Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Care and Feeding of the Bass Teacher, Chapter 1: Identify your Teacher Type

Congratulations, you are the owner of an official authorized bass teacher! This may be your first real bass teacher. You may have owned several teachers before and are just now acquiring a new model. Or perhaps you have owned this teacher for awhile and are simply checking the owner’s manual out for the first time to make sure you’re getting the most from your teacher. Or maybe you’re borrowing someone else’s teacher for a couple of lessons. No matter what, you can be sure that you will have hours of fun and learning with your new teacher - if you follow some key guidelines. In this manual, we’ll be looking at several teacher models and addressing key features that you can access to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of your teacher.

In this first chapter, we’ll describe some of the basic teacher models that you will encounter out there so that you can make sure you have accurately identified your teacher type. This is important because trying to access certain features is more challenging on certain models, and can even be dangerous if not attempted carefully!

Before we begin, we should note that there are many hybrid models out there, which combine the features of several of the basic models; you may have to calibrate your methods to account for your particular model’s complexities.

The Dictator: This model was very common years ago, and was actually considered the finest model available at the time; its popularity has declined in recent years, but it can still be found and remains popular among certain groups. The Dictator interprets its teaching mission in a very direct way: It is there to give you knowledge, and you are there to receive it. Period. It often has a standard, preset program that it offers to one and all with little variety. This can often be a solid program - after all, much about playing bass hasn’t changed for decades, if not centuries. The big plus of the Dictator model is that it requires you to trust it in order to get the most out of it. This can feel uncomfortable at first, but getting out of our comfort zone and committing to trying something different is often the first step to real growth. The minuses of the Dictator are also clear: If their program doesn’t work for you, you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to play in a way that can be harmful to our progress. Also, if you learn best when you feel that you can ask lots of questions and explore your own path, the Dictator may put a stop to that without considering whether it’s a good idea. Overall: we recommend initial caution with the Dictator until you are sure it will be effective.

The Buddy: This model was introduced for customers unhappy with the Dictator, and enjoyed a groundswell of popularity soon after. The Buddy wants to be, well, your buddy; they want to hear about your life, hang out with you, meet your friends, and be your partner in learning. This can be great for people who have problems with authority figures, as well as for folks who love to explore their own ideas of how to play. The Buddy can help you test and develop

your own distinctive way of playing. However, if you haven’t developed your core technique very well, the Buddy can be problematic, as many students need more structure in their technical work than the Buddy can provide. However, if you have a lot of your technique together, and you have a well-developed sense of how you want to play, the informal style of the Buddy can help unleash your creative juices and help you grow as a musician! Overall: Lots of fun, but look past the fun to make sure that you are really on track to achieve your musical goals.

The Guru: This model combines elements of the Dictator and the Buddy. Like the Dictator, it insists on a high level of trust and commitment to its playing concepts and program; like the Buddy, it wants to know about your life beyond the lesson studio. It fuses these two concepts into a holistic learning approach that looks at how to improve you playing and musicianship in the context of your whole life. Gurus can be hugely helpful for many students who feel “stuck” and need a change of pace. Often looking at our playing as part of the big picture of who we are is just what we need for a breakthrough. The Guru won’t just order you to obey like the Dictator, but it will ask for a real commitment from you, so be prepared to consider things like taking yoga, going to therapy, changing basic elements of how you play, or just having lots of soul-searching conversations. Like all gurus, the Guru can attract a certain personality type for the wrong reasons; they are being told something they don’t want to hear (but know is true) by their current teacher model and are just looking for one who might tell them something else. Some students seek out a Guru hoping for lots of improvement in their playing when all they really need to do is practice! Overall: Often an outstanding teacher, but don’t use it to escape reality.

The Impresario: This model not only teaches you bass, but offers free bonus career counseling services. The Impresario will train you to be a performer, encouraging you to play lots of competitions and auditions. It’s a great coach, helping you figure out how to put together good performances and present yourself effectively - all important skills. The risk of the Impresario is that it will neglect your long-term development to focus on the short-term gains of performing. Students of Impresarios sometimes work for months on solos that are far beyond their abilities, damaging their technical work in the process. An important skill with Impresarios is learning to say “No” to them and insisting that you do the work you need to develop your playing. Overall: Can be great, but needs careful maintenance.

The Factory: This model was designed for mass production of bass students, and boy does it deliver. The Factory has huge numbers of students, and often has to organize giant group lessons and day-long recitals just to fit ‘em all in. The actual teaching style of the Factory can vary, but this model has one major potential flaw: all those students can mean that not much time or attention is paid to your individual needs and goals. This is not always an issue with this model, and some Factory teachers are among the finest around. But students need to make sure that this model is able to give them the time and attention they need. Overall: Often good teachers, but make sure they know your first name.

