In Defense of Teaching

Posted by Ben on June 29, 2014 at 5:00 PM

I'm sure most college students have at some point come across the quote, "Those who can do. Those who can't teach." Though there are some disciplines in which this saying is more frequently used than others, it is particularly pervasive with regards to music. Obviously, as a music teacher who has no desire whatsoever to ever stop teaching regardless of how my future ends up, this is very annoying to hear!


I think the people who prescribe to this mindset ultimately have a sort of focusing bias, where they use Yo Yo Ma getting standing ovations throughout the world to represent "do-ers" and jaded kindergarten teachers clapping quarter notes to bored children to represent "teachers," thereby ignoring the bigger picture of what most musicians are really doing and what most teachers are really doing. I'd like to elaborate on this with 5 points on why I so strongly disapprove of this saying.


1. It assumes that "doing" skills are more admirable and difficult to obtain than "teaching" skills.

- I fail to see why the ability to play a Chopin prelude is any better than the ability to get a middle schooler to understand and become excited by a Chopin prelude. Why is being flexible enough to teach two completely different students any less impressive than being flexible enough to play two completely different pieces? Each skill comes with its own set of challenges. In fact, I would argue that the path towards playing a piece successfully is in some ways clearer than the path towards being a great teacher. When I sit down to practice a Beethoven piece, I feel very well-supported by all the teaching I've received, the thousands of books about Beethoven, all the recordings and videos of other pianists playing Beethoven, etc. When I'm substitute teaching at the Chester Charter School for the Arts and am trying to get a group of 7th graders to feel that music theory is relevant to them, however, I feel much more on my own, despite all of the existing literature on pedagogy.


2. It fails to account for the fact that almost every musician both "does" and "teaches."

 - Except for the most lucrative .01% (Joshua Bell, John Adams, etc.), every musician teaches in some capacity. Almost all of the recent Pulitzer Prize winners teach full-time at universities, and almost all orchestral musicians maintain a private studio. Similarly, I have never heard of a music teacher who does nothing but teaching and never gets any sort of a professional gig. While we can differentiate between what age groups different people teach, it is nonetheless unhelpful to differentiate between "teachers" and "do-ers" (especially in a hierarchal way) when those two almost never exist in isolation.


3. It assumes that everyone secretly wishes they were a "do-er."                 

- This is like saying, "Some people can't afford to live in suburbs, so they live in cities. Therefore, those who can live in suburbs do, and those who can't live in cities." While it is possibly true that more people want to become performers than teachers, this negates the thousands upon thousands of people (including people who go to school specifically for music education) for whom teaching is their principal interest, more so than performing or composing. Personally, I look forward to teaching MUCH more than I look forward to composing or practicing piano.


4. It doesn't consider the sociological state of classical music.

- Interest in classical music is dying, and audiences are becoming more exclusively elderly, and yet the number of students looking to study music both in colleges and taking lessons is as high as ever. About 40 million people in China are taking piano lessons (/, about 30 million Americans take instrumental lessons (/, and applications to major conservatories grow every year. This is not to mention the millions of grade school students who are required to take a music class at school. However, an unbelievably small percent of those people actually pay money to attend concerts or purchase CDs. It would seem to me that given these statistics, teachers as a whole are in a better position to keep interest in classical music alive than are people who do "gigs" or play in orchestras, who target such a narrower pool of people.


5. It values quantity above quality.

- It is definitely true that individual professional musicians reach a larger number of people than individual teachers do (but only on an individual level. Read my comment number 4 about teachers and musicians as a whole), but it is not necessarily true that musicians impact their audiences in a more meaningful way. I've gone to classical music concerts and listened to classical music CDs all throughout my life, but it was the teachers I had who really cemented my interest. When I sit down to compose or play the piano, I think about comments my composition and piano teachers have given me much more than I think about the output of any composers or pianists or the experience I had at any concert. I would think that the comparatively individual, customized, and habitual interaction between a teacher and student is in many ways more meaningful than the more distanced, sporadic interaction between a performer and an audience member.


A 2010 study by Indiana University (!/story/job-market-conservatories-stress-business-skills/) found that less than half of recent music conservatory alumni are doing work that even "somewhat" relates to their training. I think that part of that comes from the fact that graduates have so strongly internalized this romanticized idea of what it means to be a "real musician" that they give up once they fail to obtain one of the almost negligibly small openings in orchestras each year. While I am not saying that getting a teaching job is easy (even a middle school opening can get hundreds of applicants), and while I'm DEFINITELY not saying that teaching is for everyone, I do believe that many people who otherwise could have enjoyed a fulfilling and successful life as a teacher back out simply because of prestige. If more of these potentially great musicians tried out teaching, the state of classical music might very well be much more vibrant than it is at the moment.

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1 Comment

Reply Rhonda Hunter
9:13 AM on July 7, 2014 
I'm currently teaching private piano lessons. I've taught in public & private schools for 20 + yrs. But no matter what "job" I've had, I was the person they would rely on to "train" or "teach" how to do whatever there was needed. I've directed Children's choir and been in the Chancel Choir (adults) at church. One of my piano students one day said my life was all about music. At that moment I did agree. But more importantly my life has been about being a TEACHER! I have a Masters in Elem. Education, a minor in Music Ed and various other certifications. I am a musician, but I think of myself as a teacher first and foremost. My husband is an I.T. genius, but can't teach me a thing on the computer without us both getting frustrated. It take a special person to be a teacher, not just someone who can't quite live up to "their potential". Teaching is my potential. Therefore I completely agree with you article! Thank you for writing it.