"Teacher, Am I Doing it Right?" : Searching for Meaning While Teaching
I have the unique perspective of being a professional classical violist, yoga teacher, and pilates instructor, meaning that over the years, I have taught a wide spectrum of people different things. From working with 7 year olds just handling a violin for the first time, women in their eighties looking to move better, to professional athletes needing mobility on game day, teaching is an interesting, challenging, and rewarding profession. One question, however, intrigues me: ”Am I doing it right?” The answer is…”It depends.”
Classical music study is fairly regimented and has a limited definition of “Doing it right,” which includes perfect intonation, rhythm, sound, and style, as well as a narrowly defined perspective of intonation. There’s only a few ways to “do it right,” and a million ways to “do it wrong,” at least defined by discriminating ears. (See my thoughts on orchestral auditions for more on that). Conversely, I have always enjoyed teaching movement and practicing movement because there is a much larger spectrum of “doing it right,” at least based on the teachings and modalities I’ve studied..
My first yoga teacher was a wonderful man versed in both bodywork as well as traditional yoga, weight training, dance, and pilates. (He, David Vendetti still owns the studio in Boston that I trained at). His studio had incredible body diversity in age, gender and race, especially for yoga circa 2007-2008, and a large range of abilities. He always cued different ways to do a pose, and multiple expressions of doing things. As I moved around the country for music studies, I quickly learned that his approach was unique, and that many teachers did not think or teach this way. I was later shamed in a class for not doing all the chaturangas (or pushups) when my wrists hurt, and the teacher asked why I was disregarding his instruction. I was later told that there was only one right alignment for a pose, and that the aesthetic appearance seemed to be very important, rather than the way I felt in the pose. I disagreed with this train of thought, and stopped doing yoga for a while, only to return to it later when I found a more positive studio and environment. Classical music is so incredibly exacting, precise and demanding- I don’t necessarily want every other aspect of my life to reflect that.
After doing my 200 hour teacher training in yoga, I went on to do all of the Yoga Tune Up® trainings, which expanded that definition of “doing poses right,” and furthered the dialogue about how poses feel as the practitioner, which I loved. It also brought up the notion that movements or poses can look good in terms of someone’s definition of alignment, but not feel great or be a productive movement for the practitioner. The line I first heard from Trina Altman is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” specifically in reference to poses that demanded extreme range of motion. My training in apparatus based pilates was in a similar mindset of exploring pilates movements but also doing the best you can, even if it doesn’t look as perfect as the textbook/video/photograph. It was only later where I encountered the pilates teachers with different goals.
Let’s go back to the initial question I get sometimes, “Am I doing it right?” Although classical music is very precise, that’s not a question that comes up that often in lessons. Perhaps it’s because being a performer takes a certain a amount of ego and conviction in one’s choices? There are plenty of things to correct in music lessons, but the critique often comes from the teacher, rather than the student initially questioning their approach. Young children especially do not care if they’re doing it right- it’s a learned behavior that seems to come in during elementary age. Yet, elementary age teachers often have an enormous amount of patience as children learn, stumble, and often make mistakes. Mistakes lead to growth and learning, whether it’s learning how to read, move, or play an instrument.
Adults, however, don’t want to be wrong and yet don’t have confidence while moving, despite the fact that no movement teacher knows your body like you do. Our perfectionist culture means that it takes incredible courage and vulnerability to learn something new, whether it’s a skill, a language, an instrument, weight training, or pilates. Movement teachers often forget this, either because we were naturally gifted movers, or because it’s our profession. When people show up for a group class, or even worse, a private session, they are showing up and are willing to be seen, in their bodies, with their abilities, as they are in this moment. They bring their body image, their stress, their knee injuries, and everything in between, and are willing to get critical feedback on how they move their bodies. Being seen by a professional movement teacher can be scary- when I started, I wished I was thinner, more flexible, and was afraid I wouldn’t know the movements when they were cued, and I can imagine many other students feel that way. In addition, students may not be used to feeling movements in their bodies- our culture is not one of immense proprioception or awareness, and so a pilates session, yoga class, or personal training session may be the first time in days, weeks, or months, that someone has felt sensation in their body.
“Doing it right” then has a completely different definition: are we teaching people how to move better in their own bodies and be aware of their bodies, or are we teaching them a set of shapes that should look a certain way? Yes, there are set poses in yoga, pilates, and other movement modalities, and yes, there are set perspectives on alignment, but within that, there is a spectrum of possible expressions. If someone’s footwork is slightly askew, they probably won’t seriously injure themselves, or if they lose their pelvic stability in feet in straps. Learning anything takes time- you’re literally creating new neural pathways for movement, using receptors in a new way. Making mistakes is inherently a part of learning, so as long as the client is not injuring themselves and is attempting to do what they’re being instructed, they are “doing it right” for where they are. If the goal is to have students become aware of their body and learn about their body, then they are “doing it right, 100%.”
When I teach something, I usually give a student (either of music or movement) a few tries without any feedback, just to see what happens. Then I’ll say something like, “Great- I can see that it’s starting to make sense- let’s refine it.” If I want the student to do something different, it also means that I need to be more precise with my language and change my explanation, rather than saying, “no, that’s not it.” A student’s inability to do a task means that you, as a teacher, need to assess, evaluate, and see where you can communicate more effectively to cater to that student’s needs, whether that’s word choice, demonstration, simile or something else.
Skill acquisition is incredible complex, requiring many facets of the brain. When we see this as the incredible feat for the brain that it is, especially for older individuals, it’s easier to appreciate the different learning styles and speeds of learning that people have. Going back to the pilates student’s question, “Am I doing it right,” my answer is “are you feeling things in your body that are productive and it looks sort of like what I cued? Then I am happy.”