From Heart to Heart – The Joy of Teaching

The Beginning of my Teaching Journey

I began teaching for money.  I was out of university, full of hopes for a musical life, and I was horrified by how many of my classmates were choosing teaching over a music career.  A year later, desperate to find an alternative to office temping, I was asked to take over private teaching in Blackrock.  The pay was treble what I was earning in the office, and I accepted gratefully.  But my heart wasn’t in it.  I didn’t know how to impart my musical knowledge to beginners in a way that was accessible to them, and I often found myself frustrated and watching the clock.  I know many fellow musicians that feel the same, and that teaching is often seen as a necessity to fund an artistic life.

The power of children

Something began to happen as I developed relationships with the children I was working with.  They demanded more presence.  When I was present, they were happier and they understood the material more easily in this state.  Something magical began to happen.  I realised that the tutor book I was using didn’t suit everyone, so I began to search for different methods and different ways to explain the building blocks of music to my individual students.  When I found the right way to explain something to a student, a whole new possibility for learning and understanding would open up, and our relationships began to be reciprocal.  They were teaching me all the time about so many things – about people, about music, about education, about language, about life.

I was teaching students in their own homes.  I would come in the door and the parents would have the kettle on.  I became part of their week, welcomed into their houses, and this was a very conducive environment for learning.  The children were relaxed and at ease, out of school and comfortable.

The Reciprocal Relationship

One of the greatest lessons I learnt through my teaching, is that as a teacher we play an important part in the lives of our students.  I am not just a piano teacher – I become a friend, a confidant, someone to share joy with.  For those 15 or 30 minutes a week, I had the opportunity to choose to be joyful with the children or teenagers, and through this I could help them discover more than just how to play a scale – I could share much more.  I developed a deep love for all of my students and I felt this love returned in simple ways – in the practice they would do, in their laughter, in their musical curiosity, in their willingness to try.  It is always a real pleasure when you have a student who finds piano playing easy, but they are few and far between!  For most of my students, it takes time and commitment to learn and it is such a joy to witness the result of practice, in a ‘yes’ at the end of playing something well because the student has achieved something remarkable – the translation of happiness into music!

My own magical space

I remember teaching in a school in Dublin a few years ago.  The children would come for 20 minute lessons out of class, and would often be frazzled having come out of a lesson in a different subject.  The bell would ring, the children were distracted by the noises of the school around them, and I often longed for my own space where I had control over the environment.  Somewhere I could light a candle, or get the children to lie on the floor and listen to music if they were feeling agitated.  Opening up the music school with my sister has allowed this freedom to come into my teaching.  In some of my group lessons, the children often ask to lie on the carpet and for me to play the piano.  I improvise, feeling what music is needed for the children in that moment, and I play and the children close their eyes and let go into the music.  Sometimes, one of the children will play the piano with me,  both of us improvising on the black keys, and the other children lie down.  The experience is equally great for the children – that of receiving the music, and that of making the music.  I love that the children have brought me into this new way of teaching, that their being tired and my having a space which is free has opened up this avenue for learning.

Different ways of learning

I’m so grateful that I struggled when I began teaching.  I can’t ever remember learning how to read music.  I think I was born with that ability!  I don’t recall ever learning rhythm or pitch, harmony or composition – it was all just there.  I understood.  And I have had to learn how to teach through trial and error. I am curious about how children learn.  Some of them read easily, others learn by ear.  Some practice freely, others need lots and lots of encouragement.  Each and every student demands something different and this is such a joyous challenge!

Finding Balance within an Artistic Life

A couple of years ago I decided to give up teaching.  I wanted something more.  I was driving about 2-3 hours a day up and down to Dublin, driving the same roads from house to house, and it was becoming draining on my life.  I felt like I was constantly unsettled and felt that my whole musical interaction with the world was at a beginner level all the time.

I let go of the teaching and within a few months, I missed all the children.  I realised that I need this interaction in my life.  I love seeing my students come through the door of the music school, excited about piano and full of curiosity and joy.  So what has happened?  I have found a new balance.  I have created work in the professional arena which challenges me musically, I am part of musical projects with different artists and musicians that feeds my creative soul.  I compose music and arrange songs in so many different styles for all the choirs.  And I get to spend time with the most creative group in society – the children!  They remind me not to take life so seriously.  They challenge me to be present and to acknowledge my abilities and my downfalls.  I teach them and they teach me.  What a wonderful exchange!

“In learning you teach and in teaching you learn”

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