Teaching vs. Learning

By By Brody McDonald

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“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This is an amazing quote for teachers of all stripes. Here are two more that, when paired, help communicate the same concept.

My dad said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. You can, however, drown it.” And by that he meant that if you try to force any action too much, you can create resistance that leads to failure.

I think it was Steve Zegree who said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Our job is to make it thirsty.”

I tell students all the time that TEACHING and LEARNING are two different verbs. If a student is dead set against learning, the teacher’s job becomes difficult, if not impossible. However, if the student WANTS to learn, nothing can stop them. People learn things, complex things, all the time – on their own. Piano, guitar, other languages, how to fix a car, how to cook chicken piccata. Information is everywhere, all the time, and available for free. When I tell students that nothing can stop them from learning if they really want to, they chuckle. Then I say, “So… how many of you know someone who figured out how to bypass the school’s website blocker?” Case closed.

The following are two stories of students who went above and beyond to learn. They were inspirations to me, and showed me new avenues for my teaching. I tell these stories from time to time in my rehearsals to help open my singers’ minds.

Just over a decade ago, I had a student named Caitlin. Caitlin always wanted to succeed. At the start of each year we hold auditions for section leaders. One of the requirements is to play the section’s part on the piano. Caitlin told us she had been working all Summer, and was hopeful to be chosen. When the time came to play, she seemed flustered. It wasn’t awful… but not good enough. Caitlin was disappointed, but moved on.

Fast forward another year. Caitlin came in again, this time looking VERY confident. She played the alto line flawlessly. The piece was in closed score, so I asked her if she could play the soprano and alto lines together. She could. No problems. I was blown away!

“Have you been taking piano lessons?” No.

“You’ve just been working on this on your own?” Yes.

“How did you get so far this time? Last year you struggled. Was it just having more time?”

What she said next is the answer I’ll remember above any other in my career.

“Last time, I didn’t know the note names on the piano, so I put stickers on the keys to help me. I learned how to play with the stickers. But then I came in for the audition and when I looked down… there were no stickers. I was lost. When I went home, the first thing I did was to take all the stickers off my piano and start over.”

Caitlin set a learning goal for herself, invested time, and used what she could (stickers) to help. When she failed to achieve her goal, she didn’t pout or quit. She realized she miscalculated by not transitioning OFF the stickers. She didn’t FAIL, she LEARNED, and immediately used that knowledge to adjust and become successful in the next cycle.

I had another student, Sam, who was a senior and the new vocal percussionist for Eleventh Hour. He was trying to fill some big shoes. The VP before him was Kurt Zimmerman, who was on The Sing-Off in Eleventh Hour, and then went on to leave high school and immediately become a professional VP with Street Corner Symphony for eight years. Sam started the year less than enthusiastic, and when I talked with him one-on-one he confessed, “I just thought I’d have more opportunity to create in this group.” I explained to him that he could create as much as he wanted, that I cherish such ambition, and asked him what he had in mind. “Looping pedals and effects pedals. I really like what SONOS does.” 

I contacted one of the members of SONOS, connected him with Sam, and told Sam: “Learn what you need… here’s our budget. Come back to me with a plan.” Sam did just that, and went on to create music that year that people in Kettering still talk about to this day. (Check this link if you want to see. It’s not the greatest footage, but Sam is using a looper to build a complex drum battery in the beginning in “Some Nights” as well as using a phaser. He does some looping in his VP solo at 13:40 – https://youtu.be/jcSgtD5EvtI)

And so it is that these two stories provide us with great reminders.

FOR TEACHERS: Teach as well as you can, but also look for ways to empower students to learn on their own. Do what you can to “make them thirsty.” Ask them what’s possible, ask them for help, ask them to get creative. You’ll be surprised at the results.

FOR STUDENTS: Don’t wait around. Your director can’t do or be everything for you. You are responsible for your own learning, and much of it comes from your own curiosity outside the classroom. When things don’t go your way, don’t see it as a FAILURE. It’s an opportunity to LEARN and to come back stronger the next time.

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