Teaching music - From a Dane teaching in the US

In my last blog I was writing about teaching music to children. As I’m slowly getting ready to teach another semester at Berklee College of Music, entering my 13th year teaching at the college, I’ll here share some of my thoughts on teaching in general.

When I started out teaching music, it was on drum set, and mostly to kids around 10-12 years old. It was a mix of solo to small group lessons. At the time I was studying at the conservatory, getting a bachelor in Music Education. From the beginning I found it fascinating how you’d have to make changes in your deliverance of the material on the spot because two students had two completely different learning styles. Not just what you’d say to the students but also how.

Fast forward to my beginning at Berklee as a teacher. I remember being really nervous about starting to teach at the college, for various reasons:

  1. I was used to teach performance, now I had to teach in a classroom setting and teach music theory and composition.
  2. The biggest group I had taught up to this point was marimba ensembles with 10-14 kids. So the size was about the same, but again without instruments, and instead in front of a board…
  3. And my biggest concern – would I be able to make the material clear, teaching in a different language?! I was used to teach in Danish, now I had to switch to English…

I still remember my first semester, my concerns mentioned above turned out to be non-issues, but what I needed to work on was how to explain the material. I quickly learned that teaching scales and intervals can be quite tricky, and while the language was not an issue, it was the specific way to teach the material, so everyone would understand it.

One difference was going from teaching kids age 10-12, to now teaching college students age 18 and up. But even more so has it been much different because of students coming from all over the world. This means I’m dealing with many different cultures, with students used to many different teaching styles. It’s still about finding the right way to get the material across to the students, with having to be able to juggle the different ways to deliver the material in one session. But now with that little twist, that I have to consider the different cultures students are coming from.

In the beginning I was focused on the aforementioned areas, and didn’t think much about my background. It took a couple of years before I realized that of course is my teaching style different due to my background! But I slowly started paying more attention to how I would deliver the material. Figuring out the similarities and differences coming from Denmark and teaching in the US. I also realized, I wanted to know more about the different cultures the students were coming from. What about the different Americas? North America is very different from Central and South America, not to mention the different countries students are coming from. The same goes for students from Africa, big difference depending on where on the continent (I’m surprised at how many think of Africa as country, - but that’s for another blog!). There’s the difference in students from Europe, whether you’re from the north or the south of Europe. The big difference for me was the students coming from Asia. I wanted the take a look at students that for me came from a background that was least alike to my own. So I did a research into Asian students, and how the relationship to their professors at home was different from the relationship they would have with me at Berklee. Getting the know the different cultures has been an exciting journey, and I’m still enjoying learning more and more as I’m standing in the classroom teaching! 

While I’ve been fortunate to have many excellent teachers both in Denmark and the US, I’ve also had teachers, that didn’t do such a great job (again, in both countries). With my own experience as a student as well as a teacher it is with these things in mind I’m writing this. On one hand I find it so interesting to find ways to become a better teacher, on the other I’m puzzled when I encounter people that teach, just because they didn’t succeed in the other areas they were pursuing… Teaching takes skills, and for me it’s very clear that being a teacher doesn’t mean you can’t be a performer and vice versa.

So I’ll end this entry with this: Whether you’re the teacher or the student, - remember it takes both parties to make it work. For the younger kids also the involvement of the parents is a factor. So if something is not working, ask yourself why? What can be done? And no matter what side you’re on, remember constructive criticism is the best way to change things. Respect one another.

Teaching Imaginary Barlines

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