I haven’t had enough time to read non-technical books for quite a while. Lourie Sand’s refreshing book Teaching Genius served as a nice break for me. It is about Dorothy DeLay’s teaching life. She was the violin teacher of, and many other famous violin soloists.
Itzhak Perlman and Sarah Chang’s violin performances are profoundly moving, even for people like me who don’t have a lot of exposure to the classic music. My father used to say that music is heaven and he insisted on having Beethoven’s music played on his funeral. I thought that was too extreme. But in Perlman and Chang’s work, I experienced what my father meant. How could DeLay’s tutelage turn out one star performer after another? I was very curious.
From this book, I got the opportunity to peek into the life of a great teacher. Many of the ideas could be borrowed for our own learning and for teaching our children.
What strikes me the most about Delay is that “she wants it to be true that we can learn anything.” In teaching, she doesn’t take it personally when a student doesn’t get it, doesn’t follow her instructions, or doesn’t work hard enough. Instead, she tries to figure out why and what kind of thinking it must have gone through a student’s mind. She focuses on the learning process and uses her vast imagination to help each student to overcome her/his unique hurdles and achieve perfection. She believes that no matter how difficult a task is, if you learn to break it down, to do one thing at a time and really make yourself do that one thing, you will not feel overwhelmed and you will make progress steadily. In music, she believes, if you go slow enough, you can learn anything. After you can do one piece perfectly in slow motion, repetition could help you speed up. I can’t think of any area of human pursuits that this insight doesn’t apply.
The ultimate goal of DeLay’s teaching is to help her students to learn to “work independently and to know what they are doing.” In other words, she teaches the students to acquire the ability to teach themselves. She asked herself, “in order to do that, what will I have to know?”She imagines a circle of accomplished musician gathering in a room to listen and judge her students’ performance. She asks herself what each and every one of those musicians might comment on and what she could learn from those comments. Starting from that, she makes up the practice sheet for her students. In raising children, we can also ask ourselves how we want our children to judge themselves when they grow up and how people they will meet most likely to judge them? Perhaps the answers to these questions could help us form a vision as to how to help our children develop themselves.
DeLay believes that the true freedom is built upon “a disciplined base.” She figured out “a simple series of basics.” As long as her students don’t neglect their efforts on mastering the basics, “she allows them a certain amount of freedom to express themselves.” I thought that was a great balance to strive for in our own learning and in raising children.
When she was asked about the most important quality that she looked for in a student, she mentioned “perseverance”—the ability of “just keep going.” I like to think that such ability could be cultivated. When people have collected some experience of pursuing something till they succeeded, they tend to believe that it’s possible to succeed even if there isn’t a clear path to that end prize at the moment. I think it’s essential to start something small and follow through with success. Those successes will be the seeds we planted in our minds to help us persevere when we face bigger challenges.
DeLay thinks that pleasures, not fear, provide people with long lasting intrinsic motivation. To paraphrase the book, you succeed at mastering something and you get immense satisfaction from doing that. That nice feeling stays with you and you want to feel it again and again. So you take on one challenge after another. For DeLay, discipline is not depriving yourself of something you truly want. Instead, it simply is to have mental clarity and concentration. You think clearly what your goal is and you think about how you can get there step by step. The rest is simply to follow each step with concentration.
Great teachers do seem to provide another kind of motivations. DeLay has a knack to make students feel that their talents are extremely worthy and important. She never utters harsh words in her teaching. When she gives suggestions, she makes sure that her students don’t feel they are no good or hopeless. She believes in kindness and she said that “kids become what you tell them they are.”
DeLay often uses a sideway approach to address the problems. She remembers her frustrations when some of her past teachers tried to teach her by demonstrations. She knew there were many differences between her teachers’ example and her own playing but she can’t figure out what exactly was the difference that her teachers wanted to show her.So when it’s her turn to teach, she waits patiently. When, by chance, the students do something good, she would stop them, and point it out to them, saying, for example, “Now, that is a beautiful sound. Can you do it again?” Perhaps, we can also try to catch the moment when our children, or even ourselves, are doing something right and point it out.
Because of her reputation, she got some very young budding violinists to teach. Over the years, she has noticed that for the children to develop early, “a certain amount of adult pressure and physical presence is essential to establish practice routines and work habits” and “to make sure time is well spent.” In this case, she said, “encouragement and approval are the vital ingredients.” She observed that kids growing up under that kind of parental pressure and guidance often experience a crisis period in order to figure out whether they want to continue on the track someone older had put them on. I believe this is not just true for kids who got an early start under parental influences. Many of us thought we have followed the path of our own aspirations. But somehow at one point, we wake up and decide to take stocks and reevaluate our early decisions. It might be a painful process to go through but at the end of the tunnel, life is so much more beautiful.