Fear Mongering in Teaching: Part 3
The subtitle to today's blog is, "So I'm a fear mongering teacher...now what?"
Let me be clear: every teacher of movement or music has probably used fear based language in a class or private session. It happens, and I know I've done it. The pilates/yoga/music police aren't going to get you, and maybe in a specific circumstance, that language was needed. However, here are some thoughts and practices that can help shift your teaching, that may help your students in a different way.
1) Get out of your comfort zone and learn new things. Whether you're a somatic practitioner, massage therapist, or Suzuki violin teacher, there are probably media forums that you trust and follow regularly. What about finding new perspectives and opinions? I became a better instrumental teacher and performer once I started learning anatomy and movement science from non-musicians. One of my favorite ways to explore this is through movement podcasts addressing specific topics, which give me a chance to learn while I drive, walk, or work at home. If you've trained in one specific method or approach for a long time, look up differing opinions and criticism of that method. It doesn't mean you have to abandon your approach, but seeing a bigger picture can help in many ways. Trying new classes or teachers for exercise or somatic practices are excellent ways to broaden your perspective!
2) Notice when you use negative commands in teaching, "don't put weight on the inside of the foot," or "don't rush." See if you can turn some of those into affirmative commands or neutral questions: "where is the weight on the foot or see if you can balance the weight between the inner and outer foot." You can always turn it into a specific person adjustment, "Ludwig, more weight on the pinky side of the foot," or "Johann, keep a steady tempo in the middle section." More importantly, notice when you give negative commands to yourself when you're practicing or teaching! When I'm working on an audition or solo work, I find that positive commands/directives are more helpful than "don't rush" and "don't play loud."
3) Don't diagnose a student verbally to their face on first meeting them. This one takes a little explaining, but here's a real life example.
I go for a pilates private session with a new instructor, tell her I'm a musician and that I know I have some imbalances, but that I find pilates helpful. She immediately replies, "Yes, you have sloped shoulders and some hyperkyphosis (over rounding of the mid back spine)." Here's the thing though- without seeing me move, how can you make that evaluation, and how can you know whether it's a structural issue, bone, soft tissue, or neurological? I don't have a problem with teachers making visual evaluations about my posture or body on the fly, but keep it to yourself and don't tell me what's wrong with me as though you're the first person to see that. When we diagnosis a student and tell them something is wrong with them, it's usually outside of our scope of practice as movement teachers, and that student may then pathologize the problem, "I have bad posture so..." At the American Viola Festival last month, many players came up to me and said, "I was told I have bad posture and..." Posture is useful but it doesn't always correlate with pain, and just telling someone they have bad posture without looking at the whole person (or how to remedy it) isn't terribly helpful, especially when we don't know the whole story. (I think this whole bad posture thing needs to be a whole separate blog, so I'll work on that)
Here's another example: I played a mock audition for a principal of a very famous, well paying orchestra. He listened to 2-3 excerpts, totaling a few minutes of music, and then made an evaluation. "See your overall problem is that you're too engaged in the music, and that's going to overwhelm committees. But you can obviously play." Perhaps his evaluation was correct, perhaps not, but it made for a really odd month of trying to distance myself from the music in an emotional sense, and then in playing for other people, they asked what I was playing so oddly.
On the fly diagnosis can assert authority, but it's not always helpful for the student, particularly if you don't give potential solutions to the issue you see.
4) Learn a little about pain science. My old perspective was that "bad positions" and "bad posture" caused pain, period. Turns out that perspective isn't terribly accurate and that there aren't "bad positions," just positions that you're body isn't adapted to. Pain is a hugely complex experience for individuals, and some people can have beautifully "aligned" poses and instrument setups and still have pain, and some people can have completely "disastrous" form and never have pain. What's more, is that pain doesn't always correlate with tissue damage, meaning that if my knee hurts, it doesn't necessarily mean that I injured my knee.
For musicians, I see instrument setup as an experiment in finding new ways (plural) of holding the instrument and making music, in the hopes of finding positions that help the musician play to the best of their abilities. Ideally, that also decreases pain or soft tissue damage, but given my scope of practice and understanding of the body, I have no idea if that's happening especially in a one hour lesson. If I'm working with a student on setup, I'm trying to focus on specific task improvement, like shifting, intonation, breathing, sound production, comfort while sitting, etc, rather than exclusively focusing on pain or achieving some perfect setup.
5) Shift from an exclusively goal oriented teaching to a process based teaching. This last one can be a bit confusing, but let me explain.
In both music, yoga, and pilates, there's a mysterious "perfection" that people are searching for, whether it's the "full expression of the pose" or a "flawless performance." Neither of those actually exist, and even if you achieve something very close to perfection, it's fleeting because music and movement are temporary and there are always new poses, new pieces, and a different daily bodily experience. The question then becomes, how can I support my students in their growth while not putting so much emphasis on the outcome or result. When I detach myself from the outcome or a specific image of perfect posture, setup, or alignment, I can explore regressions and progressions in dialogue with my students.
:et's go back to warrior 2 in yoga. Rather than teaching one specific form of the pose, you can invite students to try different things: widen or narrow your stance, notice the rotation of the back leg, feel whether the knee wants to move inward or outward, notice the difference between left and right sides, etc. You've moved the focus from achieving a perfect warrior 2 to exploring the shape in one's body, which removes the need for a cue like "Don't bend your knee past 90 degrees" or "Don't let the knee cave inward."
A perfect example of this approach is the Feldenkrais method, which I love, but do not teach. As a movement practice, Awareness Through Movement classes explore movement and pose questions about how things feel, where there is movement in the body, etc, rather than instructing students to take on certain shapes. There is little demonstration, and minimal correction (except to clarify instruction), at least in a group ATM class.
For music, it's giving students a chance to work on things without expecting them to sound perfect right away. I was fortunate to have a teacher in college who ignored many of the external expectations of doing a certain festival/competition/etc., and instead focused on the process needed to improve and gain skill. At some point, we have to merge process with external expectations in order to pursue a career, but for young musicians especially, there is some flexibility.
As with all teaching, bringing your personal experiences to the table are helpful: what language has helped you move or play better, what experiences were negative, when you misinterpreted a cue or command, etc. As always, start with awareness of your language and presence as a teacher, and expand your toolbox of skills as a teacher both through knowledge, study, assessment, and verbal cuing. You can voice record your teaching or video, or simply ask your clients or students about their experiences. You may get some negative feedback as well, but that can help you to improve as a teacher moving forward.