Foggy River


It’s education week here at NewMusicBox, and since I’ve recently written a few posts aimed at students, I thought this would be an opportune time to share some thoughts directed toward teachers themselves. Having had some great and less-than-great teachers (as well as some great and not-so-great teaching moments of my own), I’d like to step back for a moment and identify some inherent problems in teaching, especially teaching creative skills like music composition.

Foggy River

A large part of teaching has to do with explication—working through new concepts and techniques with the student and rendering clear what was previously shrouded in mystery. And without a doubt, this is an essential part of the teacher’s role: turning the unfamiliar into the familiar, into something which can be understood and manipulated.

But the best teachers don’t stop there; they know that their truer calling is to engage aspects of musical experience that have become familiar and render them unfamiliar again. We need to unteach, as well as teach.

In my experience as both student and teacher, I’ve realized how it’s only too easy to resort to explanation rather than confronting the mysterious, and to privilege those concepts—and those musical works—which are easy to teach over ones less yielding to analysis. Helping students work through problems is certainly part of the point—but so, too, is making students aware of problems they never considered. A great teacher must both illuminate the world for his or her students and, at the same time, return parts of the illuminated world to a certain amount of mystery and confusion.

Although I still have very much to learn about being a teacher, it occurs to me that the first part of the equation—explication—is fairly obvious, while the second part—challenging precisely those areas of thought that seem pat and already clearly understood—is much more difficult to understand, much less apply in practice. Teachers—as well they should—often derive much satisfaction in helping students achieve clarity or a particular goal, like completing a composition; but perhaps (myself included) teachers at times require greater sensitivity to the fact that revealing unnoticed complexities that shake up a student’s world view (and—gasp!—deleting measures rather than producing more) are also a kind of progress; both modes of teaching must come into play for any student to develop critical thinking skills and develop as a budding artist.

Many young composers have already had significant experience teaching, both in and outside of academia and often while they are still students themselves. The next generation of teachers are our best hope for a better musical future; here’s hoping they did better than my teachers did, and better than I am able to do now. But if that is to be the case, I strongly suspect that such an improvement won’t be the result of better expository techniques, but the result of a deeper understanding that some mysteries need to remain unexplained, and some useful models called into question. After all, the students of the future need to find new and better models; they need learn from silence as well as explanation, from the rests as well as the notes.

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As a beginning teacher, I was always quick to fill the blackboard with squiggles—clear evidence that teaching has occurred!—and I never asked questions to which I didn’t already know the answer. It was only gradually that I came to see the value in occasionally leaving a few questions open and few loose ends dangling unattended, just begging for some curious student to grapple with; and only after many misgivings that I came to see how inducing a certain kind of cultivated confusion could be just as helpful as explaining certain confusions away.

If I have one specific hope for the next generation of teachers, it’s that they come to redress this inherent imbalance in teaching better than my own generation and the generation who taught me. To paraphrase Aldous Huxley: “Let them be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging their ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Unteaching

  1. Debbie Haynie

    This was very enlightening. I felt as though I was reading a Buddhist essay. In Buddhism it is said , “Before enlightenment, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. After enlightenment, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. The space in between is where it all happens. If you take the space in between and apply it to the mystery behind a good piece of music, a teacher has to allow the student the time and present the resources , then teach the unknown in such a way that the student is inspired to swim through any problems because they like to swim not because they are made too. The tension of being graded is in the way of a student trying to swim. Offering meditation techniques , then addressing the sharks in the water and allowing the student to figure out the best way to swim in this ocean of mystery. Always remember to bring the student back home to the mountains and rivers before they leave you so they can realize the points of enlightenment they may of had while with you.

    1. Debbie Haynie

      Un teaching is he taking away of the grade. Tension is involved with that. Meditation brings the student to a place of creativity to receive what the teacher is trying to un teach for the student to become inspired to see the magic and mystery in the piece presented. Un teaching is just a catch phrase for allowing the student to excel without bringing judgement to the table all the time.

  2. Danvisconti

    Thanks for your perceptive additions, Debbie! It also occurs to me that while not knowing is the starting point, and knowing is one step beyond, that *not* knowing that one knows is perhaps the best state that we can hope to achieve. The best things in life (and in music) are spoiled by our own self-consciousness.

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