Teaching Moment of the Week No.1
A socially distanced guitar lesson. An unfortunate student does the old masked-sneeze. Runs out the room with mortified eyes. Blunders back in. New mask, conscientious hand-gelling. The gel squirts – I’m not kidding – ALL the way across the room, maybe 15 feet. Right in my earhole. And I have clinically diagnosed TINY earholes (no word of a lie). I heard the squelch. I squeaked. Well, you would. A look of stupefied realisation flashed across that boy’s face a split second before each of these small catastrophes spun away from him.
Teaching Moment of the Week No.2
I teach in a Jewish School. I wear a yarmulke (skull cap) out of respect. In all honesty it’s a habit I’m out of, so I forget some basic principles of how to wear one. Hence my error, when carrying an amp in one hand and a guitar in the other, I didn’t remember the fatal combination of yarmulke, bald head and heavy winds. I felt it lift in the air like it had been shot off the top of my head. The nice caretaker stared boggle-eyed at the whole thing. I swear the yarmulke DISAPPEARED. The nice caretaker helped me look. We found it in a bush. Time to buy some wig glue.
Teaching Moment of the Week No.3
Two primary kids have been noodling around on the guitar for a while. I have a “no pressure in the pandemic” policy, so I don’t nag anyone about practising as much as I might. (I promise my telling them that I won’t nag is not the same as nagging them.) We’ve slowly got the shared lesson to a point when they could change from one chord to another, after a long long time playing each chord on its own. I realised they had the chords to YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT. We tried it. It sounded awesome. Now we’ve been playing it every week. One of them told me she listened to it with her mum, using one of those big round black spinny things (don’t I feel old?). They’ve both started playing more. A very worthwhile slow burn. I try. Sometimes I get what I need.
New school term. We’ve returned to in-person teaching and every moment is somehow intensified. The atmosphere in some places is borderline hysterical. It might be caused by relief but there’s an underlying sense of undiscussed dread. We’ve arrived home after an endless journey of breakdowns and terrifying near misses. But it’s just so good to be back.
The pandemic has been survival of the most motivated. Fighting past all the disruptions, and learning online has forced them to demonstrate, not least to themselves, that they really want to learn.
Some pretty amazing sounds have come out of this week’s lessons. On the first day the shops were open, I walked past a charity shop and saw a VERY cheap wah wah pedal (it makes the guitar go “wah wah”). So I’ve been teaching on my oldest electric guitar and going “wah wah” over whatever they’re playing – rock, funk, Bach. Whatever. I bought the guitar when I was a teenager and it’s clearly a design that appeals to that age group, because most of their eyes popped out when they saw it. I think it helps them that I get so enthusiastic about playing it too.
Teaching Moment of the Week
One primary age student gave a different name each week for the first month I taught her. Eventually the parents insisted on some consistency with one abbreviated version of her name. This week another teacher passed by and used the child’s full name, which I then did without thinking, twice in quick succession. I got dirty looks like you wouldn’t believe. Usually, when I use a wrong name, I tell the student they can use any random wrong name for me for the rest of the day (I get called Cyril a lot). This approach didn’t begin to cut it for this girl. Then I hit on telling her to call me Alexander, explaining that it’s pretty much only my mum who does that. She found a LOT of opportunities to use my name for the rest of the day. I think it could spread. This might be the first time I get called Alexander by everyone since I was in primary school myself.
No school for a couple of weeks. The last term has felt like an endless extended epilogue to the pandemic year. So the Easter break has been welcome relief. I thought I’d put up a couple of my older teaching moments. From more innocent days.
Teaching Moment of the Week No.1:
Kid says, "I can't figure you out. Your face looks like you're in your twenties but your hair is in your fifties." Fair enough. I'll take that.
Teaching Moment of the Week No.2:
“Of course I’ll remember that,” said the kid, “I’ve got a photographic memory…”
… Tumbleweed, etc…
Eventually the kid says, “What was the question?”
Teaching Moment of the Week No.3:
Day one in a rough inner-city secondary school, teaching guitar to two boisterous year 7 boys.
Leon is being deliberately annoying to Marc.
Marc: It’s like I could kill you sometimes.
Leon: (to me): Sir! Sir! He threatened to kill me.
Marc: No I didn’t. It was a metaphor.
Leon: No it wasn’t. It was a simile.
After a moment’s pause, they shook hands in recognition of the moment.
A peripatetic music teacher doesn’t have a regular team to work with, just several fleeting combinations of people. Each week I have a few brief, but meaningful, adult interactions – the school administrator who always has a smile and takes the time, even though I know she’s too busy for words, or the manager who makes a friendly phone call to check in. I imagine they have no clue about how positively they affect me.
For the last two weeks everyone’s seemed intent on making the school routine as normal as possible – as quickly as possible. It’s reassuring. In my full classes, the children have slipped right back in, more or less where they left off. At least they haven’t forgotten everything – mostly – although they would be further ahead in a normal year – a small detail in my music lessons compared to their schooling as a whole, no doubt.
Pleasingly, the majority of my classes seem at least vaguely familiar with their instruments. In the lockdowns I’ve made video lessons and posted them online. The classes receive a link in their virtual classroom and I have no idea who is watching what. I’ve just had to have faith. So it’s a relief to see that they’re doing OK. As always, a few have pushed ahead and are playing pretty nicely.
