I listen to the Alan Watts podcast and this week the talk was on spiritual authority. The main idea is that authority is given to people by the very ones who believe that person is an authority. In other words, the only reason the Pope has authority over the Catholic faith is because all the Catholics believe that he is the authority. If they stop thinking that the Pope’s view matters, his authority vanishes.

Any teacher works this way. I’m only an authority on topics if my students believe that I am one. My experiences and such don’t imbue me with authority. It comes solely from others. My classroom students don’t question my authority, generally, because they it doesn’t occur to them (I’m the one teaching the class, after all, ergo I must be the authority on the subject).

More generally, people have questions about certain subjects and they will think of people they trust whom they can ask. Depending on the topic, I might be on the list. I might not. Which lists I’m on is not my decision to make. It is wholly dependent on who is asking the question. My family and friends ask me comic book related questions. The owner of my local comic shop does not (unless it is about recent Marvel books, he doesn’t read those).

Often I deal with the issue of authority in the composition studio. I have students who take lessons from me but do not see me as an authority on the topic. It used to frustrate me and make me rather angry because I have a lot of experiences these young composers don’t. I’ve failed more than they have succeeded (and succeeded more than they have failed). I do, in fact, know what I am talking about. This attitude, however, is way off.

If the student doesn’t believe that my input can be meaningful, my input won’t be meaningful. There is nothing that I can do about that. If a student has already discounted my opinion on their music (because they write tonally and I don’t, because I write electronic music and they don’t, because they are writing a large ensemble piece and I don’t have much experience there) then the student is going to be wasting their own time. Students will get frustrated and angry and think that I am a bad teacher. However, since my authority is delivered BY the student, they end up defeating themselves.

I have come to peace with that student’s attitude over the last several years and I do my job, anyway, whether the student sees me as an authority or not. My job is to be a listener. To get the student to articulate the compositional intent of the piece and then to respond as an articulate and informed audience member. I ask questions, provide a context for my opinion, and give many (often conflicting) suggestions on how to better articulate their intent. At the end of the day, the only authority on the student’s music is the student. If I don’t like a piece, or if I don’t find it successful, it doesn’t matter. Unless my opinion matters to the student. And there isn’t anything I can do to MAKE them care about what I say. I’ll say it anyway.

This post is tied into the same issues of my older “Why Take Lessons” post. The main point is: fit is important. You aren’t going to learn anything from someone you think has nothing to teach. Conversely, you aren’t going to teach anyone who doesn’t think you have anything worthwhile to say.

I could take this on a whole “teaching evaluation” tangent but I think I’m just going to leave this where it is right now.

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