Saxophone instruction is not light work. One has to believe and believe BIG. Helping someone discover just how much mettle they possess is a feeling that I can only describe as tout à fait incroyable.
I recently received a little note:
“…Thank you for turning saxophone into a hobby instead of a chore for me and for helping me to become better than I ever thought I would…”
I was—blush—very pleased.
Lighting motivational fires is rarely straightforward. Burnt fingers, singed hopes, the best laid plans up in smoke…it’s all part of the process. But sometimes you stumble into strategies that capture the mind of a student and you get results.
Bearing witness to a young person who comes to feel le feu sacré is undoubtedly one of the greatest rewards in teaching.
So how can we make this happen?
Time For Practice + Time For Play
Practising involves: critical thinking, attention to detail, correction, creative repetition, caring about outcomes (including marks and the opinions of others) and pushing ourselves to do better. Focus. Determination. Persistence.
Playing involves: imagination, experimentation, relaxation, letting-go of the need to impress, personal space to assimilate concepts, enjoying where we are, validation of the self. Indulging your own whims. Doing it your own way.
As teachers, we are often good at pushing the practice concepts. But are we just as determined to help our students release the pressure valve and just play?
Like many other instructors, I read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother out of curiosity. An international best seller about (mostly) music practice? Holy Batman! I was most taken with her concept of The Virtuous Circle.
“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching, or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.”
Hmmmmm… Yes. But ultimately you need each student to own his or her own success. Even if everyone around them celebrates their skills, there will be a void without internal curiosity. How awful to be brilliant in the eyes of the world, but dull to your own.
Some practical tips to get the Practice/Play Virtuous Circle spinning. WARNING: You may want to keep a fire extinguisher at the ready!
Warm up with your student at the beginning of the lesson. Anything Goes. Be rambunctious to encourage them to put some serious air into the instrument, then back off. Drop your dynamic level, changing the mood. Quietly putter around the horn while you give your full attention to what the student is doing. Amazingly, they will “find” all kinds of fascinating sounds: multiphonics, vibrato, pitch bends. Just listen, then with a casual nonchalance say, “Hey—that was an awesome timbre trill you just played. Can you do it again?”
Improvise with all materials. Set the metronome clicking and “trade twos” (two measure phrases) in whatever key you are working. Pick up on what your student is playing. Copy or mimic their notes, rhythms, articulations to demonstrate that you hear them. Validate the fact that they’ve got the moves! When it’s your turn, make wild and crazy sounds on your saxophone and see how your student responds.
Listen to a piece or a movement of a piece together. Encourage your student to collect their thoughts and jot things down that catch their ear. Compare notes—Do You Hear What I Hear?—and confirm that any observation is interesting and worth discussing.
Duets, duets, and then more duets!
Interested Teacher: “What does the word, ‘recreational’ mean to you?”
In-The-Know Student: “Sports you play just for fun. Pickup basketball. Shinny. Stuff you do outside or at the gym. Non-competitive. Y’know—you don’t have to worry about winning.”
Smiling Teacher: “Well, in France, recreation can mean playing duets!”
Surprised Student: “Seriously?”
Inspired Teacher: “Mais oui! Let’s—wink—RE-CREATE some of these recreational wonders right now. Here is a book of some of my favourites.”
Curious Student: “What’s the title?”
Teacher with Mock Surprise: “Why it’s 14 pétits duos récréatifs by Michel Mériot.”
Reflective Student: “Wow. So it’s true. Music as recreation. I’m down with that.”
Happy Teacher: “Actually, I’ll be in the down position, as in the bottom part. You take the top line and allons-y!”
Learn more in my book, Saxophone Technique.