When I was prompted with a research project on creating a new kind of syllabus for my Music Education course, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on-- "standard" repertoire requirements in applied music and how to branch out of it. As I read my first source of information, I realized quickly that this was interesting, but it wasn't the heart of the issue for me as a teacher. Every bassoon studio I have been a part of has felt different-- not only because of the different combinations of students, but because of the way the professors treated the students. The solution I eventually focused on wasn't allowing the students to branch out from conventional material-- it's about creating a culture for those students to feel comfortable enough to want to branch out and find their own voice.
The Minnesota Vikings hired new head coach Mike Zimmer in 2014. A level-headed, quiet, kind man, Zimmer took a team with a record of 5-10-1 (only 5 wins in 2013), brought them to the playoffs in 2015 with a record of 11-5, and led them all the way to the NFC Championship game (the semi-finals) with a record of 13-3 in 2017. He has gone on record saying he will not draft players who don't have the right mindset, and actively seeks out rookies who he can mold to his own standards due to their attitude, even if they don't have the best skills or ability. The culture change in the Minnesota Vikings is clear to the fans, and it is obviously effective.
Of course, in a music school, recruiting can be an effective tool for building a studio based on your appealing teaching style as the applied teacher, but you don't always get to hand-pick your students like Mike Zimmer can his players. This is where the concept of Flexiblity, Empathy, and Pedagogy come in. Have you ever trained a dog? There are many methods, but the most effective one is positive reinforcement. Connecting with the dog by praising them with treats or just plain excitement makes them feel more fulfilled than hitting them when they do something bad ever will. They want to keep receiving that infectious positive feeling, which becomes their motivation for doing whatever you want them to. Here's the rub: In order for that training to be effective, you can't just force them to do things that are unnatural for them-- you have to start with their instincts (like jumping), which leads you to branch out to related tricks (like agility). Some dogs just don't like jumping, and getting them to jump on cue is next to impossible! Flexibility is realizing that you have to teach each dog differently because of their traits-- Empathy is understanding that they might not learn the same tricks as fast or as well as another dog would.
When I get a new student, I always try to find out who they are first, and adapt to how they hear music. I recently had the opportunity to teach a friend of mine I met through subbing with local groups, an infectiously kind woman in her 60s. She came to me asking for help with the first bassoon part to Appalachian Spring. I asked her, "What do you see when you play this?" Most people I ask this reply with an image, like a meadow or a river-- but surprisingly, she replied "I see colors. Earth tones, greens and yellows." She played the first solo, leading up to a high A-- it was a bit choked off, and I wanted it to sound warm and resonant. She said she saw this solo as a lime green or bright yellow-- I asked her to view it as more of a goldenrod yellow, or a Jade green. Her face lit up and she knew EXACTLY what I was talking about, and the next time she played it, it came out warm and resonant without me even saying those words. Sometimes we overthink how we explain simple concepts, but the answer is so much simpler. Just by connecting with her personal learning style, I created a safe place by being flexible and empathizing with her-- while at the same time using my pedagogical skills I had learned from experience in school to focus on making her a more controlled, sensitive player.
If I can infuse the positivity I try to express in my private lessons into a syllabus-- designed to be inclusive of players from all backgrounds, empathetic of all majors and levels, and flexible enough to allow students to create their own voice, all while creating a positive, safe culture where students feel supported by one another and myself-- I can't wait to see the possibilities.
Ariel Detwiler is an active freelancer and teacher in the Twin Cities. Ariel has a DMA in Bassoon Performance with an emphasis on music education, and actively works with band directors in Minnesota and Iowa to create a positive image surrounding the bassoon.