TEACHER RANT: What Makes a Great Teacher

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s subject is about what makes a teacher great. Great teachers are so rare. In public school I could count on one hand the truly great teachers I had throughout all my years of schooling. Oftentimes at a certain point in the year, the teacher would assign a paper. It had to be a certain length and you had to have a bibliography of the works you referenced. Everybody in the class would break out into a cold sweat. Why? Because nobody ever actually showed us how to write a paper! They would tell you to make an outline, as if that’s helpful. You wouldn’t even know how to make an outline! Nobody ever showed us how to approach such a thing. They just said, “Do it.” And that was the way it was so much of the time with homework. “Read the book,” they would say. But the people who wrote the books weren’t always great teachers either. I encounter this so much of the time with theory books, by the way. It can be so confusing that it goes right over students’ heads. If you already understand the theory, you can kind of grasp what they’re going for, but in the most convoluted and complex way. It doesn’t help someone to actually learn music theory.

In 11th grade I had a great teacher named Mr. Gray.

Mr. Gray changed my life because he actually showed us how to craft an English composition. To this day I am thankful for what he showed us. I still use the tools he provided in my writing today. It’s the way of organizing. There’s a methodology which I could go into another time, if any of you are interested. It’s a little off topic from music, but not really because in this world, we all have to express ourselves in print. Even if it’s just emails to people, you want to be concise. You want to be digestible and memorable. Organization is a big part of that. This is true for all teaching.

What is the most essential element to teaching?

What is the best way to convey ideas? The best way is to break things down to their component parts in a logical fashion. If you’ve ever had a great math teacher, you know what I’m talking about. Because when you have a math teacher who’s not great, you just feel completely overwhelmed. It can make you feel stupid! Because you think, “Why can’t I get this?” You’re looking at some mathematical equation that you can’t begin to solve because nobody’s given you the tools. But if you have a great math teacher who shows you the methodology, step by step, it’s enlightening. Not only that, it makes doing your homework fun because you understand what you’re doing. You’re not just trying to grope in the dark and hope you stumble upon answers. You know exactly what to do, step by step. That is what you look for in a teacher. This is true with any subject.

Music theory is one of those subjects that is often taught poorly.

I’m not going to mention the school by name, but I went to a school that was guilty of constantly teaching above the students’ comprehension. Part of it was the teachers would write the books that would be used in the class and they wanted to appear smarter than the students. What’s the best way to do that? Have a lot of jargon in the book that’s just not quite digestible. You seem smarter than your students and the students are looking to you for guidance. If you’ve ever felt that way with a teacher, it’s not you. It’s them! They are not giving you the tools you need.

A great teacher empowers you to solve problems.

Whether it’s how to play the piano, how to do math, or how to figure out music theory, a great teacher will completely solidify the basics. It’s the same thing with studying pieces of music. You must have a complete grasp of what you’re doing. It’s so satisfying when you’re anchored that way intellectually. Then you can build from there. Each concept builds on the previous. It’s obvious with a subject like math. But music is no different. In fact, most subjects need to be addressed this way so you can build logically from a solid foundation of understanding and have the tools and the steps needed for your daily work. And that’s how you know you have a great teacher in whatever subject you’re learning. When you have one, you’ll feel so grateful. It opens your mind because it’s not just the little tidbits you get at the lessons. It’s what you get not only throughout the week, but in the months, and yes, the years to follow. Just like the lessons I learned from Mr. Gray in 11th grade!

I hope this is helpful for you. Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com


4 thoughts on “TEACHER RANT: What Makes a Great Teacher”

  1. Funny that I was also in 11th grade and landed with the worst possible teacher of Italian literature, in which I never excelled, I was more mathematically inclided. She had been a professor at the university and had the reputation of being the nightmare of her students.
    BTW, you are a great teacher, and so was my mother for piano, I hear her again when you teach something about piano. Thank you!!!

  2. Hi Robert,

    You absolutely hit the nail on the head!!!!! I moved quite a lot when at school owing to my father’s job. Except for the infant school I NEVER HAD A DECENT MATHS TEACHER! Therefore I don’t understand maths at all and find it embarassing. Also, as I learnt to play the violin when an adult I struggle with the counting of bars, some of which do not seem to add up to the time signature, even when the previous bar does make sense. I work it out from a seemingly correct bar of notes , and the different bar doesn’t make sense!! Can you please give me some advice as to how I can master this problem when it is a complicated bar of notes!!! I was lucky enough to get into an Amateur orchestra that performs and just so enjoy playing the violin and this hinders me so much as I have to just get the timing from knowing the piece so very well which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Thank you so much as you talk so much sense and understanding.

    1. The best way to figure out rhythms is by counting. If the beat is divided in half, you count with “ands”. If the beat is divided into 4 parts, you count with “uh’s and “ands”. The secret is to count all of the beats and subdivisions. For example, in 4/4 time, a piece with 16th notes is counted, “1 u + u 2 u + u 3 u + u 4 u + u”. The style of counting never changes in a piece. You just figure out where the notes fit in.

      In complex rhythms with sporadic notes which are very fast dividing the beat into even more subdivisions (or triplets or other odd number of notes), you can draw lines in your score where the beats fall (and possibly where the “ands” are). I hope this helps! Incidentally, my daughter is a professional violinist and a great teacher who can help you with rhythm, finding the relative minor, as well as other aspects of music and violin playing. She teaches via video chat. You are welcome to contact me if you are interested in becoming acquainted with her. Robert@LivingPianos.com

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