This Tuesday I taught my last University of Texas String Project lesson. String Project is a program sponsored by the Butler School of Music designed to train teachers and develop young talent.
The idea of the String Project came about in the years following World War II when an acute shortage of string players became apparent. In 1948 Dr. William E. Doty, founding Dean of the College of Fine Arts, listened to and supported Albert Gillis’ idea of tackling the problem head-on by developing an imaginative program for the preparation of string teachers. Together they founded the Junior String Project and Professor Gillis became the director, a position he held for the first 10 years. Eight years after its founding, the program was renamed the University of Texas String Project. Professor Phyllis Young joined the staff in its fifth year and began directing in 1958. She was involved with the University of Texas String Project for 41 years, directing it for 35 of those years. In the fall of 2002, Dr. Laurie Scott became the director of the University of Texas String Project.
Working in String Project closely with Dr. Scott and my other incredible teaching colleagues was a privilege. I learned countless teaching skills (including classroom management, lesson planning, and event organizing and many others) through observation, feedback, and practice. Furthermore, I feel I have a network of string teachers who I will reach out to wherever I decide to set roots in the future.
With String Project I taught three group classes every Saturday, attended an organizational faculty meeting every Thursday, and taught 17 private students throughout the week. Though quality of teaching and incredible growth occurred in the walls of the music while group classes, lessons on teaching, and private lessons occurred, it is worth noting that these classes didn’t happen in state of the art facilities. Most of the time our work was done in simple classrooms with rows of desks and a whiteboard, or simply in a practice room.
After teaching hundreds of private lessons to dozens of students over the past three years in a 5X7 foot practice room, I’ve made a few observations.
Children thrive on routine (and I do, too)
The practice room I tried to use most often had my teaching schedule taped to the door. I was always met by the same, beat-up upright piano and maybe (if I was lucky) a piano bench. The primary reason I loved this room was because it didn’t have a mirror in it, which in my experience is a huge distraction to students.
I would set up this practice room in the same way every lesson. My violin case would sit on top of the piano, my violin unpacked and resting inside. The piano bench was positioned at an angle out from the piano. I would leave my teaching bag up on the top of the piano next to my violin case. I would scavenge for a comfortable chair to set in the corner of the room for parents to sit in and take notes. And finally, I would find a stand to nestle on the other side of the piano (opposite of the bench where I sit). I would adjust the height of the stand to the height of the student I was teaching, and ask students to place their practice chart on the stand right when they walked in.
I can’t explain the rationale for every part of this set up, but I can confidently say after three years of routinely setting up in this way I could tell that the quality of a lesson was diminished when I didn’t do so. There is something incredibly grounding about configuring a public space many have access to into an arrangement that is uniquely your own.
I don’t need much to teach well
Not that my minimalistic tendencies need further indulging, but after three years of teaching in a practice room (and carrying everything I need to teach with me) it became rather clear that teaching well doesn’t require much stuff.
I’ve already written about the contents of my teaching bag, so I won’t go into the details. The point that I want to make sure not to never forget is that teaching is not about the gizmos, or the library collection, or the sticker chart hanging on the wall. It is about the relationship between the parent, child, and teacher. All of our knowledge, skills, communication tools and motivation come from within, and certainly don’t need to take up space on a bookshelf. My experience, skills, two hands, and a willingness to work is what makes me a teacher– not my teaching studio.
It is also kind of cool to think I could set up shop on a remote mountain range or in the middle of a forrest.*
There is value in meeting students and parents outside of the home
Just as I take a bow with my students at the beginning and ending of every lesson, I think there is something symbolic about us making a journey together to a public space (a practice room) to learn.
I grew up taking from two teachers who taught lessons out of their homes. I never took for granted the opportunity to learn from them in their own private spaces, in fact it felt incredibly intimate. But in a certain way, the journey to learn was one sided. My mom and I would drive 30 minutes or an hour to receive a violin lesson in the place that my teacher already lived. Never did my teachers drive to meet us.
I love that during my time with String Project the journey of student and parent to the practice room corresponded to my own journey. They met me to learn how to play the violin, and I met them to learn how to teach it. We did our best work in a place that neither of us owned, but all of us worked to get to.
From my time in String Project teaching in a tiny little practice room I learned that very little is required to allow for a quality lesson. Lessons aren’t dependent on perfect conditions, a well decorated room, or boxes full of teaching supplies. All that is required is a place to meet, readiness to work, and an established routine in which to work comfortably.
I encourage you to experiment with teaching in smaller places, perhaps away from the comfort of your own home. What can you live without, and still be just as good of a teacher? What can you live without, and do an even better job teaching?
*I’m honestly tempted, please don’t let me do this.