The Joy Of A Jimmy

I was texting with a friend of mine online this week about one of my students.

Jimmy really doesn’t have a lot of innate coordination, rhythm or sound control,” I wrote. “But I’ve managed to inspire him enough that he works super hard. He doesn’t seem to even notice how much harder he works to get the same amount done as some of the other kids.”

He wrote back, “Those are the type of students that remind us that it’s not how “talented” a student is that makes it a joy to be a teacher.

I stared at what he’d just written.  

It’s not how “talented” a student is that makes it a joy to be a teacher.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

What if:

  • The pleasure and satisfaction in teaching comes not from the giftedness of the student but the teaching itself?
  • Solving the unique problems of each student is what gives us giddy satisfaction?
  • Lessons have power in students’ lives because of the intense focus of one teacher exclusively on one student?
  • The joy of teaching comes more from the student’s desire to learn than their innate gifts?

Music teachers organizations frequently ask me to teach master classes. Over the years I’ve grown weary of seeing the teachers of competition-winning students have another opportunity to show off their most polished students. There is usually very little to teach to these accomplished young pianists, and the challenges most teachers face go unaddressed.

Recently, one brave group of teachers agreed to do an Un-Master Class. I asked everyone to bring in their most challenging and problematic student. 

It was fascinating. Not only did they bring in their most challenging student, in most cases this was also their favorite student. This student might not have been able to memorize their pieces, or had an uncoordinated technique. They might have had dreadful rhythm. But the teachers spoke of these students with a love and affection that I rarely see when teachers speak to me of their more “talented” students.  

Teachers telling me about their most talented students frequently talk about the student’s quantifiable achievements like competition prizes and conservatory admissions. They often brag about their accomplishments and talk about how many hours a day they practice.

In contrast, the teachers speaking about their most challenging students enthusiastically shared teaching details like, “We’ve been working really hard this semester on rhythm. He’s doing SO much better that we’re going to start the first Clementi Sonatina in the spring.”  Or, “She really shouldn’t be playing this Chopin Waltz but she loves it so much that we just decided to go for it. I’ve never seen her so excited!”

They spoke with such joy! Such unabashed, unembarrassed passion for teaching their students.

I wondered if there are more teachers out there who feel the same way. Teachers who find meaning in a career teaching normal kids to make music.

Are you one of us? A teacher who are finds great joy in teaching kids like my Jimmy?

I’m going to hear Yuja Wang play at Davies Symphony Hall tonight. She’ll amaze me with her technical prowess.

But this afternoon I’ll be teaching Jimmy. And there’s plenty of joy in that for me.