Finding a Teacher

November 23, 2009

Perhaps not surprisingly the hardest part about starting any new endeavor is finding someone to show you the way. While there may be some pursuits that lend themselves to self-education, taking up the study of a musical instrument is not such a pursuit.

Through my own experience as a student of the marital arts, and later as an teacher in a dojo I have a good grasp of what separates an instructor from a teacher. Through my relationship with Sibylle I know what excellent teaching in music looks like. Regardless of the subject matter, there needs to be a focus on mastery, an attention to detail, and a willingness to explain, in terms the student understands, the fundamental concepts of the art. It isn't enough that the teacher has experience in the subject at hand, they must also be a student of how to teach, they must possess a desire to learn about how people learn and apply that knowledge to their pedagogy.

Finding a violincello teacher who meets these criteria has been an adventure. The first was well prepared to teach me the same things, in the same manner, that she used to teach all her other students - a one-size-fits-all approach. Even when I mildly protested about the inappropriateness of one of her exercises, she was unable to alter what she was doing. The second, while perhaps a good performer, had no pedagogical background, and I was concerned about having to iterate over material repeatedly to correct mistakes of omission or misunderstanding.

Through sheer persistency and tenacity I have managed to get a first lesson with an accomplished violoncello performer and teacher. Although we have yet to meet in person I feel that we have reached an initial understanding of each other. I understand that he is the best in the area and he understands that I will settle for nothing less. In my own way I am going to demand that he teach me, and in return I expect that he will demand that I learn. I am not looking for coddling or gentle, I want a true apprenticeship in music in general, and cello in specific. In order to accomplish that I need to place my trust in him.

My experience in a karate-do dojo taught me much about the power of placing your trust in a sensei, which literally translates as "someone who has walked the path before you." The trick is finding a true sensei. I feel I've accomplished this all-important first step. Now I need to bring the same level of persistence and commitment to my lessons and my practice as I did to my search.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.