What Teaching Has Taught Me

I started teaching at age 15, as an intern at the conservatory where I studied music. My view of teaching has changed dramatically over the nearly 15 years that I have taught, and I’ve learned from the experience of teaching.

When I was 15, I was already serious about violin and had the goal of practicing at least three hours every day. My private violin lessons were the single most important thing to me in the world – and I expected nothing less than that from my students. If they didn’t show up “well prepared” to their lessons with me, I would feel that they were wasting my time – time that I could be using to practice for my own lessons with my teacher! I didn’t take into account that each student was a different age and came from different backgrounds – or that they might not share my goals, preferences, or priorities about violin.

Looking back, I see a very closed and insular worldview, and I wish I could go back in time and make better use of those opportunities I had with students. Although not everyone aspires to a career in music, everyone can learn with and from music – and I regret my selfishness in not taking advantage of those precious minutes with my students to teach them something, rather than to resent what I thought was a waste of my time. I still aspire to excellence in teaching and in musicianship (and wouldn’t want it any other way!), but my understanding of what this excellence means has broadened.

I can’t go back and teach the 15-year-old me the lessons I’ve spent half a lifetime learning. But I can share these lessons with YOU and hopefully start conversations on the topic of how to best help our students face their challenges and achieve their potential, no matter what that looks like. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

  1. Before even meeting students for the first time, strive to have as many resources ready as possible to provide the best quality of content for the lesson. I try to know a wide variety of techniques, scales, etudes, and methods of teaching to have more options to offer to each individual student, rather than just offering “one true path” that must be followed.
  2. Get to know each of your students as individuals, not just as objects into which you pour your knowledge of music. This is especially important in individual lessons. Knowing their interests and reasons for studying music helps mold the whole teaching plan.
  3. Connect. Again, spend time talking to your students to figure out what they hope to get out of music lessons. If the content and method of teaching is related to the students’ goals and interests, they will be much more likely to work hard toward achieving results. This doesn’t mean “dumbing it down” or not striving for excellence – it simply means remembering that music is relevant, today, to each of us – not just a museum item to be revered. Sharing your love of music is powerful, and teaching why each piece is unique is inspiring.
  4. Be patient. Truly connecting with a student might take weeks or even months, but I now believe it is crucial to the success of the class. And if after a semester you didn’t see much improvement, you can sit down with your student and figure out what can be improved in the method to better serve her or him. Don’t assume they are lazy or don’t care. It might be that they could not find an hour each day to practice, but that shorter assignments with similar difficulty might work. Give them a chance to express their concerns and difficulties so that together you can work toward a solution.
  5. Once you learn more about them and their goals, you can push them to give their very best and to take ownership in their learning. You can help them develop skills and values like respect to the music, composer, teacher, and fellow students; discipline in following the class plan; love for music, art, creativity, hard work, and public performance – and so much more. Always aim to make the learning experience as profound and impactful as possible.
  6. Instill active learning from students – do not make it a one-way street where the expert unilaterally imparts knowledge. Ask questions that stimulate more than a student’s ability to recall facts and trivia. Make the class as active as possible by asking deeper questions and motivating each student to come up with their own opinion and interpretation.
  7. Recognize that some students might have similar goals and career interests as you, but that many (most) will not. The lesson is to benefit them, not you.It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting (expecting) a class of child prodigies to be able to show off at end-of-year performances, but wouldn’t it be boring if everyone went on to be a professional musician? We need artists, doctors, social workers, writers, and teachers too – and your time teaching them music can help shape them in those roles, if you let it. Strive to help students in the best way you can during that golden time you get to spend with them. Help them grow.

These ideas can be adjusted and balanced depending on the circumstances of each class. Following them as general guidelines has made me love teaching more and more every day. I love teaching every single one of my students, and each of them is unique and advances on an individual path that molds them toward their goals.

Much of my teaching perspective has been shaped during my time at the Civic Orchestra and the Peoples Music School. I would like to thank them for offering so many resources, workshops with wonderful teachers, and opportunities to help me grow as a teacher – and as a person.

By Civic Fellow and violin Maria Arrua

TOP: Civic Fellow Maria Arrua works with a student during the 2018 Chicago Youth in Music Festival. | Todd Rosenberg Photography