My sister is a nurse. She has been for almost 20 years. So when I found I was going to be admitted to the hospital on bedrest for possibly weeks before my twins were born, I called my sister for some empathy and she gave me some unsolicited, crude advice: “Be a good patient.” (Excuse me??) She went on to tell me what I needed to do to be considered a “good patient” but I had a hard time listening because it was difficult for me, in that moment of self-loathing and selfishness, to really think about how I needed to treat the nurses. I was the sick patient, after all, right?
Fast-forward to Fall semester 2016. I am starting a new job at a bigger university and thinking about what my students are going to be like…maybe more like daydreaming about what I hoped they would be like. I wanted to tell each of them to “Be a good student” because I kind-of wanted to have the most kick-butt studio at the school with the quickest improvement and the best players to make sure everyone knew I was worth the hire. Just short of emailing them all this very thought, I decided to spend a bit more time thinking about what it means to be a good student and what personality or character traits contribute to student growth. How can a student serve their instructors, their studio & classmates, their school, yet also squeeze the most out of their education? For starters, here are a few basics: A good student shows up on time for everything. A good student frequently communicates with their instructor. A good student asks a lot of questions. A good student creates quality assignments with thought and heart. A good student has a good reputation among faculty and peers. And a good student has the right combination of traits for learning; traits that go beyond logistics and grades.
Defining a good student in the context of private lessons: Why these three traits, and in this combination? First of all, I have NO scientific evidence to back any of this up. I’ve been teaching horn for 15 years and have experienced growth in a lot of different ways with students who do not share similar personalities, but what I have found is this:
Students need to be vulnerable enough to believe they can do it, malleable enough to change it, and confident enough to believe they will sound better because they did it.
Vulnerability The applied teacher-student relationship is a unique situation in a university setting. These lessons are one on one. The relationship forms when students have moved away from home for the first time. A student allows the teacher to criticize them. Often, this is a student’s only opportunity to talk to someone who’s complete attention is on them. A student trusts that the teacher is taking them in the right direction. Students share their most honest insecurities because they know the teacher wants to help. The teacher is vested in the success of the student. The teacher devises an educational plan that is specific to the student. This whole relationship is so sensitive. But if this vulnerability doesn’t exist because the teacher-student bond is flawed in some way, a student will not develop or blossom at the optimum rate.
Malleability Once a teacher makes a criticism, a student must accept it if they want to improve. Even if the student doesn’t really believe it! Then, the task becomes making yourself like water and filling the vessel that is before you. Be able to change any aspect of your vision, your character, your approach, any technical aspect, and also your musical story. Be prepared to change it. This is the just the beginning of change- something that will hopefully last your entire musical life. Be flexible. Be bendy. Be circular. Be open. Try it the opposite way you like it. Over-achieve what your teacher is asking you to do.
Confidence Here we get into the most challenging balance of all. So many students have tied their own self-worth to their playing. They are bad people if they have a bad playing day. This is a big struggle in music school as we also have to deal with students branding one another. We need to separate the playing from the person, and we need to do the same for ourselves. Be confident, but not egotistical. Be sure of yourself, but don’t expect that you’ll always be the best. On the flip-side, do not always tell everyone about how good you are. Have an ego but keep it under wraps. (Your ego is just for you- everyone knows it’s there, but we don’t talk about it.) Be competitive, but only with yourself. This was a hard lesson for ME to learn.
Are you Teachable? Keep your cool when your teacher tells you something’s gotta give. Don’t cry- we know you are emotionally attached but that you are working on that, too 😊 Be flexible. Be confident. Be open to ideas that are in conflict with others. Trust your teacher. If you don’t trust your teacher, find a new one. Accept all new ideas but only process one at a time. Be nice and supportive to the rest of the studio. And remember this: When you graduate, we will all celebrate that you learned something someone else already knows so get as much from everyone in your university experience as you can.