Monday, June 4, 2012

Pondering Pedagogy

I’m sitting at home on a cool evening listening to the sandy voice of Ella Fitzgerald in my headphones. I don’t exactly feel like writing a blog entry, but if I don’t do it now, I’m not sure when it will happen.

Just a few of today’s experiences that made me smile.

Today as I was walking up the hill to catch the dala dala (bus) I saw a woman standing on the side of the rode, beside a short bush, peeing. She had a big cloth wrapped around her, as most women wear here, but she was just standing there peeing! In broad daylight, no minding any one walking by. I was more impressed than anything I think. It was quite a sight to see.

Then tonight I was cutting into an onion when I saw a black spot in the onion. I thought I’d cut around it and use the rest of it since it seemed fine. But as soon as I cut into the black part… and brace yourselves… a colony of tiny ants burst from it!! EW. I kinda jumped and then ran the cutting board and onion out the front door to throw it in the bushes. Ants... living in an onion!!! So weird.

Last Friday we had our end of the year recital for Umoja. Crazy that it’s the end of year recital, yes. We had a wonderful concert and it featured two songs that I’ve written. One of them will be in Ndoto and the other is called Watoto Wa Umoja (Children of Umoja). I originally just wrote it as a song for choir, but after people enjoyed it at our December concert, I arranged it for our ‘orchestra’ of guitars, pianos, violins, flutes, and voice. The flute studio here is new, and most of the students started learning with me. I was really proud of them- especially the beginners. Here’s the video of the song from the concert. Don’t mind the SUPER loud microphone of my youngest voice student. Haha.

Mom made a good suggestion to me the other day- to write about my experience teaching. It is something that I have certainly spent a great deal of time thinking about—probably every single day that I’ve been in Tanzania, I’ve thought about teaching, how to do it better, lessons learned. And I’ve learned a LOT. One thing that comes to mind is how to handle kids with low self-esteems. I’ve made mistakes in that department, sometimes being too hard on kids when they weren’t ready for it. I’m still trying to figure out how to connect to students, teach them to trust me, and teach them to trust themselves. You can’t just tell a student: “You’re good. Now suck it up and play.”

Then there’s the topic of being open-minded to other kinds of music, and teaching music for kids to simply enjoy. Pop tunes and songs are very hard for me to respect and even more challenging for me to want to teach, but I do see value in them in that they give some students a lot of enjoyment. That’s what music is about, right? Enjoyment.

Then I’ve learned that a teacher cannot change the desire of a student to want to practice or even to want to play an instrument. I have done everything from coming down harder on discipline, to talking to parents, to getting creative with composition and improvisation activities. But, if a student doesn’t want to practice any music, then they won’t. I’ve learned not to take things so personally. There was an instance toward the beginning of the year when I played part of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony and asked the kids what they thought of it- someone yelled out that they thought it was boring. It made me VERY mad when they said that, but I have to understand that the music I love is not what everyone loves, and vice versa.

I’ve learned that many children actually fear the metronome. I don’t know when I started loving the metronome, but I see it as a huge aide in practicing. Some students actually begin shaking in fear/nerves when I ask them to play a scale with a metronome. But, then for some of them, when I play with them in a steady rhythm instead of turning on the metronome, they can totally latch onto the groove and play with a steady rhythm.

I’ve realized that teaching very beginner music is not stimulating to me and I really struggle with making myself be excited to teach it. I love teaching at Makumira University- it’s very stimulating. There, I teach music students who are all older than me and very knowledgeable about some things and often ask me questions that I have to consider and that really challenge me. I don’t think I just want to lecture, though. And I still get somewhat hurt when they seem bored by the recordings I’m playing. These are the pieces that changed my whole perception of music! And I want them to be as ground-breaking for these people too. But music is individual and so personal. I have to come to terms with that.

I’ve learned how frustrating it is to teach a studio of children who have electric pianos. In Tanzania, real pianos are very hard to find. Most of our students have electric keyboards and when we have a week of a lot of power-outages, well, they don’t get to practice at all. I’ll never forget that little student coming in and telling me, quite proudly, how when her electricity was out she practiced on her mom’s ipad piano app…. Not quite the same as the piano.

I’ve seen how kids step up and seriously come through when it’s recital time. They come out of the weeks of struggling through a piece with a polished tune they, and I, can be so proud of.

I’ve come…somewhat… to terms to being around a lot of musicians who won’t make music their main life force. Coming out of university music school, where all the students are there FOR music and completely dedicated TO music.. it’s tough to know that I’m teaching most kids something that they will always do for fun or remember only as a part of their childhood. And I can find joy in that as well.

I’ve learned that little kids REALLY like to write and draw about killings, blood, and death when given the chance. Every time we have to make up a story about a composer as a fun activity, my little 6 year old group class begs to write or draw a story about the composer dying or being caught in war… not sure what to think of that. I remember once someone drew Chopin with “music bleeding out of his ears!” ….

