Yesterday I gave my first masterclass to a bunch of 8th graders. Ultimately, Iím fishing for new private students. In Columbus, itís not enough to be the best player in town. There are several other area teachers who canvas and solicit individual schools and who are willing to teach on site. Parents love this, since they donít have to shuttle the kids to lessons halfway across town. I wonít be doing that, but Iíll give master classes free in all the middle schools to introduce myself and show my abilities. Then, if a student becomes serious about studying privately, theyíve already been introduced to me as a possible choice.
The teacher at this middle school impressed me with her spirit and enthusiasmís for her job. She follows each studentís development from 6th grade on. She has also turned down offers to teach higher grades because she loves teaching the middle school ages. I learned a lot from talking with her.
I admitted to her I had not done this before. Iíve taught privately for most of my career, and Iíve coached a few woodwind sectionals for the local youth orchestra. But in that case, the material is the music theyíre working on, not a group lesson in clarinet technique, and not 22 8th graders. So I was a bit nervous.
I had scribbled some notes about basic clarinet technique: how to hold the instrument, how to breathe, forming an embouchure, etc. The truth is, I work on these basics every time I play. I kept the descriptions as clear and direct as possible, without under-rating their importance.
8th graders are at that in between age, neither children nor young adults, but some of both. Since I donít have kids, I have little experience with them. Most of my private students have been high school age. I decided to start off very honestly, and told them I had not done this before, and that I would appreciate their indulgence and feedback. I also told them that I myself practice the basics everyday, even though Iíve played clarinet for 30 years. I showed I was willing to meet them at their level, with some valuable advice to offer. It seemed to be a good way to start. Whew!
I tried to make eye contact with most of them as I spoke. There were 22 students in the class, so I scanned the individual faces every few seconds. They knew I was watching.
After a brief warm up and a quick lesson about hand position, I singled out two students with particularly good embouchures, and had them demonstrate for the class. Those two felt honored to be in such a position.
As the class progressed, their attention occasionally slipped and I adjusted accordingly. For the most part, they were attentive. Once or twice, one boy chatted with a friend while I spoke. I gently asked his cooperation in allowing me to speak un-interrupted. His teacher went over and stood behind him. I barely noticed this at the time, but the reason became apparent later.
Near the end of the class, during a question period, he asked an impressive and valid question: Why does his breathing become more labored after playing a few phrases of music in succession? I answered the question with an appropriately complex answer; many factors, including the reed, embouchure and breathing skill, affected the ease of breathing.
After the class, his teacher brought him up to me to continue the discussion privately, which I was happy to do. We had a good talk, and eventually figured out that his mouthpiece had been damaged, and was causing undue resistance, causing his labored breathing. He seemed happy and comfortable talking to me.
In my follow up feedback discussion with his teacher, she gave me encouraging feedback; I had involved and engaged the students, no easy task at this age; I had chosen the right level of language, neither condescending nor babying; and I had adjusted to changes in their attention by shifting to a game or contest to bring them back. I was happy with the success.
But the icing on this gratifying cake was this. She explained to me that the boy who had asked the question had developmental problems, specifically in relating to men. Apparently, he had to be sequestered for belligerent behavior when a male substitute teacher taught the class. Somehow I had engaged him at a level he could trust. We had each overcome a block; he in relating to a man, me in relating to an 8th grader. I canít imaging a better reward for an hourís work.