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How to Find a Good Teacher? (A Lesson from Aikido…) September 25, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Music, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , ,

About a month ago, my Twitter friend @mwforhr and I were talking about piano teaching. Since I’m a piano teacher and she has a  daughter in music lessons, she asked me what questions she should ask a new piano teacher to find out if they were ideal.

I’m rather embarrassed to realize I never answered…mainly because any question I could think of didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. And people lacking competency in a given field nonetheless often have an amazing ability to BS their way through such questions (as pretty well any university student knows! :D) Level of education, performing experience, “method”, number of years teaching…none of it seemed to pin down what makes a “good teacher”.

But yesterday ago I had an interesting experience along these lines. Not as a teacher, but as a student – of Aikido. I’m a total beginner, never having studied any martial art or even gymnastics. I’m not even naturally “good” at tasks involving kinesthetic awareness and coordination…which is precisely why I’m taking Aikido. (Well, that, and it’s a great workout – and very satisfying when I “get it”!)

Yesterday was my first class. The local aikido club works on more or less a drop-in basis, and that day I was the only beginner. The others were running through a rather complex series of techniques they needed for a test of some sort. I could see, as I watched the sensei, that each move consisted of a number of steps, and I was sure if I could rehearse each step in isolation I could learn the entire technique. But even at “slow motion” speed the demonstration blurred together too quickly for me to grasp any part of it securely. Should I step forward with my left foot first, or my right, grasp or deflect the attacker’s arm, push or pull them to the mat…it was all very confusing.* The sensei was very patient – but, obviously, he couldn’t be everywhere at once and he had other students to correct.

For one exercise I found myself paired off with another woman – I’ll call her Alex. Alex had been there for several months, and obviously had a rather intuitive grasp of aikido. As I tried both the attacking and defending roles, she delivered various corrections in an increasingly exasperated tone. Finally, she burst out with: “Stop thinking about it! Just let your body feel it and do what’s natural!”

I stopped and looked at Alex. “I’m an analytical person,” I told her, trying not to lose my own cool. This is how I learn. If I can break it down, I can get it. I’m trying to break it down.”

Alex seemed taken aback. “Oh,” she said and blinked. Her expression implied she had not even considered this as a means of learning, that what she was doing had come to her naturally – so intuitively she’d never had to analyze it, even to herself. Over the next few minutes, she tried for my sake…but obviously it was a foreign way of thinking to her.

For a later exercise, I was paired with a different student who we’ll call Terri – friendly, warm and above all, patient. As soon as she saw I was having trouble grasping the technique in question, she started reducing it to individual motions (I didn’t even need to ask). After a few minutes of drill I managed to run the basic version successfully – and it felt wonderful. 🙂

As I walked home I realized: this is what makes a good teacher. The ability to break something complex down into steps that anyone – even a rather klutzy beginner like me – can grasp.

Want to find a good music teacher? First of all, ask for a sample lesson (most teachers will do this at no charge – if they charge, it’s probably a bad sign already.) Don’t take them your most polished piece. Instead, bring in a piece that you have trouble with.

Better yet, make it a piece that reflects your weakest point. Have trouble grasping syncopated rhythms? Bring in a ragtime arrangement. Fast scales? Take a Mozart sonatina marked Presto. If this makes you feel embarrassed, remember, you’re not auditioning for them – you’re auditioning them as a teacher.

Then go to them and ask one very simple question:

“Tell me why this isn’t working.”

They’ll have you play the piece in question and, if they’re a good teacher, right away they’ll start getting you to play some simpler form of it. If it’s fast scales, they might make you play it at half the speed, focusing on your hand position. If rhythms, they’ll make you slowly analyze how a single measure works, then expand that to a line, then (maybe) a page…and when the lesson is over, the problem may not be “solved” in its entirety, but you’ll have made significant progress.

Now, if they’re a bad teacher, one of two things will happen:

(1) They’ll offer some vague, handwaving answer. (My own favourite was a teacher who told me, “You just have to move your hands faster!”) Whatever it is, it’ll make you frustrated and confused without helping you get any better. Bad sign – get out while you can!


(2) They’ll go, “Well, just play it like this…” and sit down and demonstrate. This means they teach mainly by demonstration, and either they don’t really understand what they’re doing, or they understand but can’t transmit that knowledge to you in any other way than by doing it. Which isn’t very helpful either.

The thing is, a good teacher will stand back and let you pick up things intuitively when that works for you. If, say, you find arpeggio technique easy, they won’t give you months of arpeggio etudes. But when the day comes that you run into a brick wall – and even the most “gifted” students WILL have these moments – they’ll be there to patiently help you through it. One brick at a time. 😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* It didn’t help that the sensei insisted that we continually switch sides when running each drill — apparently this is standard aikido practice. It’s meant to ensure that you learn how to do both mirror-image versions of the technique, but it had only the effect of scrambling my brain just when I’d _almost_ gotten it…