Christine's Blog

Musings and Thoughts about All Things Musical ...

My Teaching Journey

Oct 20, 2020

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” – Albert Einstein

When I said teaching challenged me I meant it!  Wow… what an eye opener!

I must admit, my first year teaching I was really terrible, and I mean awful.  It’s not that I wasn’t trying hard, I just had no clue how to go about it. I had no idea on how to sequence a set of lessons so that a student would transition easily from one lesson to the next, allowing for success and achievement at each step of the way.  I had no notion of this and was completely mystified when lessons fell apart and didn’t work!   

Because of this, I started to pursue ‘how to teach’ relentlessly.  I went to every masterclass I could find in any instrument to observe teachers and their methods. I looked to any community of teachers that was willing share its ideas and knowledge with someone like me, willing to learn yet not knowing where to start.

One of my beloved teaching mentors was Carey Cheney, who publishes the ‘Solos for Young Cellists’ books.  I met her in Ontario during my first session of teacher training and after that first summer I was hooked!  Our meeting that summer started a summer tradition of flying to Salt Lake City to visit and stay with her, while studying the ‘how to’ of teaching.  Many of the ideas that I bring to my students today are the result of those sessions.  Because the Suzuki community is collaborative in nature, I’m sure these ideas have been developing within that community for years and are the invention of many minds… many great minds. The other golden gem I discovered was the National Cello Institute [NCI] run by Rick Mooney, who publishes the Position Pieces series, which I use extensively in my teaching.

During my first year at NCI, I had a really broad schedule set out for myself. I determined what classes I needed that would offer a wide variety of teachers and class types (repertoire, group, ensembles, orchestra etc) that would assist me on my learning to teach journey.  Well, my carefully thought out plans went out the window the minute I walked into Phyllis Young’s Studio.  I found that every time she was in session I made sure that I was there … to say I thought she was brilliant was an understatement.  She found a way to effectively communicate with every student she had in a fun and relatable manner. I was simply wowed!  She was, I believe, in her eighties when I was there, running around in these sandals with springs under the soles, and with such energy, vigour and humour. Simply captivating.  I bought one of her books and I’ll never forget what she said to me. She said, “Dear, these are not books you read, these are books to meditate on.”  And so I have done. After years these books are still an integral part of my teaching.

This process of studying how to teach took me approximately 3 years and during that time I was already starting to settle into a real program for myself and my students.  They were seeing success on their instruments, feeling good about playing and being able to perform with ease and confidence. All this because I was now armed with all this knowledge, resources and input.  Yippee!  I was successfully implementing all of what I had learned and passing on the necessary pieces to my students.   

My biggest desire as a teacher was always to pave the way for my students to become accomplished on the instrument, by having the tools to use the cello as a vehicle for self-expression, joy, meditation, and as an outlet for their day. As well, I wanted them to be able to use the cello as a method of communication with others, to reach their own hearts and souls and others’. I wanted to be able to help give them everything they’d always wished the cello and music could grant them.

Well, lo and behold this began to happen, students now came to their lessons with newly composed pieces, newly learned pieces, stories of successful performances, playing at open mic opportunities with other musicians; many different things came into play. It was and is such a heartwarming experience.

During this time my studio began to grow quite quickly and in a few years, I was having to turn away students and start a wait list.  This got me thinking, here I am maxed out and I really only have so many hours in a day, is there a way for me to share this knowledge with others that doesn’t require one-on-one time?

At the same time I had a student that was moving to a small town in Australia. She asked to continue lessons as she was going to be in a fairly remote location and wished to keep up her work on the cello. The wheels began to turn, and after a time, I Luv Cello was born!  Online lessons—what an amazing age we live in that we have access to people all over the world, simply due to technology, WOW!

So it began, I started cataloguing my lessons in a sequential manner so that others could begin to learn the cello in the comfort of their own home and on their own timeframe.  Online lessons were the solution to two problems –  firstly my time constraints and secondly enabling people who have a love and desire to play cello, but no access to a teacher, to have an opportunity to learn, regardless of their location.

I’m an eternal optimist and really underestimated the time it would take to set this all up. I originally envisioned the entire process taking only a few months. Well, a year and a half a year later as I work through the process, I realize it’s a larger undertaking than I anticipated! I thought well…as I go through the journey, I might as well start a blog  to share the things that make me tick, masterclasses, performances, history of music — all the things that I enjoy, that fascinate me and enhance my life.  So here we are at the beginning. I am really looking forward to this journey and hope that it interests you. To wrap up I would like to share with you one of my favourite quotes by Phyllis Young.

Much cello love,
Christine

The Teacher

The teacher is a professional whose principal function is to lead the students step by step in the art of string playing in such a manner that each individual play appears relatively simple and flows into the next.  Her all-consuming goal is to open the doors of self-expression.  Convinced that each person has something within him uniquely beautiful and individual just waiting to be freed, she realizes that she as the teacher, does not create it — it already exists.  Her role is to guide and help the student develop technical tools so that the internal beauty can flow freely.

The teacher looks on herself as the key-holder and recognizes that the ease with which a door is opened has nothing to do with the contents of the room and that untold splendors may lie behind the door with the most stubborn lock.  And she believes the medium that her student has chosen for self-expression is one of the most beautiful and elemental of all — the vibrating string.

Excerpt from Playing the String Game by Phyllis Young

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