Why I never became a music teacher

by | Nov 5, 2013

I have never desired to be a music teacher. During the 6 years I worked as a high school German teacher it was not uncommon for friends and acquaintances to assume I taught music.

Since leaving teaching I have dabbled in the music education world, assuming roles of accompanist, band and choir master, private tutor and MD. I confess most of these roles (emphatically, not all) have left me as cold as left-over, refrigerated Christmas ham on Boxing Day morning.

Over the years I have confabulated a number of (unsatisfactory) explanations for my lack of inspiration. 1. I’m an entirely selfish hoarder of all musical joy, guarding my precious jewels from those who would seek to…. well, I’m not sure who they are or what they might do, but I’m sure it would be bad. 2. I don’t care much for music pedagogy (this theory helped me reconcile why I delighted for many years in teaching languages – the mental processes by which someone acquires a second language fascinate me to no end! Clearly, I do not harbor this fascination when it comes to learning music).

Recently I had somewhat of an epiphany. No sudden flashes of lightning. Just a dripping tap slowly filling a sink until it’s full.

It occurs to me that my formal musical education was somewhat problematic. My teachers were wonderful, encouraging, well-intentioned people. But, in my humble opinion, the musical culture they introduced me to is one riddled with unhelpful vocabulary, discourses and scripts. Throw these into a pot with a kid of my conditioning and biology (yes, ‘tis all a rich tapestry) and it’s bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

When I was 10 I was given my first pop cassette and the accompanying song book for Christmas (Amy Grant, Heart in Motion – it was 1991, what can I say?) I played that thing until I knew every bass riff, every drum fill, every guitar, keyboard, horn entry. I started listening to the radio religiously. I got up early every Saturday and Sunday morning to watch rage. I liked all the usual suspects from the time – Mariah, Celine, Madonna. I even had a metal phase. But it was the singer/songwriters who captivated me most of all. I started writing songs. I taught myself how to notate every imaginable syncopation so that I could write my songs down. I taught myself pop voicings and grooves. And the thrill of my week was playing with the band each Sunday at church (we were a church-going family). It was here I learned to sight-read and play from a chord chart. I took up singing lessons. I was insatiable. I was in love. And my future ambitions were sealed. I had to be a singer/songwriter.

Incidentally (and coincidentally), I had actually been playing the piano since I was 6. Each year I sat for an AMEB exam (I was a straight-A student) and by the time I was 15 I was preparing for my A.Mus.

At 16 I changed schools. It hadn’t been my choice to change and my extreme introversion in this new, much larger school came as a huge shock. My self-esteem was practically non-existent. I made just a few friends. A few months in I played Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso at a performance night for music students in my grade. (For those not in the know, think super flashy fast showy piano and you’re probably imagining something close to this work). I became an instant overnight celebrity. Students from other grades would come up to me and say: “Hey, you’re the piano player, aren’t you?” My classmates nick-named me “maestro”. Teachers, determined to encourage me in my talents, opened up a range of exciting piano playing opportunities for me within the school. In an environment where I was all but invisible, my abilities at the piano provided me with much needed social currency and a sense of identity.

I remember looking for books one day in the school library. Two boys from my year group were sitting near by. One made a derogatory comment about me. The other retorted with, “Don’t knock her. Haven’t you heard her play the piano?”

I can’t remember exactly when I gave up my dream of becoming a singer/songwriter. I sang occasionally for people or showed them my songs. My singing and songs received polite feedback. My piano playing, however, received hyperbolic and excessive accolades, followed by requests to play for this or that. I cared about music deeply, but clearly, my net worth was as “the piano player”.

But deep down I knew the truth (at least as I perceived it). I was a fraud. I simply did not “get” classical music (I realise now, of course, that it is ludicrous to expect that I would “get” a style I neither listened to nor was passionate about). Even within contemporary music, pop and musical theatre came easily to me, but I couldn’t improvise and I had no understanding of jazz (again, did I expect to “get” jazz when I didn’t listen to it?). I felt inadequate. I became a perfectionist and developed out-of-control performance anxiety. I went in eisteddfods but never won. I sat for my A. Mus and failed. I re-sat 6 months later and passed. Driven by a sense of inadequacy (how’s that for motivation?) I continued on to my L.Mus. To my great relief I passed first time (the preparation was akin to psychological torture). To my great disappointment, I still felt inadequate. I barely touched the piano again. For many years, I didn’t even own one. And I didn’t miss it.

I would have gone on to study classical piano at university had I been given the choice. Perhaps it was advantageous that I wasn’t. My dreams of being a singer/songwriting were entirely forgotten.

I do not blame my formal music education for my lack of self-esteem as a teenager. I do not blame my formal music education for the lack of meaningful friendships I formed at my new school. But here are a couple of discourses present within music education culture that I believe contributed to my transformation from 16-year-old aspirational singer/songwriter to 18-year-old nervous wreck:

1. Classical music is superior to other musical genres

What an insidious form of elitism! The hours I poured into understanding popular genres as a teenager and the skills I acquired during that time didn’t even warrant a mention. They simply weren’t valued. They were invisible. Because I could play Mendelssohn. And that was worth more. Sure, popular genres were taught at school as part of the curriculum. But pop is for those who can’t (anyone can play a pop song, right?).  And I could.

(Not all that long ago I witnessed a group of music teachers talking about how they teach pop music as a concession. Something to appease their principals and draw students in before they hit them over the head with “real” music.)

2. Achievement is worth more than passion or interest

Rank and level are an obsession within the music education world. I’m still asked what level I got up to. Music students often come up to me and announce, “I’m doing Grade 8” or “I’m doing my A. Mus”. I know they are trying to impress me, and I always make a point of asking back, “Do you enjoy it?” or “What kind of music do you like?” They are often taken aback by my response.

I believe some instructional methods involve exposing children from infancy to classical works.

This I have learned – trying to achieve in an area for which you have no passion, is like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill. And with an eye on the prize, not the process, it’s a breeding ground for anxiety.