Famous cellist Janos Starker said once that a musician should bring all the energy possible to his instrument but use as little of it as possible. In his opinion, too much energy given to a performance takes its toll on the performer and perhaps even on the music if the performer’s musicianship is not deep enough. I believe this brilliant thought should be applied to teaching – or to anything else where transmission is involved.
Instrument teachers are normally performers first and therefore have lots of the energy needed to put across the music to the public but must learn how to ration it. We all know and have probably seen the result of a teacher not putting enough energy into her work, but what happens however when you, the teacher, put too much energy into your teaching? Teacher Burnout:
- You get tired.
- You get emotionally drained.
- You can become ill as a result.
- Your efficacy comes into question.
- You start to hate your job – or what it does to you.
- You confuse your students.
So how can we learn to ration our energy so that we give just the right amount to our work? I suggest that it all depends on our attitude towards teaching and the reasons why we do it:
- You need the money. Nothing wrong with this at all.
- You like working with people. Great.
- You like sharing what you know with others. Wonderful.
- You want to give something back to the music community. Admirable.
- You want to show how good you are. This is good or bad, depending on how you use it. We all know that a little show–off-iness is useful to a musician – something has to get us up on that stage, after all. But once we start performing or teaching, showing off is either done at the expense of the music (sheer virtuosity with no feeling) or of our students (ditto). When performing we must think of the music instead of ourselves and when teaching we must think about the student instead of seeing him as a way to show how great we are.
- You want to prove to the world and yourself how good you are. This can be a problem. It’s one thing to show off, but if you are trying to prove yourself you certainly aren’t thinking about your student. How can you be when you are personally invested in the outcome? Your student’s success isn’t his – its YOURS. This is when teachers will do lots of free overtime, make up lessons they shouldn’t make up, get emotionally and physically exhausted and suffer some or all of the unpleasant consequences listed above.
Unfortunately, this last one is a mistake young teachers often (and understandably) make – trying to prove their worth to themselves and to the world via their students, which does little good to the student or the teacher in the long run. So how can we protect ourselves and our students?
I think it depends on how we see what our job is and how we can do it most effectively. After many years of teaching and lots of life experience, I have found that the best way is to see myself is as a catalyst. The definition in chemistry is: “a substance that causes or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected.” It can also be defined as: “something that causes activity between two or more persons or forces without itself being affected.”*
I would define a teacher’s job as being “something that causes a reaction, change or activity in a person without the teacher being affected – that is, attached to the outcome. A catalyst does its job and goes on its way. “Next, please!” To conserve and dispense our energy well, we must be a catalyst which by definition is not invested personally or emotionally in the final result. We are there to help our students realize what they want to do and to give them the tools to do it. We are there to provoke our students into making changes to themselves, their technique and ultimately their lives without involving ourselves in a personal way. Of course teachers are affected didactically by interactions with their students – that’s what gives us experience and helps us improve – we often learn more than the student does. We are also thrilled when our students succeed but we don’t see their successes as proofs of our self-worth.
Here are some of the side-effects of teaching with this mentality:
- You relax as a load of self-imposed responsibility is taken off your shoulders.
- You suddenly find you don’t get so tired even after many hours of teaching.
- You enjoy your work and are surprised often at the unexpected changes your students can make, seemingly spontaneously..
- Your students and their parents start to tell you that you are giving them life lessons, not just violin lessons.
- You are less interested in teaching only talented students (the ones who will make you look good and you used to think were easier to teach) but find great satisfaction in helping every student achieve his best result.
- You get an excellent reputation as a teacher as a result and, guess what? – your worth as a teacher is proven without your having to make all that effort that could lead you to burn out in the first place!
There’s the adage, “less is more.” Seeing yourself as a catalyst and using just the right amount of energy in your teaching permits you not only to enjoy your work more but to do more of it without exhausting yourself. You can then make up all the lessons you want when you are not obliged to and you can do all the extra overtime teaching you want without any unpleasant consequences. You will know when you are tired and therefore will know when to stop. You care deeply about your students but are no longer driven, intense and worried about what your teaching means about you. You’re too interested in your students to think much about yourself. When I was a young teacher I remember that teaching six hours straight wore me out. Now at an age when I should be retiring (but won’t), I can teach seven hours straight with people telling me that I seem just as fresh at the end of the day as at the beginning. And it’s true.
The less we impose our energy, our desires, our ambition, our need of validation on our students, the more positive things we all get out of the relationship and the longer our careers will last. There’s a difference between putting gasoline in your car’s gas tank where the right amount is doled out according the the demands of the engine and pouring gasoline all over the car and lighting a match. A rocket engine is appropriate for a rocket but not for an economy car. In the first case the necessary energy is used to everyone’s advantage. In the second, well, disaster. So making this little shift in our approach to our job means that no one gets overtired, needs vitamins, a career change, a psychiatrist.
Or a fire extinguisher.
Post Author: Eloise Hellyer
Note: Actually Starker was answering a question from an interviewer who asked him what he thought of Jacqueline DePre’s playing the first time he heard it. He said that he remembered thinking that no musician’s nervous system could take such a high level of intensity in playing for long. Tragically, he was right. He then went on to make the comment about energy and power in performing. Here are two links.
http://www.elbowmusic.org/#!Jacqueline-du-Pré-–-a-terrible-premonition/c1k6t/5903976D-09EE-4129-9D11-77268C44AC5F and http://www.cello.org/newsletter/articles/starker.html
*Thanks to Dictionary.com