Issue 71: Being a Teacher

For the last couple of months, posting to The Music Jungle has been a little erratic, and I apologise for the glitches and delays along the way. Here is why…

My mother had a major stroke on 30th October, and since then has been in hospital, initially 20 miles away, and, since December, once she was medically stable, in a stroke rehabilitation ward much closer to home. Visiting her after work several times a week, and supporting my father, has consumed most of my “free time”, as you can imagine! This isn’t the time or place to go into the fine details – I’ll just say it was a major stroke. Mercifully, her speech and memory are still functional, but movement on her left side has been badly affected, so she cannot move her left arm or leg. There are also issues with her ability to concentrate and understand what she sees and hears around her.

So, what has this to do with being a Music Teacher? I have been reflecting on the rehabilitation programmes that she is now engaged in.

In her physiotherapy sessions, she is going through the same kind of processes, on a large scale, that I deal with in one way or another in every piano lesson I teach. First, she has to try and understand what it is she is being asked to do. The cognitive effort in trying to grasp what is required, and then the physical control of weakened muscles in order to perform the various movements that are required has been exhausting.

With my pupils, especially the beginners, they face the same obstacles in identifying which finger has to do what, in order to play a piece of music. If, as a teacher, one is also concerned with instilling good technique from the very beginning, then you have to watch and direct all the movements: finger shape, hand shape, angle of wrist, relaxed shoulders, straight back, feet flat on the floor: you have to be mindful of all of these elements and somehow still manage to enable the student to produce a fluid succession of sounds.

Each part of the process of playing has to be deconstructed into small fragments that can be learned (or, in the case of my mother, or in the case of undoing bad habits and faulty learning, relearned).

That’s just the physical side…

I have several students with attention issues. Some have statemented, or diagnosed conditions, and some just haven’t formed the habit of concentrating, or learned how to pay attention to the task in hand. So I need to be able to keep them focused for long enough to get the tiny teaching point across before they have been distracted and lost their grasp on what we were nearly-just-about-to-have-a-go-at-trying…

You know the ones I mean – they play through the piece, and just as you are about to start going over a particular phrase or teach a chord, they have turned the music over to the next page and started to play something else.

Or they finish their A major scale (eventually, with several chromatic diversions and lapses on the way) and immediately start playing something that they composed by themselves during the week.

I have watched the physiotherapists steadily, calmly, insistently, with great insight and watchfulness working with patient after patient. It is definitely NOT a “one size fits all” process, even though they will have a similar repertoire/syllabus of exercises to go through.

It has been really helpful for my own personal development as a music teacher to observe, and occasionally participate in these sessions. Reflecting on how one teaches, and also on other teaching situations that one encounters is one of the most valuable ways in which one can improve. I have been fascinated by watching how the physiotherapists inspire trust, carefully explain, and work together through the potentially dangerous exercises to teach my mother to sit unsupported (victory!) stand (fully supported by the therapists – work in progress) and learn to transfer herself in and out of the wheelchair (work in progress).

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