The Drudge: This model is the one to avoid if possible. They can teach in a variety of ways, and some of them can even be fairly good at it, but they share one big problem: They don’t seem to have been programmed to like music very much! A teacher who thinks music is a chore (or worse, a job) can’t teach you the most important part of being a musician - to have fun and enjoy yourself! A teacher like that will only produce bitter, unhappy musicians, and we already have enough of those, thanks. Overall: Run away.

Now that you've identified your teacher type, we'll move on in the next chapter to specific methods you can use to train up and instruct your bass teacher. Before you know it, they'll be teaching you twice as much stuff for the same price!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Peabody '09-'10: Weeks Three and Four

Whew! We definitely win the prize for Hardest Working Bass Program in the Biz for the last 7-10 days of frenetic activity. It's been quite a show - hard to know where to begin.

That's not true actually - it's pretty easy to know where to begin. Hal Robinson's first visit to Peabody in his new capacity as Artist in Residence was a complete and total success. He brought so much to his day here that no one of us was able to keep up with him; I was definitely more tired than he was by the end of the day... As planned, he first gave us a fantastic talk on his core approaches to both sitting and standing with the bass, demonstrated the advantages and disadvantages of each, and also covered some of the key features of how he set up his instruments for maximum effectiveness and efficiency. I found this part of the day the most satisfying. It's pretty rare that you get to hear someone like Hal hold forth at length on how they do what they do!

The afternoon of group lessons seemed pretty successful for most students. Over the next few weeks we will be looking at this format and working on how to make it more effective for everyone. One of the key issues is whether folks get more out of having a small block of one-on-one time with Hal every time he visits, or whether they would get more out of a longer block of time to work with him, even if it means not working with him every time he visits. We also need to experiment with having students of similar ability levels working together, versus having a more diverse group working with Hal.

The final master class in Griswold Hall was a big hit - we had over 50 people in attendance from outside the bass department. Everybody played fantastically well, and Hal brought great insights as usual.

This first class had a "get acquainted" quality to it; now that everyone has met and played for Hal, in future classes and lessons we can move into more in-depth work and build on our great start from last Sunday.

But wait: there's more! Hal's day was only part one of a 60-hour marathon of bass activities. On Monday, we had our usual orchestral rep class on Mozart's 35th Symphony. This was the first class taught by our new rep class faculty member, Ira Gold. Ira is a colleague of mine in the National Symphony, and is a great player and talented young teacher. He's bringing great insights to rep class, many of which come from his studies at Rice University and Boston University; others come from his own explorations of playing and teaching. He maintains his own private studio and also is on the faculty at Catholic University in Washington. We're glad he's on board and we'll probably see him here at PBDB in the near future.

Bassapalooza '09 concluded with another young rising star of the bass: Ranaan Meyer of the group Time for Three. Ranaan is a truly unique figure in the bass world right now - a graduate of Curtis, trained in all the traditions of classical playing, as well as being an accomplished jazz musician, he has begun a career with TF3 dedicated to bringing together all of these musical styles into one seamless whole, along with some bluegrass, country and rock for good measure. It turns out that he also gives a good bass masterclass, as Peabody bass students and I discovered! He helped all of us to refocus our work on the essentials: having fun and making great music all the time, especially when it's tempting to settle for less. We thank him and look forward to seeing him again in the near future....

Well, that's it, folks; just another week of great stuff here at Peab. I'm already tired but I need to get some coffee and get back to work - we've got solo classes, recitals, and more Hal coming up all too soon!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hal Robinson comes to Peabody: Here's the Plan

Here at Peabody Bass Central Command we are in final countdown to our first day of lessons and classes with our new faculty artist in residence Hal Robinson. Hal needs no introduction to most readers of this site - he’s one of the top players and pedagogues in the country. Paul Johnson and I are both former students of his and he has played a big role in both of our lives and careers. It is truly a thrill and an honor to have him back at Peabody again, working alongside us in his new role here, and to say we are excited is an understatement!

But what exactly is his role? That is a question that he and we have been chewing over for some time. When we began discussing this appointment with Hal last year, we agreed early on on one thing: We didn’t want this to be a so-called “celebrity appointment.” Sometimes, music schools will bring on visiting faculty in a new, highly-touted role, but these faculty will often simply be signing on for a few master classes or other group teaching events. Hal wasn’t excited by the idea of doing a few master classes over the course of the year. If he was going to come to Peabody on a regular basis, he wanted his visits to be more substantial and to have more of an impact. That said, we knew that Hal would not be able to take on any additional private teaching commitments with his current busy schedule. We would have to develop a different format then either of these more traditional ones.

