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Look for the Teachers
A Lesson in Giving
There was an oft-quoted moment from the late Fred Roger’s in which he recalled his mother advising him in moments of consternation to “look for the helpers”, and though I have no intention of entering into any debate about the efficacy of the statement, which on the whole sounds very practical, it did inspire another theme that came to me fairly recently.
Not long ago I had a fleeting memory of a ballet teacher who, after a class I had struggled to accompany on the piano in my professional line of work, sat down with me in a teacher’s lounge and advised me on my playing. “I hear what you’re doing,” he said. “You’re playing tonic and dominant chords, and you should be playing block chords.”
He made a reference to having played the guitar and how getting through songs was a matter of making each note a new phrase (along the wheel of fifths and fourths), essentially. It changed the entire way I viewed my work as an improviser, and it had been such a little piece of advice, but this man knew he’d get better music out of me and so offered a moment of instruction. We discussed this for no more than ten minutes before both of us had to leave, but I never forgot it. And now I realize how rare that moment was. The advice freed me.
It occurs to me that finding people willing to teach you something, particularly in the context of work, is notably rare. My last corporate boss liked to use the phrase “coaching”, which as he applied it was more like berating than instructing. Coaching in his hands was filled with passive-aggressivity (praise, then complaints), but I had to wonder why such a person wouldn’t find it to his advantage to truly teach – thus reaping the reward of a better employee. The concept seems to be so very rare, and this is a frequently missing component of contemporary professional life.
Sometimes as a sideline, sometimes as a main form of income, I accompanied modern dance (and some ballet) for years in New York, having started the tradition in Ohio. A college friend’s mother was a modern dance professor, and so the connection from me as a pianist to the dance world was born. My first mentor on the job was a brilliant lady named Eileen who’d been doing similar work for thirty years. She liked to teach by example, and to me those were considerable, thunderous examples of genius and a great use of her degree in composition. Yet the few times she truly offered to teach something directly to me have remained indelible.
When I reached the Juilliard School as a place of work my first year in New York I was agog at the very idea of working in the most famous conservatory on the continent – one of the great schools of the world. My pure improvisatory skills were at work, initially in a dance composition class, but when, in my second year there, I was assigned to a teacher who taught Martha Graham technique, the challenges went up. The technique was not only very specific but alien to me in its aesthetic. I just couldn’t understand how the punctuated phrases were meant to sound musically. How were they supposed to flow? Previous experiences in the technique had not been promising, and there had been no instructions on the back of the carton.
Miss Graham’s technique threw away comfortable phrases on 8 counts (4/4, 2/4, even 3/4 and so on) and replaced them with slow 3/3’s and 4/3’s, plus the occasional “tag” or coda. Even where counts were on the familiar 8’s path, they were mixed with other counts of 3’s, 4’s, 5’s, 6’s and even 9’s on occasion. Whatever the complexity of the work, the teacher for whom I was playing – the late Ethel Winter (once a lead dancer in the Graham company) – intuited that I needed more than I was getting in class. If I were to help the students, she would have to help me help them.
Ms. Winter not only invited me to view historic Graham films with the class, she began to advise me as to phrasing – not in a way that put me down, but in the simplest manner of a teacher teaching – relaying that which she wanted me to know. After viewing one of the films, I exclaimed to her that this really was art after all – that I had gotten it, that it was organic! Her response still warms my heart in what it conveyed. “I KNEW it!”, she chortled. She was so happy the message had been conveyed and in the most positive way.
She had bet on my own intuition, ability, and understanding and had allowed me to come to the subject of my own momentum. In doing so, Ms. Winter (Ethel to me, of course) had indeed taught me something, and purposely so. In doing it she had garnered a better and more engaged musician via a collaboration that lasted through the next seven seasons at the school.
Indeed, I look for the teachers – those who believe there is value in fortifying the next person – “paying it forward” in its most traditional aspect. I suspect that so many employers now view prospective employees as being pre-programmed with all essential skills – only needing to be steered a little. The economics of time use seem to proclaim that no one has the time to instruct, to teach. This can put potentially-valuable employees on edge – afraid to ask questions that might reveal a weakness or worse – ignorance.
Costly seminars are created to offset this dearth of teaching on the job, and the result is that only the few and lucky can attend them – perhaps those entering executive tiers of employment, if there is a budget. Otherwise, one must rely on books and the Internet for instruction, which can be frustrating and oftentimes not particularly on-target, sometimes even misleading. The tradition of apprenticeship suggests that what is to be learnt should best come directly from above, if not from experience itself. Today’s individual is often afraid to ask.
Louis Armstrong once relayed in an interview that very young brass players, as he was, would find few adults willing to instruct on fine points of the instrument in question. Armstrong was playing the cornet and would approach a seasoned musician with a question about dividing a stop (as on a valve) only to be rebuked with “Boy, I ain’t got no time!”.
Armstrong’s mentor was Joseph “King” Oliver – a revered New Orleans cornet player in whose band Armstrong initially made commercial recordings. Part of the reverence, it seems, is that Oliver would take the time to explain the technical answer to the question. “That’s why we all loved Joe Oliver,” explained Armstrong.
Upon my return to the Juilliard School about five and a half years ago, I found myself again playing for the Martha Graham Technique, this time with another great modern teacher (and former Graham Company principal) who had even more specific demands of the accompanist than anyone I had ever played for previously. This at first necessitated a lot of following along, but on one particular exercise I had to admit that the sequence wasn’t firm in my mind.
Again – like the young Louis, I didn’t want to risk questioning that which I might eventually figure out on my own, somewhat embarrassed as I was, and yet I e-mailed the teacher informing her that I was having trouble with the sequence. To my joy, she typed out the complete direction and counts – all the phrases in numeric clusters, allowing me, finally, to compose something for myself which would require less thought when the time came. The answer to a question became the instruction and information that was so needed, and which made the class better.
I try whenever possible to pass along this essential tradition. The world stops on a dime, and someone gets to obtain knowledge without costs, strings, or consequences, save that a little understanding has now been given more life.
Could it be that the current wave of mediocrity in so much communication and expressed thought is partly attributable to a fear of asking or, conversely, the missing love of unconditionally instructing with the confidence that the knowledge will be taken in and adapted? I think maybe so. We feel some people just aren’t worth teaching. We’d rather revile them for their ignorance than offer them a way forward – even over a small item. A little love in the opposite direction can produce wonderous results.
Look for the teachers and be one yourself.