Faults in Mentoring-Style Instruction in Classical Music and Fitness

Recently, I have been reevaluating my past to find some meaning in why I am the way I am today.  I was quite sick mentally back then.  Childhood fears morphed into depression, which evolved into modest paranoia, which then became full-blown schizophrenia.  I had to bow out from the professional world for several years, while I licked my wounds in unproductive ways.  Random one-night stands.  Standing for hours in abandoned train stations, falling asleep on trains, losing valuable items on the subway.  Walking through dangerous neighborhoods at the crack of dawn.  Of course, these were all social situations where I was hanging out with friends and friendly strangers beforehand, but the commutes home?  Inconceivable.

But the worst of my mental tortures were not in bars or random bedrooms.  The most frightening rooms I’ve entered have been musician studios and rehearsal spaces.

When I attended music conservatory during my college years, I encountered many accomplished musicians, hailing from all corners of the world except for Africa.  I was assigned to a single viola professor, from whom I would receive private lessons once a week.  This was the apex of my musical education.  I was expected to practice for hours in order to prepare for these sessions, and then receive constructive criticism and feedback on how to improve.  I’d practice again, and return, etc.  Washing machine ritual.

It was frustrating.  As a person passionate about music, it was more than just a trade or vocation for me.  It was my religion.  My way of life.  When I went to my lessons with my professor, I wasn’t just looking for musical feedback.  I was looking for mentorship.  I was looking for therapy.  Comfort.  A person who could guide me on how to live my life.  I admit, I worshipped one teacher like a guru.  I was not well during that time though.

A big flaw in classical music education is that… it’s an archaic system.  Basically, the best of performers teach the best performing students, in a sort of “do it my way” style.  They’ll play something on their instrument, and then say, “Do it like this.”  When asked “why?” or “how?” they either get testy and something like, “Because I’m experienced and you’re not,” or they will butcher the English language in an attempt to respond.  But in my experience, musicians are incapable of communicating via language.  Music is their language.

Thereby rendering them useless as anything to be learned from.

I’ve always been a creature of words.  I always ask “why?” as well.  So when my professors would get mentally tired with my “whys?” I became mentally backed up.  I lost respect for them.  I realized I couldn’t emulate them as paragons of life.  So… then what was the point of my respecting them as musicians?

It’s a tricky tale.

Elite classical musicianship is frustrating, and I want to write a book about it.  I don’t know where to start though.  So many complaints in my head, swimming around.  Part of these complaints are specific to the classical world.  But others are just criticisms of society’s approach to teaching in general.

About three and a half years ago, I weighed my heaviest, and I started my journey in weight loss.  Since then, I have made many friends who have given me invaluable advice freely, which has led to me changing my lifestyle to facilitate athleticism and good eating.  The best coaches I’ve had are those who “taught me to fish.”  Two specific women especially… I had dozens and dozens of questions, which they answered… and now I have learned so much.  I’m even self motivated to work out at home multiple times a week.

And then… there are less helpful people.

I find that so often, in fitness, there are people who are experts, and then offer their service as motivators.  Some are motivating, but others are intimidating.  Like Jillian Michaels, etc.  They act like drill sergeants to intimidate a person into getting fat… fit, whatever.  They make out like fitness is something impossible, and then cause the person to think that they desperately need the coach to succeed.  It’s such a dysfunctional scam.  And psychologically unhealthy.

Likewise, classical music education has its own dysfunctions.  Which are also psychologically unhealthy.

I want to further investigate this.  I think that there can be a new model of education developed, which can create a more inviting atmosphere for the student.  An environment which will cause the student to transform psychologically, from a blank, inert canvas into a questioning being.  Because… people grow and learn when they are curious.  This is a natural state for children.  As educators, people need to activate this in their students.  Because when a student asks questions out of sheer curiosity, they then learn the lessons they need to learn.  And then… they will develop into their own beings, and they will gravitate to what works for them.  Such teaching can really nurture individuality.  Right now, our schools serve as cookie cutter factories.

And also, if students can be self-directed in their questioning, they will grow into innovators.  Nurturers.  Researchers.  We’d get a lot done, and much faster.

And yet, learning does not happen overnight.  One thing I’ve noticed in both fitness and classical music, is that some people are branded as “talented,” or “better students” or “genetically favored.”  And these people are easier to work with, because they progress faster.  The problem is, their accelerated growth is compared to the average person, who progresses more slowly.  Teachers without infinite patience then exercise favoritism, offering more love and nourishment to the better students, who then flower and thrive, while the supposed-weaker students do not.  It is what it is.

I am not saying that this is wrong.  And the answer is CERTAINLY not to make things equal.  Absolutely not.  I think the answer is in… an attitude shift.  Teachers have to stop thinking that overnight change is the only way students can demonstrate that they are learning.  Take me as an example.  I learned things in college that I was unable to execute, mostly due to mental illness.  Or… maybe I didn’t reproduce things in the way they wanted, because I was modifying their advice to be compatible with everything else I have learned in my past.  Teachers have to realize that they cannot change their students.  They can only influence.  They have to realize that change does not happen overnight, and then not penalize students for not doing so.

Teachers are not experts in everything.  They need to realize that, even though they have their cushy jobs and resumes, they need to still learn how to teach.

Writing about this makes me feel more empowered, and less paralyzed.  I hope that, one day, I can help people become better teachers.  That is a big long-term wish of mine.


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