As for my one-to-one students, by now most of the half-hearted ones have dropped out and I’m only teaching youngsters who are well-engaged. One teenager, when he came to me, had been reluctant to use any of the established methods for reading and remembering music. Instead, he’d devised his own unique method, “helped” by his previous “teacher”. Unsurprisingly, I was unable even to figure out how the system even worked. He’s been very keen to learn a particular piece, which he plays along with his brother, using a piano book. We’d used a compromise approach online, where I taught him by ear and he wrote it in his little notebook using his method (he still thinks he’s fooled me into thinking he was reading the music). On returning to school I found we’d built some trust and I gently nudged him towards learning the note names and using the notation to remember them. In two lessons he was able to read a couple of lines of the music on his own. I’m fairly confident that he’ll be able to learn the whole thing independently over the school holidays.
Teaching moment of the week
The cheeky kid in a class, who usually finds a way to push it just a little too far at least once per lesson.
Me: I’ve been playing this guitar for 40 years.
The Class in chorus (as always): How old are you?
Me: 360. I got the guitar when I was 320.
Cheeky kid: You look a lot older.
… Shocked silence. He even looked a touch worried.
… I laughed.
Me: I say that all the time and you’ve just given the best answer.
We’ve returned to school, after months of online teaching. Half my spare room is a studio, my wife on the other side, headphones on, somehow managing to ignore me and keep up her workload. The logistics were tough in the first big lockdown, stuck in a tiny flat in London with a toddler who had no nursery, us tag-teaming work and childcare. Now we’ve moved to the countryside. With nurseries open, our boy has had a more active social life than anyone.
Still, this lockdown was somehow harder. Perhaps it was something in the glimpses I get into youngsters’ home lives. As weeks passed, I could feel strain emanating through many webcams. I resolved not to put any pressure on students – only encourage them to enjoy playing and learn to use music as an escape hatch. Being honest, my resolve has been tested.
Making the lessons work was sometimes impossible. Some students missed most of their time, regularly arriving late, if at all. When they showed up they weren’t ready. They get the guitar out of the case, tune it, hunt for a pick, go to the other room to get their music, come back, forget where they put the pick, drop the guitar, realise it needs to be retuned. Once they finally start to play, they can’t remember anything. And then it’s end of the lesson. The mum of one of these students said she’d “make him pay for the lessons” if he missed any more. She’d been one of the most unreliable payers in all my teaching years. Thankfully these situations were rare.
Most students were very engaged. Several picked up a guitar in the first lockdown and then signed up for lessons. They’ve all hit the ground running and are making astonishing progress. One other lad had some health problems and sadly missed some lessons before Xmas. When he returned online, he played so evocatively it affected me emotionally. That moment was a high point of my entire teaching career so far.
With the approach of the return to school last week, some students were clearly desperate to be back and some were terrified. On the day, all of them were brilliant. No exceptions.
Luckily I no longer teach the boy who, in a lesson between lockdowns, used his hand to wipe his nose under his mask – before picking up a shared guitar. Something made me ask him when he’d last washed his hands. He looked at me as if I’d asked how many kangaroos he’d eaten for lunch. “Um… This morning at home?” He said. It was the middle of the afternoon.
On the return, it was wonderful to play with students live. It’s the main focus of how I teach and it’s technically impossible online.
I’ve told everyone that we are going to play together as much as we can. Everyone can learn whatever they want. This week I taught everything from Bach to TEQUILA by The Champs. Pretty much everyone left with a smile on their face – so far as I could see under the masks.
I’ve been teaching in schools for twelve years or so now. I teach music, mainly via the guitar, sometimes the ukulele (under sufferance). I cover songwriting and composition, leading groups and ensembles. Until the pandemic I was in schools, teaching about 300 children each week, 250 or so in full classes, mostly aged between eight and nine. These lessons are part of a government programme to give free instrumental tuition to every child in the country. The reality isn’t always as the dream, but we do our best with what we have. This might be the only chance to play an instrument that some of these kids ever get. I’ve taught maybe 3,000 children in all, in probably 20 or 30 schools. I’ve taught in a few centres for mentally ill, homeless or otherwise vulnerable adults. I see some funny, some sad and some that makes me so happy I remember why I’m doing it, and I’ve usually seen all that by lunchtime on Monday.
In the pandemic all the teaching has pretty much been online, aside from a brief spell in schools between September and December last year. That bit was constantly terrifying in a low-key way and I don’t intend to focus on it in this blog. At least not until it is a distant enough memory.
I’m preparing to go back to real life teaching tomorrow. Aside from the natural nervousness of returning to a slowly reawakening world, slightly before the danger of covid has completely passed, I am excited to be going back. I’ve made the best of the online teaching – no doubt that will come up in these posts. Some of it really has been positive, and I am a better teacher now than I was a year ago, because I’ve been forced to think about everything differently and really build up my whole approach from scratch. I am sick of sitting in front of a screen.
I’m sure there will be many good moments to come. Here’s one from the archive:
Teaching moment of the week, with a 7 year old boy
Me: Careful with that guitar. I've had it 30 years & I'd like to have it another 30.
Boy: If you survive that long.
Me: Thanks a bunch. How old do you think I am?
Boy: Well you might die in a car crash next week.
Even the other 7 year old looked shocked.