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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Forbes

music educators—are you comfortable making mistakes?

I've spent a great deal of time reading about learning new skills and achieving mastery. Reading highlights include George Leonard's classic Mastery, Mindsets by Carol Dweck and Dan Coyle's The Talent Code. I read these books because, coming to the practice of music as an adult (I began serious study in my mid to late twenties), I need reassurance that I haven't missed the boat, that I am able to succeed despite the fact I didn't start playing music when I was three years old. So pervasive is the myth of genius in our culture that, even after reading many books based on empirical evidence that greatness isn't born, it's grown (Dan Coyle), I still have to work hard to convince myself that I can learn something to a high level, even as an adult.

Which brings me to what, I think, is a peculiar situation to be in as an academic in higher music education. I consider myself a learner first and foremost. The reason I think this is a somewhat unusual identity for a music academic is because there is a culture of "exhibiting mastery" in some quarters of music education. In music, we have the "master/apprentice" model of learning and teaching, where a master teaches the apprentice the practice of music. Whilst more recently this model has been re-conceptualized in many innovative contexts as collaboration and mentorship, it remains more commonly a model characterised by the power differential between teacher and student. One freshly minted music academic told me that the first piece of advice given to him by a senior colleague was to "exhibit mastery at all times". Hearing this sent me into a blind panic—"I'm not a master! I love learning! I haven't had time to master this stuff! Why would I pretend to be something I'm not?"

So much of the literature on learning and creativity tells us that it is extremely important to learn how to fail gracefully—to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. As Coyle says, mistakes are not mistakes, they are simply information, telling us how we can improve. If, as a teacher, one is working hard to "exhibit mastery at all times", there isn't much room left for making mistakes. For me, core to my teaching philosophy is that students see me as a learner too—someone they can identify with. I have been in many learning environments myself where the gulf between teacher and student was vast (law school in the 90s, anyone?). I came across a number of teachers in my student days who seemed to forget what it was like to be a learner. These teachers could not explain fundamental principles in a way which made sense to someone who knows nothing. In fact, the thought of doing so didn't even seem to cross their minds. Law lecturers would embark on obtuse, convoluted lectures, leaving befuddled students to spend literally dozens of hours trying to make sense of it all. It was all so UNNECESSARY. I've found that some jazz education is like this too—some masters of the music cannot remember what it was like NOT to be able to play, and therefore cannot explain the fundamentals to beginners, leaving students completely bamboozled and disheartened. (There is great jazz education out there, too, by the way).

Because I want to avoid being like this in my own teaching, I've had to learn to become comfortable making mistakes in front of students, and acknowledging my learner status in a number of areas. For example, I have taken up jazz piano in the last few years. This has been a big challenge for my ego as a music academic, as I have struggled to learn comping techniques, and most frighteningly of all, the basics of jazz improvisation. You can't fake your way through that stuff!

Music educators, are you comfortable being a learner in front of your students? How do you feel when you make mistakes? Or should music academics "exhibit mastery" at all times?


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