Thoughts about Teaching

 

by Carl Lenthe

 

 

 


Personal History

Motivation

Helping students improve and develop

Methods

Placement in the Big Picture

 

 

Personal History

 

 

  Personal History    Motivation    Helping    Methods    Placement 

 

I began teaching in 1968 at the age of 12! Having begun playing in the public school music system in third grade with the recorder, I was inherently drawn to the brass instruments, and, after a year with the trumpet, gravitated to euphonium and trombone. In junior high, my band director - who also gave me weekly private lessons - asked me to teach the beginning 4th and 5th graders on the trombone and euphonium. After the initial flush of honor and feelings of self-importance, I was quickly confronted with two things: 1) Teaching is hard work, demanding astute awareness, good reflexes, stamina and endurance, and, 2) why couldn't the students just pick up the instrument and play like I could? I had showed them, after all: "It goes like this…"

 

Teaching – with the requisite analyzing of music, playing, and communicating - has been a regular and ongoing part of my musical life since that time, utilizing spare time from my study career and professional schedule to teach individual lessons to brass players. I have enjoyed a very eclectic range of students, including beginning 10-years-old, musically ambitious high school students, college level music majors, young professionals, and adult amateurs. In addition, a fair number of previously competent, professional players experiencing playing difficulties find their way to me for help.

 

I believe that working with this variety of students has given me a broad base on which to craft my approach to teaching. Although now specialized in teaching college age music majors, I find within that group a wide range of strengths and deficiencies not dissimilar to my earlier, more eclectic group.

 

Motivation

 

  Personal History    Motivation    Helping    Methods    Placement  

 

I benefited very early in my musical training from lessons and further contact with preeminent musicians, and feel therefore not only immensely privileged to have been the recipient of their tutelage, but also obligated and inspired to pass on this heritage, while adding to it the experience and perspectives I have thus far been able to garner in my professional career.

 

A strong motivation for me in teaching is being a part of someone's development and improvement as he or she strives toward excellence in a chosen goal. My input can range from generating motivation or trying to fan the spark of inspiration, to helping, guiding, and/or explaining conceptual or technical aspects of instrumental performance. 

 

"Conceivably my sole teaching absolute is that there are no absolutes." 

 

Although there are widely recognized, well-trodden paths, there are also equally legitimate lesser-traveled passageways and even some rewarding detours. Each student comes to the task with a uniquely individual set of talents and abilities, strengths and weaknesses, experiences and ambitions, and a mindset, work habits, and ethos to use as tools. There is no patent "one-size-fits-all" method, and this is born out by the fact that instrumental performance has over the centuries traditionally been taught in a one-on-one setting.

 

"If you want to have a foot in the future, teach!" This forward-reaching fact, coupled with the "foot in the past" of inherited tradition offers a broad time perspective, and yet compels me to use the moments and windows of opportunity as effectively as possible. I view the opportunity to interact with people at this receptive, impressionable phase of their lives as a privilege, and value the optimism and positive, constructive energy that surround me and fill my teaching days. Although I tremendously enjoyed full time performing, the professional, collegial relationships in that venue are in fact just that: professional and collegial. It is therefore in the educational setting that the ideals, principles, and values that I would most like to see upheld and furthered in the music world are best offered.

 

Helping students improve and develop

 

  Personal History    Motivation    Helping    Methods    Placement   

 

The goal of my teaching is to encourage and help the students to broaden their musical horizon with the fullest possible understanding of music, and to help them hone their instrumental abilities to the specialist level expected and demanded of today's instrumentalists. 

Further, I consider it very important to prepare the students for the personal aspects of professional life, helping them to become productive, positive and contributing members in their chosen setting. Compared with other professions, there are among musicians, I believe, a disproportionately high number of people who - although musically, instrumentally and technically of the highest caliber - simply lack the personal skills necessary to function effectively and congenially in the intricate and sometimes delicate surroundings of music making. The special one-on-one teacher/student relationship can be uniquely suited to addressing these issues, and the intense practical program of our large and small ensembles offers ample opportunity to monitor any such developments.  

While it may seem obviously simple, helping a student to learn to love music is one of the best ways to prepare him or her for a successful, satisfying, and productive career. 

 

"I often observe that instrumentalists approach their tasks as a technical, personal challenge, and – while usually mastering the challenge – they can thus miss the beauty and inspiration, the gravity and importance, or the sheer fun of the musical moment."

