“Do I Have the Right Personality to Teach Music?” or, Letter to a Terrified Teacher

On having a look at the statistics for my blog, my eye fell on “top searches” where I found this rather touching question: “Do I have the right personality to teach music?” I can’t help but imagine some terrified young musician who has been offered the chance to give music lessons but who has crippling self-doubt. This post is addressed to that searcher.

Dear Worried Teacher,

Welcome to the club! The fact that you are even asking this question is extremely positive. It means that you have some doubts about your suitability to teach and that you are willing to examine yourself. You are right to be scared – teachers have a tremendous amount of power and potential to do serious harm to our charges. But, not to worry. You’ve got the right personality. How do I know this?

Because there there IS no right personality.

There is, however, right motivation and right attitude. If you have these, then your personality will modify itself to implement these these two essential qualities, which are bigger than you are. Remember, personality is a tool we use to exist in this world. It is a tendency that is given to us at birth which we can temporarily change and modify according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And you have already spent a lot of time learning to do this in order to interpret the music you play.

Right motivation: This is something all teachers should reflect on: why we do what we do. And I don’t mean reflect on it at the beginning of our careers. I mean on every single day and in every single lesson that this should be in the back or even the front of our minds. It’s what keeps us honest and on track. What is the right motivation? To do no harm and do what’s right for the student, not for yourself. This can be a toughie. For example: am I sending that student to a competition so that I will be recognized for the awesome teacher I am or because the student really needs that experience? Or both? Reflect, reflect and your personality won’t matter.

Right attitude: That I will do whatever is necessary to help my student achieve what he wants (whether or not he knows what that is yet), even if it means altering my normally sunny and pleasant disposition to snarly if that’s what my student needs in that moment (and these occasions really do arise, trust me). Or vice versa.

Thus, I’m sure you can look at 20 good teachers and find 20 completely different personalities. In fact if you are looking at only one good teacher in action, you may see 20 different personalities! So what do they all these different teachers and diverse personalities have in common? What brings them to have right motivation and right attitude?

1. They love music.

That’s a no-brainer, you might say, why else would you spend countless hours in a practice room learning to play it? However, you might also rightly say, there are a lot of ineffective or incompetent teachers out there who love music and their instruments. That’s right – which is why the following is also necessary:

2. They want their students to love it, too.

This is the basis of everything – love and passion. If you sincerely love music (and playing it) and want others to love it as much as you do, your enthusiasm will be, well, contagious. And everything you do will be to help the student acquire this love, too.

Notice that I don’t say that you have to want your students to succeed – that tends to get too much of what YOU want in the picture and not what the student wants to achieve. What you DO want is for them to learn at whatever pace possible so they can accede to the marvelous mysteries of music and see why you love it so much. Then they can make their own decisions how far they want to go with it.

You don’t even have to love teaching to be good at it. I have known teachers who do not love to teach but love their subject so much that they overcome this handicap and become highly effective teachers. Their students adore them. One good teacher in particular I am thinking of would rather be practicing than teaching, says so plainly, takes on new students very unwillingly and doesn’t have a charismatic personality. But when she starts teaching, she gives it her all (there’s love again) and her students think she walks on water. And they play well, too.

I even know of teachers who you could not describe as other than curmudgeonly, yet their students love them and consider them to be wonderful teachers. How do you explain that? One high school orchestra teacher that I read about was consistently abrasive, sarcastic and ironic – all qualities you would think not suitable for the teaching personality. Well, his style worked and his students remember him with great fondness. He must have had right attitude and motivation and his students knew it. Students always know it, by the way. You can’t fool them. Then there are those teachers who are oh so nice and sweet with everyone on principle and no matter what – and don’t get anything done at all except confuse their students. And finally, of course, there are those teachers who actually are lovely people and really good teachers. But I suspect they are good teachers first and lovely people second; even saints are known to lose their tempers when necessary. As one great teacher said in a TED talk,* teachers are actors – we change our personalities temporarily to suit the situation.

Years ago, I asked a young teacher to take over my lessons for two weeks while I had surgery and recuperated. When I returned to lessons, one of the fathers told me that while my substitute was very good, his little girl had cried after the lesson with her because that teacher was not sweet like me. SWEET????? No one had EVER accused me of being sweet! Then on thinking about it, I realized that for all the years taught that student I never spoke to her above a whisper and always chose my words very carefully with her. Looking back on it, I realized that I did this unconsciously and was so convincing, apparently, that her father thought I was sweet! Let me tell you, that is not my everyday personality. Lots of people may see me teach and think they know all about me. They don’t. Contrary to what you might observe in my group lessons, for example, I really don’t like being in charge of a large group. For how much I may seem extraverted to my students and parents, they would never guess that I am somewhat introverted. Some really great teachers are in fact extremely introverted, although you would never know it from the way they teach. With some students, good teachers may be irritable and provocative and with others they may be calm and peaceful, switching gears with somewhat amazing alacrity. So there is no right personality – the only right personality is the one you have to use in a particular moment according to the needs of a particular student. Then how you are with your significant other, family and friends may be a completely different story and who cares?

So don’t worry about your personality. Just think about your student, about what he or she needs, about being open to those needs and trusting your intuition which you have developed after long hours of practicing and playing music. Be excited about having the chance and the privilege to transmit to your students your love for music. Your personality will then follow dutifully along and manifest whatever is necessary – just as it does when you play and interpret music yourself.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer


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25 August 2016

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