakes. If a note was inaccurate, a gentle reminder of the correct fingering is expected to come from their neighbor. If a dynamic was wrong, their neighbor is expected to point out the correct dynamic as a reminder. A reminder is all that is needed, because the students already have the knowledge and skill to be able to do it.
In my improvisation classes, students are required to take risks. There is no better place to take risks than behind closed doors. Once on stage, the risks are much less risky if practiced behind closed doors first. And because these classes tend to be smaller, the support level from their peers tends to be deeper as well.
We want to train our students to be risk-takers, creative minds, and therefore better stewards of change and improvement in our society. Celebrating mistakes has to be one way to do this, because mistakes are always the first step to success. In music we do this, not by design, but as an intrinsic part of learning to perform. As Walt Disney once said, "we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward."