Wisdom From a Life of Teaching Piano

Behold my favorite teaching essay of recent vintage from the unlikeliest of publications. Thank you Byron Janis for the perfectly timed reminders about what teaching excellence entails. If you teach, coach, or parent, this is a concise treasure trove of insight. He writes:

“To me, the most important challenge a teacher must confront is keeping an open mind. One must convey knowledge and artistry without overpowering a student’s sense of self. That talented ‘self’ can develop only when he or she is not over-taught. One must know when to teach and when not to teach.”

And when to coach and when not to coach. And when to parent and when not to parent. It’s the very rare teacher, coach, or parent who avoids overpowering their students’, athletes’, or sons’ and daughters’ varied senses of self.

“During the course of my instruction Horowitz also made a very important point. ‘You want to be a first Janis—not a second Horowitz.'”

“. . . talented students must be taught that they are not only pianists but artists, and to create, not imitate. They should be shown that inspiration comes from living, experiencing and observing life, the real as well as the imagined.”

Twenty to thirty years ago, schooling in the United States shifted focus to standardization of curriculum, teaching “best practices”, of most everything. Consequently, we don’t foster creativity very well. Not only do the arts suffer, but our culture. Janis’s radical musings point a way forward.

A Life Built on Service and Saving

If my ticket gets punched sometime soon, I’ll have lived a life filled to the brim. Almost disorientingly so. I’ve crouched in the final passageway of a West African slave fort, been drenched by Victoria Fall’s mist, walked on the Great Wall of China, ran around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, hiked in Chiapas, and cross country skied in Norway. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the West, the Southeast, and as one six year old here says, “the Specific Northwest”. I’ve interacted with thousands of young people, the vast majority who appreciated my efforts on their behalf. I’ve cycled up and down mountains in the Western United States. I’ve taught guest lessons in my daughters’ elementary classrooms. I’ve been blessed to know lots of people more selfless than me, some who will read this today. I’ve been loved by caring, generous parents, and been privileged to know my wife and daughters and their friends.

My life has been so full that I tend to think about whatever my future holds as extra credit. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

Maybe I don’t look forward to too much anymore because my cup has been overflowing for some time. Apart from a story well told and nature, not a lot moves me these days.

So getting choked up in church yesterday, during the announcements of all things, was totally unexpected. A guest was invited to the front to make a surprise announcement. A tall, dapper man in his late 30’s began describing his relationship with ChuckB, a member who had passed away a few months ago. He had been Chuck’s financial planner for eight years.

I didn’t know Chuck until I attended a celebration of his life that was planned nine months ago after the church community learned of his terminal illness. He worked as a forester for the Department of Ecology for a few decades and kept a low profile at church, driving the van, tutoring after school, doing whatever was needed behind the scenes. At his celebration I was struck by how everyone described him as one of the most humble, caring, and giving people they had ever known. He lived a simple life in a modest neighborhood that revolved around participating in church activities.

The financial planner announced that Chuck and his wife, who had passed away previously, were leaving the church $925,000, divided four ways, the largest portion for international aide, another for local charities, another for Lutheran World Relief specifically, and about $220,000 in the church’s unrestricted fund to use as the Council sees fit. A Council that has been seeking about $35,000 to fund a half-time position dedicated to strengthening our ties to local people in need.

There was an audible gasp. Two people stood and began applauding and soon everyone followed. My favorite part, and probably what moved me so much, was that Chuck wasn’t there for his standing ovation. Shortly before he died, he confided to one member that he was leaving “the bulk of his estate to the church,” but that person said she had “no idea it was anywhere near that much money.” No one did.

The most beautiful and moving part to me is that Chuck intentionally passed on his standing ovation. He didn’t need it. A life filled with service and saving was more than enough. Blessed be his memory.

 

 

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

Empathy Impaired

The New York Times’ commentators have been writing a fair amount about how to revive our moribund economy and related issues like consumer and government spending, taxes, and unemployment. Sometimes I find the readers’ “recommended comments” more interesting than the essays themselves. They’re liberal and decidely cynical about life in the U.S. today. Their most common rallying cries are corporate greed, class warfare, out-of-touch politicians, and right-wing media.

Recently, they’ve been most fired up about members of Congress being out-of-touch with ordinary citizens, many who have been laid off, and too many that appear to be entering into permanent unemployment.

The question I haven’t seen asked is how does one, whether a member of Congress, or a college professor, develop empathy for the under-employed or short, medium, or long-term unemployed? The best answer of course is direct personal experience, but giving up one’s job in the interest of greater empathy doesn’t make much sense.

There have to be better ways, whether documentaries, essays, novels, photographs, music, and plays, that can help humanize the out-of-touch among us. The arts seem especially well suited to this task. I wish The Times’ irate, cynical commentators would each choose an art form and begin telling their stories with the out-of-touch Congress as their primary audience.

Of What Value is Art?

Forget Wall Street and Detroit for a minute. Should we subsidize more artists?

Some would say “yes” because art suffers as a result of market competition. The artist says my concern is less with developing a distinctive style or voice than with earning a livable wage, less emphasis on what do I need to say or create and more on what does the audience want to hear and see. 

Some would say “no” because art benefits from market competition. The artist says my economic vitality is dependent upon me developing a distinctive voice and style, yet at the same time, I have to attend to my audience’s interests, desires, and tastes. As a result, art advances.

We have the National Endowment of the Arts that supports some artists, but those monies are miniscule relative to the national budget. In Norway, I was intrigued that new buildings have to budget something like 2% of their total building costs to public art.

Deja Vu All Over Again

When the first George Bush was president he oversaw a process that resulted in eight National Education Goals that were straight out of the Republican play book. When Clinton took office he surprisingly said, “Those sound good to me.” 

Now, when I listen to Obama education soundbites, I hear echos of the national educational goals, especially with regard to privileging math and science education at the expense of not just the humanities, but every other subject area.

Here’s a question I’d like someone in the press corp to ask the PE at his next press conference: Your repeated emphasis on math and science education is consistent with your last few predecessors who viewed schooling as a key variable in continued economic growth. Is that the exclusive purpose of schooling or are there other important purposes?

Maybe PE Obama should just get on with it and expedite things by passing an executive order declaring that all elementary schools teach reading and math exclusively and all secondary schools teach math and science exclusively.

The redundant social studies, art, music, foreign language, English, and other teachers can contribute to economic growth by rebuilding highways and bridges.