Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Experiences

The age of ten was very full of big and new experiences for me. I began going through puberty at this age, already taller than all the boys and most of the girls. I broke my leg, which was thankfully the second and last bone I broke (knock on wood), and had to spend most of the summer in a cast up to my hip. It became apparent that I had inherited my mother’s skin—specifically psoriasis—and I began the struggle of controlling a frustrating skin condition. And I began to play the saxophone.

I had always wanted to be like my sister, and so I had chosen clarinet initially as the band instrument I would play. But Vanessa, in her young wisdom, had convinced me that it would be better to have my own instrument—something that went well with clarinet. She chose the saxophone for me. I was good at the instrument from the start, picking it up rather quickly and excelling immediately. But as far as specifics, besides a few songs that will forever stick in my head as honking and percussive melodies that most likely ruined anyone’s love for the tunes (Beautiful Brown Eyes being one), I cannot remember exactly how I learned the basics. I can deduce from flipping through method books at the music publisher’s office where I work as an editor that there was a common pedagogy to the whole thing. But I can’t put myself back in that spot and remember what it was like to be a new saxophone student.

I didn’t take lessons until I was in high school, when my parents were convinced this was a path I would travel on for many years to come. I only practiced by myself at home the allotted 30 minutes per day, working on songs and scales, and I played in band class every day. Eventually, after elementary school, junior high, high school, and college concert and jazz bands, I received my degree in music composition. I have played in dozens of bands since the age of ten. I continue to play gigs pretty regularly now at the age of 38.

It had been years since I had taught any private lessons when a friend referred someone to me as a teacher. The timing was right, in that I needed the extra cash, I was working with concert band pedagogy and method books constantly at work, and the prospective student lived less than a mile away from my home. I wasn’t really prepared, however. I stumbled when asked how much I charge, although I had rehearsed the conversation beforehand, and I ended up changing my price later anyway. I was a little disappointed to find that the student was using a method book that my employer did not publish, since those were the series with which I was familiar and to which I could refer if necessary. But I was determined to make this a good experience for the student and for myself.

My student is a ten-year-old beginning band student playing alto saxophone. He is headstrong, often overconfident, and eager, but he is also very easily distracted. I could tell this from the first meeting, but I was encouraged by the fact that he had already taken drum set lessons. After learning that he had not yet been taught how to read music, as his lessons only included playing by ear, I realized that I would have to take his familiarity with rhythms and apply the tones and fingerings necessary to playing a wind instrument. I knew this would be a challenge for him, but I was up for helping him through it.

Now that we have been meeting for months, I am beginning to find what does and doesn’t work for his learning process. He is very much aware that everyone does not learn the same, which is a good thing. But I have been set back by unexpected obstacles.

Although he has drumming experience, he has trouble with staying on beat. This was not so apparent when I would clap my hand against my leg as he played, because I could be wavering in my own pulse, possibly because of his varying tempo. But when I suggested to his mother that she buy him a metronome for use on his own, and we tried employing it within the lessons, I realized there is a disconnect somewhere here. I asked him to practice only playing one pitch—quarter notes initially, then moving on to half notes, whole notes, and possibly even eighth notes. When we tried this it was satisfactory. But when he tried to read music along with a metronome, there was no regard for the tempo. He suddenly failed to hear or see the pulses as the machine clicked and flashed. I realize that this is a common issue with beginning musicians, but I was surprised by its presence in a child who had already learned to play drums.

Another issue that has given me much to think about is that my student is very easily distracted and quick to lose attention. I had realized this early on, but because of his insistence on taking on large tasks in each lesson, I moved forward while trying to take notes on what I could do to work around this. I have decided that we need to take breaks often. Sometimes, when he gets completely off track, he plays something totally different from what’s on the page. It will be subtle at first—he’ll miss a rhythm but keep going, then he stumbles on the notes. Other times, however, he’ll just keep on playing for measures and measures, but the rhythms and notes will be nowhere near what is written on the page. It’s as if he’s daydreaming in improvisation. I have to reel him back in, ask him questions about the baseball trophies he has, taking a minute or two to clear his mind before continuing on with the song. I have realized that this point arrives sooner than I would hope within the lesson, so now I know I must find a way to work on concepts and songs in even smaller chunks than we have been already. Like the television and computers that rule his life, I have to give him only flashes of information.

One thing I have discovered that is pretty impressive about my student is that he has an amazing ear for mimicking others. I had realized early on that he was memorizing what he heard others playing, rather than reading the actual notes and rhythms on the page. But I figured he was applying both the listening skills he already had and the reading skills that were new to him. When I decided to try something fun in between the monotonous and grueling playing of concert songs, I offered that he should mimic what I played, but without being able to see my fingers. After a fumbling first attempt—starting on the right note, but getting tripped up a couple of times before repeating the entire phrase—he nailed every single pattern I gave him. I started on different notes, I played different rhythms, and I mixed up arpeggios with scale patterns. He nailed every one. I was amazed. Although I knew that he had learned the drums by ear, I was thoroughly impressed that he was applying pitches and fingerings to this exercise without any effort. I plan to use this sort of exercise much more in the future, ramping up the difficulty and testing him further each time.

It has been no surprise to me that the process of teaching fascinates me. This has always been true. But I had been afraid for years to attempt to teach students, for fear I would have not enough to offer them in order to propel their talents forward. Because I took the challenge on this one student, I have been really enjoying the experience—one in which I am both teaching and learning. I hope that this continues for a long time to come, and that I can possibly add more students to my lesson schedule.

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