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Amy Malkoff's picture

This exchange has been on my mind for a while now, and I had a hard time putting my finger on why.  I'm sorry to hear that Jaycee is worried about whether he can learn vocal percussion, but I'm betting he'll succeed, which in turn makes me happy that he's joining thousands of other people in learning how it's done.  And, while I understand that most people focus on the flash factor of cool sounds instead of the more musically-useful factor of even, solid, and interesting grooves, that doesn't bother me either, because any dedicated student will eventually come to recognize his or her musical weakest links and work to correct them somehow.  The most important thing is getting started, and if the promise of being able to show off cool sounds is the hook to get them interested, then so be it.

So why was this letter sticking with me?  I realized that what got me was the tacit assumption that the ability to do implies the ability to teach.  In my experience, that's just not true, and in fact I think that that assumption can be counter-productive, even dangerous.

A little background: my three career passions are math, music, and teaching.  Always have been.  I have a split career in which I am both a professional music performer and instructor, and also a private math tutor.  All of my sources of income and professional fulfillment rely at least in part on teaching, or at the very least on communicating (as a performer).  So it bums me out a little when I hear people assuming that teaching is trivially easy.  It devalues and even demeans a core part of what I and many others do professionally.

This is not a big deal, however.  We teachers have pretty thick hides, and we know no offense is intended.  The part that really gets me, though, is that this assumption -- that teaching is easy -- has a long and harmful history.  I'm not talking about harming the teachers' feelings; I'm talking about harming the students.  It's an assumption that makes it harder to encourage good education.  Just as importantly, it's just plain incorrect.

Case in point: most of us hold at least one teacher from our past in high regard, and that's generally because we came to understand that not all our teachers were equally helpful.  Some were lifesavers and some were nightmares.  Some went out of their way to make sure you had the tools you needed to do well, while others seemed unable to help no matter how hard they tried.  Perhaps others didn't even try.  My point is that if it were easy, they'd all do it well.

For those of us learning a fun hobby like beatboxing, it can be disappointing and frustrating to be unable to succeed.  For those learning important life skills like reading and arithmetic, it can be worse than merely frustrating.  In both cases, a good teacher can make all the difference.

So, even if you can't run right out and fix your community's educational problems today, I urge you: take your own education seriously.  Whatever it is you want to learn, learn it well.  And one aspect of learning it well is finding a teacher from whom you learn well.  That means finding a teacher with skills in both the subject being taught and in teaching itself, and who can teach in a style that matches your preferred learning style.  Have fun, by all means!  But count on spending some time up front finding the right teacher.  It always pays off.

After all, if you're going to dedicate hours and hours (and hours!) of your life to learning a new skill, you owe it to yourself to get full value out of the time spent.

Enough of my soapbox -- back to the practice shed!

-Wes

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