By Olivia Noh | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
In college, I came across George Bernard Shaw’s infamous quote, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” It was a character in one of Shaw’s plays that issued this sharp indictment in so few words, but the attitude has been attributed to Shaw himself ever since. Teachers understandably bristle at this idea, that those who teach do not have adequate skills in a discipline, and that teaching in itself is not a discipline that requires mastery. But as a 19-year-old, I didn’t think twice about this notion. Although I aspired to be a great teacher myself, I thought becoming a better performer would automatically make me a better teacher.
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It was a cold winter in Connecticut. I was working on my second graduate degree in performance when a friend, who was moving out of state, asked me to teach violin to her nine-year-old beginner student. I did not have much experience with beginners, but I happily accepted. After all, how hard could it be? I had studied with so many great teachers, coached advanced students, helped undergraduates with their Sibelius Concerto—I even took two years of pedagogy classes. Surely, I could teach “Twinkle.”
On a sunny afternoon in February, I met Emma and her family at their house. “I really like violin. It’s so beautiful,” she answered with the sweetest smile on her face when I asked if she liked playing violin. She led me to her room and the lesson began.
As she played “O Come Little Children,” it was apparent that she was struggling with the notes. I pointed at a section in the music, played it for her, and asked her to play it with me. She turned to the music stand but her eyes squinted as she tried to make out the notes.
She didn’t know how to read music.
Slightly nervous, I proceeded to demonstrate the song while saying the notes out loud. As Emma stared at me in confusion, my heart started racing. I continued to play with her slowly, did a few activities to improve her posture, and encouraged her to listen to the recording. By some miracle the lesson ended on a positive note, but I was panicking inside.
I immediately began searching for resources. I checked out every book I could find on violin pedagogy; looked online for teaching websites, blogs, videos, and forums; and bought a stack of method books that were recommended by other instructors. I asked my professor for help, reached out to local violin teachers who let me observe their lessons, and begged my teacher friends to share their notes. Every week, I made sure I had a thorough lesson plan for Emma that used every tool I could think of, including practice charts, games, flashcards, and stickers.
Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, I was walking on thin ice. Her progress was minimal, and I was out of ideas.
It had taken a few months of desperate scavenging, sleepless nights, and a copious amount of coffee to finally bring me to the conclusion that I couldn’t teach. I did not have the knowledge and skills to teach “Twinkle” after all.
So I made the decision to resign, and contacted the best teacher I knew. This was the right person to teach Emma. After the lesson that week, I sat down with Emma’s parents at their dinner table. I told them their daughter was a terrific student who was highly motivated and disciplined. She loved music and practiced diligently. However, because of that, she needed to study with someone else—someone better than me. They were shocked. They said they liked me and that Emma enjoyed her lessons. They appreciated how I brought classical music into their home and how it enriched their lives. There were tears in their eyes as they told me how much they wished I would stay. I was moved by their kind words, but the fact remained. Emma deserved a better teacher.
I learned to see the soloist playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto in front of the orchestra as a “Twinkler” struggling to put down the third finger.
That fall, I started my longterm teacher training and it opened up a whole new world for me. I learned the methods, techniques, and language to teach music at any level—from the “Monkey Song” to the Mozart concerti. I learned to see the soloist playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto in front of the orchestra as a “Twinkler” struggling to put down the third finger. I learned not to be patient with my students but to be disciplined in finding new ways to present the materials. I became a better listener, diagnostician, problem-solver, communicator, and motivator.
As painful as it was, my experience with Emma taught me humility and what it means to be a teacher. I assumed that the path to becoming a pedagogue was to be a trained musician—that the ability to execute skills would automatically grant me the ability to teach them. I didn’t recognize the deep understanding required to teach successfully. It takes a different form of mastery: analyzing each student’s strengths and weaknesses and guiding them through the building blocks of techniques. As humbling as it was, it made me a better teacher and I am grateful for the lesson.
A renowned educator and teacher trainer once told me, “I like teaching because every great teacher I know has a sense of humility. I think it’s because no matter how experienced you are, there will always be a student who walks into your studio and you have no idea what to do.” I will continue to learn with gratitude and humility. And I offer this to George Bernard Shaw: Those who can’t, can learn.