Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach

Could there be any stupider expression in the English language? It’s something I never understood; after all, everything I value most I only care about because I had great teachers who introduced me to them.

I cannot understand why so many people view teaching as a lesser profession. My family taught me the exact opposite–that teaching is one of the most honorable professions, and one of the most important. Plus, it’s one of the most difficult professions out there.

Teaching for me has always been the most reliable way of making a living. But I still remember the first piano lesson I ever taught–four year old, first time playing piano–and feeling like an utter failure after that thirty minute lesson. The kid wanted to learn, and, at least for a four year old, paid attention. The only issue was that that kid had the unfortunate luck to be stuck with me as his first teacher. I’m still surprised at how clueless I was during that lesson. Pedagogy classes and years of playing piano didn’t prepare me a bit.

The kid knew nothing. Of course he would know nothing. He was four! But I didn’t have the right tools, the right vocabulary, the right anything to explain all this stuff to him. I mean, a time signature’s a time signature. What else do you need to know? Why is it so hard to understand?

Well, it was hard to understand because I sucked at explaining it. It was a concept that came so naturally to me,because I had lived with it longer. Only then did I realize how lucky I was to have had good teachers; teachers who understood how to speak to me at my level, who knew how to distill complicated concepts in a way that was easy to understand. I also felt really guilty. What a dick I sometimes was as a student! The teacher was only doing her job, and I made life hell for her by just being a bratty kid.

Well, this kid didn’t last long as my student. He soon quit lessons. But he did give me the determination to become a better teacher. I would think about lessons, how to make them more efficient, what kinds of activities kept my students focused and excited to learn, how to keep them motivated enough to practice. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of abandoning idealistic plans midway through because they weren’t working.

It took me about a year before I felt like I sort of knew what I was doing. Looking back, I still sucked, but at least I had some semblance of confidence in myself as a teacher.

What took me by surprise was how much better my playing got as I learned how to teach. I felt like somehow I was more able to express myself musically. Teaching taught me to listen with more of an analytical ear, taught me to diagnose problems, and most importantly it taught me to figure out strategies to solve the problem.

Teaching also helped me to come to decisions about what I think are the most important aspects of music. What qualities I want to cultivate as a performer, what kinds of knowledge, both theoretical and historical, I find to be the most useful. Really, teaching benefited me so much as a musician, that I almost felt guilty taking money for it (stress on the word almost).

I think I’m a much better teacher now than when I started, but still I’m always humbled by how often I feel I fail as a teacher. These failures make me go back to the drawing board and make sure I really understand myself, try to see things from my students’ point of view, and find ways for me to teach it better. The benefit is mutual. Not only do my students play better, I play better too. It completely disproves that whole those who can’t, teach mentality. Really experience has shown me that teaching is the best way to improve yourself, better than even studying with the best teachers.

Teaching has given me more respect for teachers. Teachers can do, and they do a lot. I think it’s only right to change the expression. After all, it’s only those who teach, who can do, will do, and do do.


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