The Episcopal Student Center, an organization I am a part of on campus is in the process of starting a community garden. We have three large raised beds full of soil and compost. This week we are busy planting seeds and seedlings with a grid system in each of our boxes.
As I was watering the newest plants I began to explore the relationship between gardening and teaching. The four essential step to establish and maintain healthy crops parallels those needed to develop confident and capable musicians.
1. Preparing an healthy environment
2. Planting the seeds
3. Watering the seeds
4. Waiting Diligently
The one I will discuss today in detail is planting the seeds.
One of the pleasures of gardening is the margin of error available. Tending a garden allows for imperfection and demands flexibility. Not every weed needs to be intercepted and not every tomato stem needs to be trimmed in order to yield delicious crops. The one element of gardening that is aided by diligence and forethought is the process of planting: what, when, where and how to plant.
The seeds that we plant in our students are the essential techniques we introduce in lessons. The planting itself is where the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student happens. Just as a gardener intimately understands each of the plants she cares for, a teacher must understand every facet and need of a technique she communicates.
How I prepare to plant seeds…
Know everything about the seeds.
Each seed packet has a unique instruction guide that details how many seeds to plant, how close together, in which season, and where. Unfortunately, this information is not distilled so conveniently for violin techniques. Based on my teacher training and observations I have developed an instruction guide for techniques such as fluid long bows, vibrato, note reading, independent fingers, string crossings, and others. I know where in the repertoire I expect these techniques to be mastered, how long they will take to develop, and which techniques they can overcrowd if introduced together.
Have several tools for each seed to plant.
No two students are the same and every environment is different. For each seed I aim to plant, I have at least two tools ready to get the job done. Ed Kreitman spoke to this in Book 3 training. He passed out a list of common practices used by teachers to communicate information, and it included the following: metaphors, imagery, demonstrations, explanations, physical guidance. For each technique I have a first choice strategy that has worked the most in the past, but I keep two or three other strategies in my back pocket to use if the first doesn’t stick. I am also always on the lookout for new tools. Dr. Suzuki regularly exclaimed, “New idea!” to his students and teacher trainees. The strategies also include the way I will communicate information with the practice parent.
Wait and perpetually scan for the proper time to plant.
Just because one has a handful of seeds doesn’t mean one should plant them all on top of each other. It takes time and space to prevent overcrowding. The competition between plants for resources will lead to a malnourished garden with a low yield. Teachers must also be wary of introducing too many techniques too quickly in too close a proximity. Dr. Suzuki taught “one point lessons” to encourage complete concentration on and reliable of establishment of one technique at a time. It is only once a skill becomes unconscious that a teacher should feel comfortable introducing a new technique. The best time to do this evaluation is in the long review period at the beginning of each lesson. I ask myself if I could see each student performing Mendelssohn with this foundation, and if I can’t, I address deficiencies based on the priorities Ed Kreitman outlined in Teaching From the Balance Point.
- (a) balanced posture of body
- (b) tone production
- (c) perfect intonation
- (d) musicianship.
Make sure the seed was planted.
Because the seeds themselves take time and don’t look anything like the plant, it is difficult to tell whether the seed was actually planted. Before I send a child and parent home to practice, I must make sure they can demonstrate their understanding of technique I introduced. This process normally appears as the inverse of step 2. I assess their knowledge by asking them to use several ways to teach me — metaphors, imagery, demonstrations, explanations, physical guidance. It is this step that tells me they are ready to teach themselves at home.