What we have developed for now are a set of teaching days that are oriented around different themes and that combine some elements of private teaching, classes and lectures. Here is how things will be going down for Peabody bassists on this Sunday:

10:00 - Hal will begin a lecture/demo to the students on sound and setup. Many students struggle to get an appealing, consistent, musically appropriate sound when they play. Hal will talk about how to approach making a great sound with a focus on how to get one’s instrument properly set up so that it is a help and not a hindrance in this process.

11:00 - ? Luthier Michael Shank from Shank Strings in Elizabethtown, PA will be joining us for the day to help us put some of Hal’s setup ideas into practice. He and Hal will look together at students’ basses over the course of the day and make suggestions on what if any adjustments could help get them in the best playing shape possible. Paul and I will assist in this process as we move into the afternoon and...

12:00 to 5:00 - Hal will begin meeting with students in small groups for group lessons. These will be in private rather than in the hall so that students can work with minimal distractions. Hal will be evaluating students’ sound and giving them suggestions on how to move forward in their playing between now and his next visit; Paul Johnson and I will be working with them in future lessons on how best to implement these suggestions.

5:00 to 6:30 or so - The final group lesson will take place in Griswold Hall and will be open to the public in a more traditional master class format. We encourage the wider bass (and music!) community to attend and see what we’re up to!

This format is a work in progress and we don’t know exactly how well it will work. We may need to tweak and adjust it as the year goes on to account for many possible issues: The students’ fatigue, Hal’s fatigue, how productive the group lessons end up being for everyone, and other unforeseen factors; we are holding off on determining the themes for the remaining classes until we see how this one goes and determine whether the topic is too broad for the amount of time available. If you attend the master class, feel free to talk to any current bass student (or me) and see what they thought of the day.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Peabody '09-'10: Week Two

Week 2 at this Fall has brought that realization that his most college students before long: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We all get excited and wound up for our school “firsts” - first lesson of the year, first orchestra rehearsal, first new bass student that we meet in the hallway, first night out with friends. Then week two arrives and we realize that those were indeed firsts - the first of many lessons, rehearsals, and yes, nights out partying....

I go through this cycle as well. I spend a lot of time over the Summer planning for the school year, working on plans and ideas for my students, organizing class schedules and curriculum, and doing long-term recruitment and planning work. I’m always excited to see my students and unveil my brilliant plans I’ve so carefully constructed for them and for myself. Then, just like my students do, I run into reality. My plans will take time and effort to come to fruition. Some of them my turn out to be unsuccessful. I may have to make some adjustments along the way.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but I personally always find it incredibly frustrating when reality doesn’t match up with my carefully organized plans for it! Oh well, nothing to do about it but pick myself up, dust myself off and get my marathon shoes on....

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Peabody '09-'10: Week One

First, a brief intro: As I mentioned in a recent post, I need to get my blogging game in gear and stop letting weeks go by between posts. Therefore, gentle reader, I hereby commit to a weekly post that will sum up any interesting goings-on at Peabody; said post will appear on Sunday.

School started officially on Wednesday, but Bassland was already fully in motion by the previous Saturday. On that day, we heard auditions for ensemble placements. Your humble blogger was joined by his teaching colleague, as well as Peabody orchestra director Teri Murai and chamber music director Michael Kannen. These auditions are useful for everyone in that it gives us a "baseline" (pun DEFINITELY not intended) level of playing that both I and my students can refer to when evaluating progress over the course of the year. As always here at Peabody, the entire audition was videotaped. Students can log on to our computer in Mr. Johnson's studio and see how the audition matched up with their own expectations and analysis. Being able to look at "postgame films" of your work is something we very much value here; we all need to learn how to honestly evaluate the good and bad of our playing, and being able to see our work is a great help in doing just that.

My first cycle of lessons with my own students was fantastic and I'm excited and looking forward to doing great work with them this year. One big difference for me is that this is my largest Peabody studio yet, and as a result I am having to organize and distribute my time more carefully. One of the main topics that I addressed with all my students was deciding what music they would be preparing for the first Hal Robinson class, which is on Sept. 20; I'll be posting more details on this in the near future....

At the beginning of the year everyone arrives at school from differing situations: music festivals, jobs, vacations. A big part of the first week for me is seeing everyone start to transition and focus on the same goals: learning, improving our playing and musicianship, and performing at the best of our abilities. The image I like is of a fleet of sailboats that gradually all turn to face away from the shore or the other docks and head out to sea...

See you next week!