To train students to be independent thinkers, to question, and to actively seek answers is my mission.

On Teaching

It is a privilege to be involved in education today, a privilege that also carries sizable responsibility as we shape the face of tomorrow through our current students who ultimately leave the academy and make decisions that affect society.  Current social challenges call upon the public to keep the best teachers and community leaders on the front lines.  The responsibility of serving as an educator propels me, and so many of us, toward fulfilling the mission of developing a community of independent thinkers and lifelong learners. 

What makes an effective teacher?  Of the many educational challenges facing a teacher today, perhaps the most over-riding issue is a calling on my part to develop each student’s ability and desire not only to grow and learn at this moment, but equally to continue to learn and think creatively after that individual leaves the university environment.  If I am effective in any ways as a teacher, I believe it is through some realization of an ultimate challenge: to prepare students to leave me and the academy as self-composed individuals possessing extreme curiosity and consummate ability to think, to reason, to make music independently, and to continue to learn and affect society both socially and professionally.  To train students to be independent thinkers, to question, and to actively seek answers is my mission as a teacher, whether I am in the classroom, in the studio teaching an applied music lesson, or whether I am in informal conversation with a student or colleague.  We are teachers and role models in all settings, both within and without the University. 

In all teaching and personal interaction, my expectations are based on the commonly-held postulate “the true nature of a human is to become the best that it can be.”  While it is true that such optimistic thinking can open the door for disappointment, I find more frequently that subscribing to this philosophy erases barriers to expecting and receiving the best and highest quality from students and colleagues.  Students begin to respect diverse opinions once they learn that no perceived problem in academia, in music performance, and, ultimately in life, has just one solution. 

With the passing of time, I become increasingly aware of how intensely students model their actions after their teachers and others with whom they are in close contact.  Video taped evaluation by my students of their own teaching of music and their performing of music is a substantial part of my work.  Through this, I am faced with the challenge of embracing their struggles and pursuits to achieve excellence and also of freeing them to experience alternative interpretations of a piece of music.  The challenge is not for the students to be like me as a teacher or as a performer, although that is the ultimate compliment, but rather for them to find their own teaching and playing style and begin to develop their own criteria for excellence.  How many different ways can you interpret this musical passage?  How might the playing of this passage be changed with respect to what actually happened earlier in the performance?  What made the musical form and structure hold together in your colleague’s performance? 

University of Chicago professor and psychologist Csikszentmihalyi in the book Creativity (1996) speaks not about solving problems, but about stimulating the fluency, flexibility, and originality of the ideas and responses of individuals.  It is from this point that we can then lead the students to the habit of curiosity.  He suggests that three dimensions of divergent thinking are held to be important:  fluency, or the knack for coming up with many different responses; flexibility, or the tendency to produce ideas that are different from each other; and originality, in relation to the proportionate rarity of the ideas produced.1  The aspiration to train individuals to continue to learn suggests that we produce student thinkers who are fluent, flexible, and original.  Csikszentmihalyi goes so far as to give a prescription for cultivating interest and curiosity in one’s personal experience.  He suggests, “Try to be surprised by something each day...surprise at least one person each day...Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others...When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it.” 2

I require two things of my students: they must be curious and they must be enthusiastic.  In a sense, my role at the university, in the community, and at home is to create an environment where those around me, not just my students, are curious, enthusiastic, and ultimately committed to whatever task or challenge at hand.  If one is enthusiastic and curious, the chances are, s/he will become committed.  From there, I strive to move them to a mode of thinking that accepts differences and to a world where the highest ethical conduct is always the groundwork of all actions.

From my vantage point, this is perhaps one indication of effective teaching: the ability to foster the passion and curiosity in students, so that they are able to think, to reason, and to affect society both socially and professionally.  Excellence breeds excellence, and enthusiasm fosters enthusiasm.  Educational institutions provide us with fertile ground to implement examples of conduct and curiosity to affect eternity.