Inspirational Music Teaching

by Mitchell Estrin

Teaching is a complex art form. As we look back over our educational experiences, there are typically one or two teachers who have had a strong lasting impact on our lives through their ability, mentorship, and inspiration.

In music, the student/teacher relationship is very powerful, as often times the instruction is one-on-one. Music by its very nature is personal and evokes an emotional response from teacher, student, performer, and listener. Great teachers not only instill the educational principles necessary to teach the subject, but reach the student on many levels, from knowledge and understanding to joy.

If we disregard the apathetic teacher, I have often thought that  there are two types of teachers: inspirational and perspirational. Perspirational teachers are those who get results through intimidation and a "my way or the highway" form of instruction. I have encountered some conductors who embrace this dictatorial approach to get results from their ensemble. In the best case scenario, the end result is a musically detached and accurate ensemble performance. Performers will execute but will be guarded about taking an artistic risk. Teachers who intimidate their students will achieve similar results.

I was blessed in the early stages of my professional career to perform under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. He was the quintessential example of an inspirational teacher and leader. He loved the music deeply and had both consummate knowledge and an incredible depth of artistic vision. He was also a great communicator both verbally and through his physical movements. He inspired those around him to commit 110% of themselves to the music on the stand and elevated the performance level just by being there. He made you feel a part of something unique, special, and satisfying. He took his musicians to heights that are undefinable. You left every rehearsal and performance inspired to reach higher in your own playing.  

I use this example to personify the power of inspiring your students. If you are successful, you will create a positive and nurturing atmosphere of experiential learning where mistakes are not punished and achievement is celebrated. This can be as rudimentary as playing a good first note all the way up to a brilliant recital performance.

A critical but too often overlooked aspect of teaching is the human element. Beyond the fundamental techniques required to play an instrument, an inspirational teacher will not only impart knowledge but find a way to connect and inspire each student. No small challenge!

"The way you present information and critique your students is a key factor." - Mitchell Estrin

The way you present information and critique your students is a key factor. After listening to a problematical musical passage that requires technical and/or musical adjustments, the negative perspirational teacher might say, "That was terrible.  Do it again and this time play it like I have been telling you to do for the past year." The positive inspirational teacher might say, "That was very good, but it can even be better if you do the following....” Don't forget how important it is to praise your students when they have earned it.

As you remember the special teachers in your life, consider their methodology and think of ways you can emulate their lasting impression. Think of the impact they have had on your life and strive to share this incredible gift.

Join the conversation