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  • Writer's picturePhilip Bergman

On Teaching

What is the aim of a teacher? A big question with a lot of answers. The truest answer for me lies in addressing the student as an individual human being. Each student has lived a life that has taught them many things. They have learned from family, from friends, from books, and from experiences. Each student has something to say, and each time they speak verbally or through the instrument they share something of themselves. As a result, the first order of business when beginning lessons with a new student is speak to them for a bit to begin to understand them: what they are passionate about, where they are coming from, what their quirks are. The job of a teacher is to enable a student to express themselves as eloquently as possible in a given medium without squashing the beauty in the personality of the student. This said, students (like their teachers) are not perfect. We all have fears, quirks, obsessions, irrationalities, misconceptions, and the list goes on. As a result, it is often not enough to address the manner of expression, the student must be addressed personally so that they can allow their best self to show through in their art.

This is a very general take on teaching. For music, and specifically for cello playing the process of expression can be broken down as such: the student takes in a pre-existing work (sometimes heard, sometimes read), which they filter through their experience and processing mechanisms; the student then expresses their idea of the work through a series of physical motions that are manifested in sound through the instrument. Challenges to fluency can occur at any point along this complicated chain. It is easiest for teachers to address problems at the ends of the chain (either challenges in intake or output), but the vast majority of challenges occur during the inner links of the chain (through processing or physical expression which are closely linked). In addition to being more difficult to detect, challenges in processing and physicality are also more sensitive topics than errors in reading comprehension or pure output. This said, many teachers run into danger when critiquing a student’s output. Even if a student is picking up an instrument for the first time, their playing is still a mode of self expression, so rejecting sounds can be seen as a rejection of a portion of the student as a human being.

If an aspect of a student’s personality is blocking their ability to accomplish something, it is rarely a good idea to begin by addressing the blockage directly. The most common form of this problem is physical protection that results from fear (sometimes “stage-fright” but often something much more basic). The best way to clarify this blockage for the student, and the most efficient way to overcome it, is by asking them to do a task away from the instrument that is related to the area of discomfort. Acting, gesturing, dancing are all great games to tap into these discomforts. Of course it is not necessary to say, “OK, you aren’t projecting because of an emotional blockage, so in order to overcome your fear of playing near the bridge I am going to have you yell a few lines from your favorite action movie.” In the vast majority of cases the student will learn the lesson more clearly if they are not aware of the process, not to mention the added benefit of avoiding direct contact with subjects that might be very personal. However, it is often useful to point out progress, so students should be complimented on their bravery once they have embraced a previously terrifying concept.

Physical blockages are not always manifested in emotional discomfort, they are often related to the student’s concept of the anatomical makeup of their own body. I find that students learn with more clarity if they are allowed to discover for themselves the way that their system accomplishes tasks instead of having concepts forced on them from outside sources. The important thing is to cultivate an awareness and curiosity in the student about the interaction between various motions and various sounds, as well as which parts of the body execute those motions with the most efficiency, fluidity, power, or freedom. This can be achieved through verbal instruction, but a hands-on approach can often be a clearer and more potent teaching mechanism.

Excerpted from unpublished "Organized Non-Method of Cello Playing"

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