The Art of Teaching and Being Taught

Acrobatics is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. The physical prowess needed to do even the most basic maneuvers is on par with that of the Incredible Hulk, while the necessary flexibility exceeds even that of a ballerina. Upon seeing my first live cirque performance in Montreal, La Clique, I knew that someday, I wanted to try it.

Several years after seeing this performance, I found myself at a crossing, where the traditional gym environment and workout just wasn’t exciting me anymore.

By shear chance, in cocktail conversation, a newly acquainted friend of mine started talking about circus training centers, where acrobats and aerialists dedicated countless time to their craft. Apparently, these training centers existed throughout the country, and the one she had been attending happened to be right next to where I was living!

What better time to attempt acrobatics than now? Eagerly, I enrolled in several months worth of classes.

As the months went by, I could feel myself getting stronger and more flexible. Being a rock climber my body was not exactly ripe for acrobatics, but it was getting better. Gradually, I went from absolutely horrible, to terrible. A step in the right direction! And after several more months I felt myself go from terrible to simply bad. And that’s where I remained. Bad. Better then when I started, but still bad.

This can be a tough place to be. It’s not a plateau, but more of a never-ending abyss. A black hole you’ll never get out of. Had I reached my limit?

Recently, I came to the conclusion that I should move on. That I hadn’t wasted my time, but I’d experimented with acrobatics, and now it was time to experiment with something else. I went to sign up for my last class and something strange happened. The one class with the master teacher that I’d never been able to get into had a spot open. Was this a joke? This three-person class filled up months in advance solely by the more experienced students. But I figured, why not? So I snagged the spot.

A Master Teacher

The next morning, I went to class. “Your first time?” the master teacher said to me in slightly broken English. “Yes,” I responded, knowing full well that I was about to make a fool of myself. Having me raise my arms over my head, he first tested my shoulder flexibility. “Hahahaha!!” He erupted in uncontrollable laughter, not in a condescending way, just in amazement that somebody’s shoulders could be that inflexible.

“Great,” I thought, “Should I leave now, or later?”

But the class hadn’t even started yet. As the class went on, the master teacher helped me more and more. He explained everything I was doing wrong and everything I was doing right. He made it a point to focus on the fact that I had a lot of good things going for me. He gave me gems of information left and right. Things I had been doing wrong previously were being cleared up in a matter of seconds just by his insights alone.

When I applied his instructions, huge smiles came over his face, “Yeesss!!! That’s it!!!” I could literally feel his encouragement. Towards the end of the class, the master teacher told me he wanted me to be in more of his classes, and that he didn’t want to see my potential wasted.

Wait. Hold on a second. Potential??? Here I was ready to quit, and he’s saying I have potential???

Needless to say, I didn’t quit that day. Instead, I signed up for more classes, tried harder, and got more excited…all because of the master teacher’s encouragement.

That’s the true art of teaching. The ability to guide someone, impart knowledge based upon your experience to them, and to help them realize their potential.

A teacher’s view is very different than that of a student’s; they’ve been down a path, and they’ve helped others walk a path. That gives them the unique perspective to see where a student currently is, and allows them to visualize where the student could be.

The student doesn’t have the whole perspective. If you find yourself in the position where you’re the teacher, it’s your job to help your students understand the full perspective.

A teacher of mine who constantly helped me realize this full perspective was Mulgrew Miller. Upon hearing the news that he did not make it through his second stroke, I nearly burst into tears in front of a whole subway car full of unknowing-passengers. I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Mulgrew thought about things in a unique way, which, in turn, made you think of them in a unique way. He would never tell you what to play. He wanted you to figure out how you wanted to play things. He prided himself on the fact that at William Paterson, we didn’t have a “method,” a one-size-fits-all approach that everyone needed to learn to be a jazz musician. He wanted to see the individual come through.

But, he constantly emphasized that jazz is a language that’s already been created and to play jazz, you have to learn the existing language. He’d often comment that some kids were playing a language, but not necessarily the jazz language.

Mulgrew always steered you in the right direction without doing your homework for you. That’s what great teachers do. Just like my master acrobatics teacher, Mulgrew imparted knowledge, guided, and encouraged all of us students. In fact, I don’t think I ever heard a negative comment come out of his mouth. A truly great man and musician, he will be deeply missed.

