The Joy of a Jimmy

Chatting online with a colleague this week:


Me: That's my student, Jimmy. He really doesn't have a lot of innate coordination, rhythm or sound control. But I have managed to inspire him enough that he works super hard and doesn't seem to even notice how much harder he works to get the same amount done.

Him: Those are the type of students that remind us that it's not how "talented" a student is that makes it a joy to be a teacher.

I looked at what he'd just written.  

It's not how "talented" a student is that makes it a joy to be a teacher.

Let's think about that for a moment.

What if:

  • The pleasure and satisfaction in teaching comes not from the giftedness of the student but in the teaching itself?
  • Solving the unique problems of each student is what gives us giddy satisfaction?
  • Lessons have power in students' lives because of the intense focus of one teacher exclusively on one student?
  • The joy of teaching comes more from the student's desire to learn than their innate gifts?

Music teachers organizations frequently ask me to teach master classes. Over the years I've grown weary of seeing the teachers of competition-winning students have another opportunity to show off their most polished students. There is usually very little to teach to these accomplished young pianists, and the challenges most teachers face go unaddressed.

Recently, one brave group of teachers agreed to do an Un-Master Class. I asked everyone to bring in their most challenging and problematic student. 

It was fascinating. Not only did they bring in their most challenging student, in most cases this was also their favorite student. This student might not be able to memorize, or had lousy technique that didn't respond to typical interventions. He might not be very coordinated or had rotten rhythm. But the teachers spoke of these students with love and affection that I rarely see when teachers speak to me of their "talented" students.  

Teachers chatting with me about their most talented students often talk about the student's quantifiable achievements like competition prizes and conservatory admissions.

The teachers speaking about their most challenging students said things like, "We've been working really hard this semester on rhythm. He's doing SO much better and we're going to start the first Clementi Sonatina in the spring."  Or, "She really shouldn't be playing this Chopin Waltz but she loves it so much that we just decided to go for it."

They had such joy when they spoke. Such unabashed, unembarrassed love for their students.

I think there are lots of us out there. Teachers who are finding great joy teaching kids like my Jimmy. More often than not the supertalents come with pushy, difficult parents and expectations no one could fulfill.

I'm going to hear Yuja Wang play at Davies Symphony Hall tonight. She's playing lots of hard pieces. She'll sound great. 

But this afternoon I'll be teaching Jimmy. And there's plenty of joy in that for me.