 

A person whose significant criteria for assessing music, and whose main motivation in making music, is merely a correct and accurate execution of the given task, is a person who will be, at best, a lukewarm contributor or, worse, a frustrated, unsatisfied colleague. Music can be sensed, accessed, shared and communicated on many different levels, from the emotional to the intellectual, cognitive to intuitive, entertaining to spiritual, as divertissement or edification, etc. Helping a student to gain insight into some of these perspectives, and to listen with new ears – this is one of the joys of teaching, and a reward in itself.

 

Methods

 

  Personal History    Motivation    Helping    Methods    Placement  

 

The entire aura surrounding the imparting of knowledge, especially when this knowledge is mostly non-verbal, is inspiring and humbling at once, but always motivating. 

Beyond using many of the standard works and methods to attain a reliable, exact and aesthetic execution of all the required techniques, styles and pieces, I would cite the major theme in my teaching as the cultivation of the powers of conceptualization, that is to say the ability to create or imagine an ideal or goal and then, through the process and powers of imitation, strive to achieve the same. 

In other words, even more important than putting the right ingredients into the mouthpiece is the pulling out of the desired results from the bell.  

To be an expressive, creative performer, it is important to be freed from real or perceived technical, instrumental constraints. Obviously, total mastery of instrumental technique is a part of that, but does not of itself free one from the technical shackles. 

"Ironically, in the very process of mastering the technical demands of their instruments, musicians often become technique bound or obsessed."

I have observed some of the best progress and success when the brass student tries to emulate, for example, a violinist, a singer, an actor, or a great orator. Even introducing concepts and ideas further removed from music, such as awesome natural wonders, inspired architecture, great sport moments, sensations such as flying, weightlessness, and swimming, etc., can help free one from the technical bonds and take the level of expressive communication to a higher plane.  

Now, to avoid the impression that I simply sit on a rock with my students pondering greatness, I descend from these lofty, conceptual heights to outline some of the basic materials and methods used in my teaching: I expect my students to be well-versed and fluent in scales and arpeggios in all keys and in many patterns, covering the entire range and expressive possibilities of the instrument. I encourage "free-style" playing, i.e.: improvising or simply noodling around, as this helps deepen the immediate bond between performer and instrument, bypassing the mere robotic execution of notes on the printed page. I encourage as much ear training as possible, often challenging students to sing a specific note without any prior reference, as even a wide miss in this context is part of the learning process. I expect students to be able to play appropriate selections by memory, as this further cultivates many essential faculties. 

Between a broad range of technical exercises and the requisite literature including solo repertoire and orchestral excerpts, I implement a substantial amount of etude study. This often-neglected facet of study challenges the student to craft, alone and without further musical accompaniment or embellishment, an entire piece of music while also mastering the specific technical demands addressed in the etude. 

The compelling part of the curriculum is then comprised of the literature that must be performed, including solo repertoire and orchestral or band excerpts for auditions, recitals, ensemble concerts, etc. This is where the concepts and techniques described above experience their practical application. I encourage the students to know as much about the pieces as possible, to be interested beyond his or her own particular role, and to view the symphonic literature, for example, as some of the greatest literature in western civilization, tying in parallels to other arts and disciplines of the period where I am able, and encouraging the students to explore these more thoroughly than the constraints of our lessons allow. 

In preparing students to perform, various performance-related issues arise, including daily regimen, performance anxiety, etc. These can be very subjective, individual, and personal experiences, and are addressed accordingly.

I play in lessons regularly, having profited from my teachers in this way, playing in unison with a student, demonstrating, also playing back-and-forth for each other. Where possible I will sometimes play some of the simpler piano accompaniments. In addition to scheduled recitals and other public performances on campus, I regularly perform in master classes and studio recitals, and hope that the effect is the same that I enjoyed from my teachers' playing. 

Occasional duet playing in lessons creates the bridge from individual study to ensemble playing. As the students' schedules and regimen allow, I have them pair up in lessons. Three people generate ideas and concepts differently than two, and a three-strand bond is stronger than two. 

"Further, I view the entire routine of individual practice and lessons as the means with which we prepare ourselves for making music with others." 