Being a Great Student

Now getting taught is the other side of the equation. At the end of a rehearsal or a class, Mulgrew commonly asked in a tongue-and-cheek way “Any questions?…Any answers?”

I have one major regret from my experience with Mulgrew. I didn’t ask him near the amount of questions I should have. I was too busy being intimidated, too busy thinking about what my friends in the class might think, too afraid that people might find out I didn’t know something that I perhaps should.

This apprehension and desire to protect yourself from embarrassment is a great determent to your education. Every time Mulgrew asked if we had questions, I should have been the first one to raise my hand.

Because everyone was so shy, Mulgrew would ask the students if they had any advice to share. No offense, but I don’t want to hear some second-rate singer’s opinion about pretty much anything. Okay, that’s a bit harsh. But seriously. Mulgrew Miller was in the room! Whose opinion do you think I really care about? Some students would then go on and on, elaborating into every detail about what they liked and didn’t like, which brings me to another pitfall as a student: ego.

The first problem I discussed – not asking questions like it’s your job – stems from ego as well. Ego is at the heart of it all. We don’t ask questions to protect our ego, and the things we say and reveal about ourselves in front of teachers, we often present in a way as to look good in the teachers eyes. I’m not saying we all do this one-hundred percent of the time. I’m saying this is a pitfall we are all guilty of and should aim to avoid as it’s hurting our ability to glean valuable knowledge from our teachers.

It’s okay to admit you don’t know something. In fact, the teachers I learned the most from, I went in with the attitude that I barely knew anything because in reality, that was true. You have to learn to let your guard down. Being a good student is not about impressing your teacher, it’s about starting somewhere, learning things, applying these things, and demonstrating ample improvement.

Here’s a little secret: it’s much easier to demonstrate improvement if you start from an honest place, an honest place being one that illustrates where you’re actually at in the grand scheme of things.

For example, many saxophone players including myself at one point, learned Giant Steps early on, but have completely ignored basic forms like the blues or rhythm changes. Then, going into a lesson, the student will say they’re beyond these basic forms and are currently working on harder tunes like Giant Steps.

This is not an honest starting point. Granted, your teacher will think you’re better than you are, but you’ll show little to no signs of improvement and most of your education will have been wasted. Again, let your guard down, start from an honest place, and you’ll actually learn and improve.

I remember students arguing with my friend, teacher, and mentor Art Bouton about reed size. The student insisted he had to play extremely hard reeds because Coltrane played hard reeds. While it’s unclear exactly what Coltrane played, this poor kid struggled to even get a sound out of the horn, not to mention, he looked like he was about to explode. He simply would not listen to Art.

I remember similar experiences with Rich Perry. No matter what Rich said, some students would just ignore him, as if they were so unique that his advice didn’t apply to them. I can’t say I’m free of ever acting this way. We all tend to react to new information like this, especially if we’ve been doing something a particular way for so long. I hear the phrase “But I’ve been doing it this way for years” nearly every day, usually as I’m eavesdropping on a nearby conversation.

This is no way to learn. If you want to take what a teacher has to offer, go in with a blank-slate. Understand that you’re getting the opportunity to get in the head of a person’s perspective. Approach it like that and later you can figure out how you want to apply each gem of information.

The Art of Teaching and Being Taught

Throughout our lifetime, we will all find ourselves in both roles, teacher and student. I continually find myself in both. That’s why it’s important to understand how to teach and how to be taught.

Teachers are over worked, under payed, and receive less than their share of appreciation. Growing up in a house with a mother who’s one of the best educators this world has ever seen, I’ve witnessed it first-hand.

Yet they go back, day after day to help students excel because they genuinely want to impart knowledge and they care about the success of their students. They dedicate their lives to guiding their students, passing down knowledge, and to helping students realize they actually have great potential. That’s the true art of teaching.

Be a great student.

It’s your job to extract the information, not their job to offer it up on a silver platter.

I have regrets that I didn’t ask Mulgrew everything I wanted to. I let my ego and fear of embarrassment trump my verbal curiosity. Raise that hand constantly, fire questions based on your desire to know the answer, never to impress, and don’t be afraid if people think you’re stupid. You may never get another chance to ask the questions you had.