Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Advantage of a Diverse Perspective

During a recent conversation with my colleague Dan Teague, Math Instructor at NCSSM, we were telling each other a little bit about our respective personal and educational backgrounds. For those of you that don't know Dan, he is one of the most highly respected math instructors in the United States and is it true leader at NCSSM.  He is a humble and understated scholar who lives his life as a role model for others. Both students and colleagues look up to him in a variety of ways. It would be impossible to overstate the number of lives that he has impacted in his time at NCSSM, both through student interaction and teacher education, as well as curriculum development. He is certainly a trusted friend and respected colleague.

 During that conversation, Dan told me that as an undergraduate he was a physical education major. I was a little bit surprised at this and asked them to tell me a little bit more. His answer was really interesting to me. He went on to tell me that he had decided to go into physical education and was thinking that as a coach or athletic director he would be a bit more marketable in the world of education and have more career options at his disposal.  And, as a non-math major, he would be free to take whichever advanced math courses interested him, rather than taking the classical math curriculum that his peers in the math major path were required to pursue.  So, he did just that.  He enjoyed the a la carte nature of his math courses. In his words, he sometimes comes at math problems from a non-traditional perspective as a result. This non-classical training led to his unique perspective on math, problem solving, and math education which he has championed and shared for many years at NCSSM.   This has proven to be a great benefit to his students.  His diverse perspective has led him to develop strong teaching philosophies, methods, and curricula in math modeling, combinatorics, complex systems and a number of other advanced mathematical topics.

 As he told me about the benefits of his diverse perspective I couldn't help but think of the benefits that a diverse perspective in music provides as well. Music students that have a strong background in classical repertoire and technique certainly have a leg up on their competition. But when that is combined with a deep understanding of music theory and analysis, skills in improvisation, skills in composition and songwriting, background with both the melodic and harmonic role of their instruments, interest and ability to be creative with their music studies, or even multiple instruments, they are so far ahead of the game.  I strongly believe that the more diverse a musical perspective the student gains, the more functional that musician will be in the long run.  So, for me, functional musicianship is a primary goal for my students.  Classical training is certainly important.  But, when training in the classics is brought to life through functional experience and perspective, a true musician may truly develop. 

 I feel strongly that those of us that began our musical training with a Suzuki background and a strong philosophy of rote learning and ear training are certainly functionally ahead of the game. The ear to hand skills that I had the opportunity to develop as a six and seven year old music student have been invaluable throughout my life as a musician and music educator. The experiences that I had as a middle school student learning the bass guitar, drum set, guitar, and mandolin provided me a diverse perspective that I brought back to my violin studies on a daily basis. Every rock band that I played bass or drums in has made me a better violinist. Every day that I sang in chorus made me a better violinist, conductor, and musician. Every music theory class and lesson that I attended with Jeff McGee during my junior year of high school made me a better musician. I took those skills and began songwriting which definitely enhanced my functional musicianship. In high school and college I  played bass in jazz band which enhanced my violin playing and musicianship. All of the harmonies that I learned and sang in church during the hymns added to the skill set.  Even in my thirties when I began seriously improvising on the violin, I could sense my classical violin skills growing.  And, my classical skills certainly informed my improvisation and sense of melody. This diverse perspective makes me a better classical musician and my skills as a classical musician make me a better pop and rock musician. My skills as a conductor make me a better violinist and my skills as a violinist make me a better conductor. My understanding of the guitar, mandolin, and bass guitar fretboard definitely makes me a better violinist and conductor. All of these skills come together to build a core of functional musicianship for me.

 And so, I make this a priority for my students. I try to bring a diverse perspective to class every single day. In my classical guitar and piano class, I stress the importance of applying music theory to music performance.  I also stress both reading skills and improvisatory skills.  In my orchestra class, I try to stress understanding functional harmony and melodic line as they apply to the repertoire at hand and I encourage listening and rhythmic skills that improvisational musicians use on a daily basis. I often ask my orchestras to develop the type of listening skills that are used in rock and pop bands. In these types of performance settings, the players naturally listen for the inner rhythm and groove of a piece. This is an important skill that many students in orchestra have never been encouraged to develop.

 It was such an eye opening experience for me to learn of Dan’s background and diverse perspective. It gave me a greater understanding of his broad range of interests and the way he relates so perfectly to his students and colleagues. Many of us who teach at NCSSM aspire to the level of instruction that Dan demonstrates on a daily basis. And, through conversations like the one that I had with Dan, I feel like I have a more diverse perspective is well. He is always teaching. I will continue to learn.



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