Shaping the Learning Space

Beginning:  3:40 p.m. on Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
Listening to:  Treasures of Tudor England (2008) by The Sixteen and Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka
Reading:  A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell
Rereading:  Undergraduate papers (“A Solus Tenor Prototype in Codex Faenza 117,” “Adorno’s Radio Days:  Anti-Temporality and Ill-Fated Progresss in the Early 20th-Century,” and “Jazz Inflections:  American Legacy and Musical Apprehension in Duke Ellington’s Jungle Music and Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”)

Dear Internet:

At Keiskamma Music Academy, high school students achieved their greatest success in an egalitarian learning environment reflected in the placement of chairs.  Former KMA staff developed a truly good approach to interacting with students as teachers, developing the confidence of individuals while raising the level of the collective musical ensemble.  Eschewing competition and unnecessary hierarchies, students adopted habits for rehearsal and performance that enhanced their music-making and encouraged them to function as a team.  I was extremely fortunate to inherit this approach; although, I did not realize it at first.

During my first workshop teaching experience with KMA’s high school class, I stood at the front and center of a semi-circle of broken plastic seats set up in one of St. Charles Sojola’s austere and cluttered classrooms.  All the better to conduct the new pieces I’d selected:  I assumed this all was nothing new for the high schoolers, an exact model for how they’d worked before.  To my discouragement, the arrangement was not met with overt complaint, but rather an eerie, quizzical detachment on the part of my students that made me feel all the more on-the-spot at the start of my job.  Was I doing anything wrong, or was this the classic experience of a teacher working with a new group of students for the first time?  Coming from a traditional, Western classical music background, it made perfect sense that the teacher should be the one in command, issuing direction and critique at the symphony like an expert baton-wielding conductor at an imaginary podium.  Perhaps I simply needed to get used to them and vice versa.


Eighth grader Sambesiwe Mavela peer teaches a class of four beginning recorder students during workshop at St. Charles Sojola High School.

I continued my conducting; and as the lesson drew on, with high school attention spans growing more and more stretched, I found I had to stop and correct ensemble mistakes with increasing frequency.  I also had to work harder to keep despondent members focused.  This ended up being a taxing first experience; exacerbating it was the burden of my own expectations–how successfully I ought to’ve gotten the students to respect me and appreciate the music I’d picked, how quickly they ought to master a piece.  When hired, I was encouraged to bring in my musical preferences and expertise to benefit the students and expose them to a new point of view.  But in reality, this point of view, encompassing both intermingled overconfidence at having been hired for the position and apprehension at having to step into an unfamiliar role, was not helpful to the students, nor the path to success.

What did breed success was talking with students to understand their preferences and learn more about experiences with their past teachers.  One student confided that the previous Recorder Specialist never conducted at the front of the room but instead sat alongside her class, everyone shoulder-to-shoulder.  She also required that each player take a turn leading the ensemble to start and stop a piece.  As soon as I adopted this approach, my students relaxed and readily welcomed the new music I introduced.  Rapport grew along with students learning pieces at greater speeds and daring to play with often amazing expressivity.  Letting go of the reins gave me greater freedom to use my ear; I could then home in on students to help solve their technical problems and exercise the same level of musicality saved for peers in professional ensembles.  Achieving this mattered much more to me than maintaining a flimsy display of authority or control.


Keiskamma Music Academy intermediate level high school students during a Saturday workshop at St. Charles Sojola High School. Pictured from left to right are Sandiswa Gqwaka, Zizipho Makhubalo, Chumisa Mtshonisi, Siphelele Maxontana, Nomambinga Mangwane, Nangamso Ngqakaha, Mihle Cuka, and Mkhululi Peter.

The most beneficial result of “stepping down from my podium,” in more sense than one, was the confidence it bred in students, particularly those with limited experience in leadership roles.  Even the most reluctant students found themselves willing to lead their favorite piece among the dozens learned during the nine-month term.  The psychological benefit of placing myself on the same physical level as my students was simple albeit profound:  it created a classroom set-up in which we could all see one another’s faces along with an immediate sense of camaraderie.  Workshop became a laboratory in which each participant could safely leap beyond themselves, even if at first they fell flat on their face.  Beyond music, this was a higher goal all Keiskamma Music Academy teachers hoped to achieve, the translation of musical skills to social skills that might ultimately make a difference in the lives of each student and their community.

From my vantage point, lately at the front of a Harrington College classroom, confidence for me now seems the natural result of education geared predominantly toward addressing student needs.  It was in South Africa that I realized and put into practice the teaching tenet it’s not about me.  Instead of satisfying my personal ideals, the challenge became one of putting myself in the mindset of my students, placing their questions and course of study before a biased sense of how well I was or wasn’t doing.  Because of this, successful teaching, rather than performing, became the real and better measure of success.  Back in the States, given ample planning for the school term and preparation prior to class, I’m rarely self-conscious or nervous before a roomful of students.  While focused on conveying information to them in simple, deft terms, self-critique is sublimated, and the demands of perfectionism buckle under the greater weight of leadership.

I look at it this way:  a teacher can grasp the limit of his or her expertise in relation to the subject being taught, because he or she possesses more knowledge in greater depth.  Insecurity can come about in light of this awareness–moreover, when the teacher fails to designate crucial from superfluous information.  The extent of a teacher’s knowledge can become an impediment if he or she cannot translate deep concepts into a language beginners can comprehend.  Novice students, unlike their instructor, typically don’t yet have a grasp of how much information is out there or how many facets of the subject taught exist.  A teacher can forget this, as well as the fact that the job is to reconcile his or her individual point of reference with that of the class.  Consider the audience:  often with beginners it is enough to introduce broad concepts with succinct terminology so that students come to understand salient points and build a foundation for their own practice and further inquiry.

By balancing my knowledge against that of my students and challenging myself to meet them on their terms, I find that classes tend to fly by with minimal stress, and lesson plans demand less rigid, time-consuming preparation.  Working with college-age classes now, I realize that having taught such a wide range of students at KMA helps me to better appreciate the adult group’s alternative perspective and realize for them a more flexible, down-to-earth, and holistic teaching approach.

Trailing off for now,


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