In the ensemble context, I would like to cite my activities with Trombone Choir, which I have made a priority in my activities since arriving at IU. These activities are quantified in the substantiation, and represent my conviction that our school should maintain a trombone choir in accordance with its stature, quality, and vision. Whether as a beacon for recruitment purposes, or departmental visibility in the school and community, as an ensemble to further implement and hone vital instrumental and ensemble skills, or as a means to achieve the goal of contributing to, refining, and solidifying an Indiana school of trombone playing, I view this ensemble as an important part of the teaching process. It presents an opportunity to congeal and homogenize ensemble skills in specifically trombonistic contexts before going out into the larger instrumental ensembles. 

Placement in the Big Picture

  Personal History    Motivation    Helping    Methods    Placement   

 

A major concern of mine upon considering the possibility of entering full time teaching was that of job placement – or career potential. Indeed, it is not presumptuous to say that this is a major concern of almost any applied performance faculty member, not only at our school. The job placement factor varies, depending upon the chosen course of performance, music related outside fields, or music education, and it is this diversity of offerings that has led me to see Indiana University's School of Music as an ideal institution in which to help prepare the younger generation for careers in the music world. 

In the performance area, analogies to sports present themselves, where only the very best survive the intense winnowing processes and go on to achieve top positions in their craft. The select few that achieve the envisioned goal of performing regularly in the highly visible ensembles and venues of the music world are duly celebrated by all who had a hand in their success. They inherit the commitment of tradition, and strive to further the art in their respective fields, and often return to teaching to help complete the cycle. 

However, the imbalance between supply and demand that our highly competitive selection process has fostered logically dictates that there are many others who enter their higher education career with the same goals and desires, often equipped with at least equal ability and potential, but who do not go on to celebrated, highly visible careers in performing. What of these individuals? I view these students as perhaps the most receptive for instilling the values and virtues of excellence and quality in a chosen field. Indeed, many of these students continue into greater, if sometimes less visible, music careers than their celebrated counterparts, and contribute their skills, talents, and ethos to improve and enrich many vital areas of the music world. I have experienced students who, although easily qualified and poised to enter the performance realm, have discovered more fulfillment in other music related areas and opted instead for careers in, for example, music journalism, management, audio arts, telecommunication, etc. 

Given the broad range of excellent outside fields available, these students are ideally served here at IU. I would like to believe that my emphasis on seeing, hearing and understanding the "big picture" – with all due concentration on specialized excellence – enables these students to realize a broad horizon while reaping the benefits of pursuing personal excellence in a chosen field. In my performing experience, I have become increasingly aware of and intrigued by the countless disciplines that make the music world run, and therefore also make performing possible. I am thankful for every librarian, recording engineer, arts manager, and instrument designer who understands, appreciates, and contributes to greatness in music.

As a teacher, I consider it a privilege and commitment to be teaching the next generation of music teachers. Having benefited from an exemplary public school music system, I recognize the enormous potential that our future teachers will have. I strive to acquaint these students with the ever-increasing palette of styles needed to remain current and up-to-date in music teaching. Most importantly, in the midst of the constantly increasing curriculum and demands on music education, I view it as my responsibility to help these individuals develop their playing skills to the highest level possible – which in some cases will match the highest professional standards – and motivate and inspire them in their love of music. 

"The final tenet, then, on the dictate of job placement is that we can and must equip, motivate, inspire and prepare our students for the very highest standards."  

The well-developed structure of music education has employers looking to our school for qualified teachers. The same applies in a fashion to music related outside fields. And, although the world knows and values the performers who have gone forth from our school, and does look expectantly in our direction, performers must go out into the world and be judged according to how well they play tonight, not according to their certifications. 

Having lived my professional life primarily as a performer for well over two decades, always striving through personal practice, learning, and discipline to be the best that I can be in tonight's performance, I am now fascinated, and a little intrigued, at putting my teaching success in the hands of my students. It is my hope, and my encouragement to them, that they will be able to take the figurative hand-off from me and go beyond what I have been able to achieve. 

Finally, I would like to cite, without extensive elaboration here, one further perspective in this context. Many – perhaps most – students view their years at a university as the process in which they are equipped with the skills and crafts that they would need to commence their professional careers. While we should not disappoint in that regard, it is of at least equal importance to impart to them an education, to expose them to a mindset that will open their eyes for the broad horizons and contexts of civilization, culture, and society. We know that music expands the intellect in a unique manner, and so this university mission should flourish – if anywhere – in the school of music. Most all college graduates later look back at their time at the university, wishing they had grasped and taken in more while they were in that ideal situation. How wonderful, then, if they could instead say, "I went looking for job skills and came away with life skills."

 

  Personal History    Motivation    Helping    Methods    Placement