I’ve witnessed how difficult it is to be a parent. I have such a great deal of respect for the parents who have to organize not only their insane, NGO-running, continent-hopping, family-raising lives, but also the 10 activities of their talented and insanely busy children. I’ve also seen how difficult it is for them to first let go of instructing their children in our lessons. There have been many conversations when I have to say “It’s great for you to help, but I have to be the one to instruct in the lessons.”

How do you teach someone to love opera? Or even to be open to it?

I’ve felt how much I’ve missed having professional live music concert. Oh I miss live jazz and live symphonies SO much.

I’ve thought a lot about when I fell in love with music, when I stopped minding practicing, when I learned all that I learned. It’s the hardest thing to remember—how you learned something that is now so engrained in who you are. What was I like when I was a 7 year old piano student? Did I understand things easily? Was I that student that my teacher dreaded? Or was happy to have? Why did I stick with music so much? Was it just because of the social element- I know marching band had such influence on me because of the friends I had there. These kids here don’t get that element, so will they love music less?

Those are just a few of my thoughts that I’m thinking of tonight. New questions come to me each day. It’s been such a year of discovery.

Ndoto is just around the corner J Colette arrives on Thursday! 


  1. Hi dear I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about teaching, pedagogy, kids and parenting. I chucked at a few spots, like the kid who drew mozart with music bleeding, then straightened up to consider the tragic cause of such manifestations as violence in art. Really, I believe many parts of the world are going through what the Western world did in the early 20th century, when the unspeakable horrors of that time were just (again) ramping up for another endless and meaningless cycle. The whole of humanity does not march in tandem; it is disjointed. Thus we have the "Crusades" of the 12th Century happening again in the 21st Century in many parts of the Muslim world.

    So, too, when it comes to higher consciousness experiences such as art, music and compassion, the whole of humanity is disjointed. As you know, even in the same family, one can have many levels of awareness. You are correct when you taught yourself to not take lack of appreciation "personally". I remember when I was teaching at the Art Institute of Atlanta that I was very disappointed that virtually none of the students in my classes was interested in Fine Art photography, but rather how to do commercial work and make some dough.

    Unfortunately, in all but the most elevated levels of teaching, for the teacher, it is just another day to "get through". Then, if you're lucky, you can do pursue your own passion, on your off time. So, if you hope to have the level of satisfaction as a teacher that it seems you would yearn for, you would have to teach at the university or conservatory level eh...

    I found your reflections to be very helpful and profound. I will read them again and we can chat more about it when you're here in Rio, ok?

    You are truly amazing and have already spread enough sunshine to light up a galaxy, my dear!

    I'm really excited about your Ndoto production!!!


  2. I found out that kids can and will teach each other - and, when I was teaching, we all enjoyed it far more when I was just a guide/older sister helping that process, not a force akin to Atilla the Hun.

    I always felt sad as well when I could not (or to this day can not) open a new door of understanding. But... for every 10 or even 1000 that don't see the light ... 1 will - and for teachers - that is what makes it all worth it.

    Consider also this - who would be there for these kids in this point in time? When I was in kindergarten - I started out loving music - our first teacher was great - kind, gentle, encouraging. Then one fine day "Mrs. Godzilla" walked in - and told us if we didn't smile and be as outgoing as she wanted - she would chain the corners of our mouths to the ceiling to make us smile. And on it went - horrible loud caterwauling at the piano which she played whist standing/hopping up and down (she was about 5'7" or so - btw)...

    I had a headache like clockwork just before the start of music classes 7 years in a row, failed tests 7 years in a row, and to this day wonder just what on earth half notes have to do with football scores. :-(!!

    So... look at this this way - at least you aren't crushing any budding musicians in your midst! And, you are also in an area that most would not even consider teaching in... Just hang in there - and know that your own talents are flourishing - because you never know how even something very simple can inspire you.

    1. PS - perhaps also consider that Benjamin Graham taught hundreds, and then through his books inspired thousands of stock investors... but... there is only one Warren Buffet - his most famous student...

  3. Dani, this might be my favorite blog yet. I love hearing your voice in my head as I read through. I hope and pray that you always remember these days. The tough ones make the good ones only that much sweeter. Thanks for writing this. I was hungry for it. I too laughed at the blood and death, especially after having experienced that class live and in person. Hilarious. You are an amazing woman and I'm so so so proud of you. Love you most, moma

  4. Opera lover here! Is there any way you could show clips of West Side Story? It of course is a musical, but a serious one,and I feel it is one step away from opera, and does introduce singing in a story, without being silly...also the dancing is fantastic, the fighting, etc...
    then you might just give them a little taste of The Magic Flute, also a bit of Carmen perhaps...all you can offer is a taste, and hope that they might come back for more....and of course there is always La Boheme,which is about students...I enjoyed reading this post, and I think all teachers can relate in some way to your highs and lows in teaching!