Most of my students know that my thoughts often congregate on one philosophical topic at a time and my teaching goes through waves of changing emphasis. As I learn new things about trumpet, teaching, learning and life in general, I share my fascination with the students in their lessons. For the past few weeks, the new wave has been an emphasis on expectations. What I have been sharing with the students is the idea that expectations destroy stereotypes.
My Success With Expectations
I have been both successful and unsuccessful as a teacher in this regard. An example of my success in using expectations to destroy stereotypes can be seen in my youngest students. Almost invariably, when a parent of a seven or eight year old student sets up a lesson, I am told that the child cannot take an hour long lesson because he or she does not have a long enough attention span. In the beginning, these parents sometimes push for fifteen minute lessons (which I cannot accommodate).
Interestingly, when the kids come to the hour long lessons, I never see any indication of attention span problems. This is ironic because I do not attempt to entertain my students. I am a natural teacher, not a natural entertainer. So I teach the students in a serious manner which keeps them engaged throughout the lesson. When the lesson is over, the students almost always say that they wish the lesson was longer (longer than an hour). They don’t want to leave. It’s funny because the parents then say “Well I guess he/she really likes playing the trumpet.” There’s no doubt that they probably do like playing the trumpet, but I do believe that what they are seeing is a different teaching style, something they are not used to.
What makes the difference? I believe that those young students are responding to my expectations of them. I do NOT expect them to have attention span problems. I do NOT make excuses for bad behavior. I do NOT try to entertain them with puppets or candy or lying about how well they did. No, I clearly communicate my expectations to them and because of this, I have never had an attention span problem with any of my youngest students.
My Failure With Expectations
I wish I could say that I have always been that successful in this regard, but I have not. One of the failures I remember most, probably because it was so recent (about three years ago) was my expectations for students with braces. It used to be that when my students had braces, my expectations for their performance was compromised. Instead of expecting them to do their best, I made allowances for them. I made excuses for them. I started each lesson thinking to myself, “here we go again. This guy is going to sound terrible with the braces.”
My expectations for the students with braces meant that the students expected even less of themselves. As teachers, it is dangerous for us to make any assumptions. I once had a teacher who had false expectations of my playing because he knew I was a jazz player. So everything that was wrong with my playing was because I played jazz. If I played a rhythm wrong, the answer was to stop playing jazz. If I played out of tune, the answer was to quit playing jazz. To that teacher, I would always be a bad player for as long as I continued to play jazz. When we base our expectations on these false assumptions, these stereotypes, we are then completely incapable of teaching.
With me, it was the same way with braces. But I will tell you that I have changed my attitude and I make a conscious effort to destroy ALL stereotypes by holding all students to the same set of standards. Today I hold my braces students to the same musical expectations as I do anyone else.
Just Do It Right!
I remember the day I finally figured out what I was doing wrong with the braces students. I was in a lesson, listening to some really horrible sounds from one of the students, when I just blurted out to him, “Just do it right. I want you to get a good sound right now.”
Amazingly, the student stopped playing with that horrible sound and immediately started sounding good.
Why hadn’t I thought of that in the first place? Here all that time I was trying to WORK our way through the problem while inadvertently overly focusing on the problem and not the objective. As teachers, when we clearly state our expectations, it takes the students’ focus off of the problem and points them towards the final objective.
This is the implementation of the goal setting that I talk about so often. In all of my promotional materials, I tell people that this is one of the things that sets me apart as a teacher. I believe in pursuing the students goals (as opposed to my own personal goals for those students) and combining that with giving them the practice techniques they need to achieve those goals. This is the best recipe for musical empowerment that I know of. When we focus on the goal instead of the obstacles, through our expectations, we help the students to more easily overcome those obstacles.
My mistake with the braces students was that I was focusing on their bad sounds, not on the goal of getting a good sound. What’s ironic is that I don’t typically operate that way. But my past experiences as a teacher working with students with braces created a bias in my teaching that I had to correct.
If you are a teacher, I strongly encourage you to think about what I’ve shared here. What are your expectations for the students?
I can tell you that I have spoken with a lot of teachers who expect their students to sound bad, to play poorly and to have bad attitudes. And guess what! That’s exactly what they encourage in their lessons. If you think yo may be one of these kinds of teachers, I want to encourage you to change your outlook. Raise your expectations of your students. Don’t just assume the worst and be satisfied with that.
If you are a trumpet student, please understand that the expectations you have of your own musicianship are the ones that matter most. The students I enjoy teaching most are those who have higher expectations of themselves than I have of them. And I know you could say that I have no business teaching someone if my expectations are not higher than theirs. But I disagree. Part of my job is to help them raise their own expectations of themselves. I consider myself to be a successful teacher when they can finally take ownership of their own musicianship to the point where they care far more about their own playing than I possibly could.
Of course, that leads to other problems we need to address in the lessons (because those are the students who constantly berate themselves – which is also not good). It’s all part of the process of growing as a musician.