What kind of teacher is Alison?

I’ve been teaching for quite a long time, in the classroom and as a private tutor. It really is a super thing to be able to do: helping other people to do the things that I like to do. But recently, I’ve been thinking about how the best teachers do things, and looking into some of the teachers of my favourite musicians. Fortunately, there’s a bit of information out there.

I have found out some very interesting things, which brought into contrast the differences and similarities between private tuition and secondary school teaching. To look at it flippantly, the biggest difference is that a classroom teacher has to spend a lot of energy getting their students to do something they don’t necessarily want to do – and a tutor is there to help their students achieve something they dearly want.

However, it’s not as simple as all that. The two settings have something very much in common: the best teachers learn about their students and understand their needs. Then they plan, evaluate and adapt their approach for each. Although all students share some common goals they are individuals who have diverse needs and each require personalised learning plans to be able to express themselves musically.

When I studied for my PGCE (Secondary, 2007) and Postgraduate Certificate of Professional Study (2010) at Cambridge University, and in the years afterwards in high schools, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do to get students to take ownership of their learning.

You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach even when you have the same starting point, so the teacher has to take the time to be a learner too. You can never see exactly what's inside somebody's head, so the teacher has to look hard at the learner to decide on the right path for them. The teacher has to look through the insecurities, the mistakes and the fear of the unknown that all cloud the picture, and then the teacher has to navigate a path through the to allow the student to reach their potential. The teacher has to remove the barriers that a student might perceive are blocking the way.

My instrumental teaching approach is influenced by a combination of two main factors. The first is my own teacher. He helped me feel good about saxophone playing, so I think a lot about how he did that. He's a great player, and acted like the professional he is. He was a hard guy to get a compliment out of, and sometimes he had a sharp edge to his feedback, but he made me realise that you can strive for mastery, but never achieve it, and that this was the way that things should be! Had he not done all this, I might not have picked up the gauntlet that he threw down. He encouraged me to strive for better, and raise the bar for my own 'good enough'. There was no reason why I should not be as skilled as any professional player if I kept working in the right direction. And so, I kept on working, and he kept on providing opportunities for me to improve.

The second big influence on my teaching is saxophonist and clarinettist Joseph Allard (1910-1991). Allard taught my favourite musician and performer Michael Brecker, and many others. Allard emphasised a focus on the individual and personal experimentation, encouraging students to listen and observe great performers. He recognised that learning through investigation and self-discovery has most impact. I have seen this in action in my own learning and teaching. Students that progress most quickly are usually the ones who are willing to try things out and take control of their own learning. They diagnose problems in their own playing and try and resolve them using me as a facilitator. Allard believed that there was not one particular way to play. I find that liberating; you don’t need to be afraid! This mind-set allows freedom for personal interpretation without fear of “getting it wrong”.

Allard’s former students still express a sense of awe at his ability to guide them individually down similar, yet diverse paths; all leading to musical artistry.

What's the moral of this story?

For me: I know a lot more about what I want to do to help my students to be their best.

For my students: it's not just about the teacher, and it's not just about you - it's about us. But it is mostly about you... So stop reading, and get practising!

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