At the Centre: The Teacher as Facilitator of Direct Experience
My teaching philosophy and research interests have grown along with one another in a steady evolution.
At the beginning of my university career, my approach to teaching was primarily information and technically based. At that time, I believed in building the musical skills and knowledge base of student musicians. Like many, I privileged performance over other aspects of musicking.
This was accepted wisdom at the time, but even then I was most moved when students were intensely curious and self-motivated through their own personal discoveries. So much of my teaching, whether in the classroom or in performance, to undergraduates, graduates, and non-music majors, is now formed around allowing for direct experience as much as is possible. Readings, recordings, and websites are invaluable in orienting the student in music, as they are in any field today. But, direct musical experience moves students towards a transformation perhaps more profound and complete than one encountered through standard academic resources alone.
Today, discovery through direct experience, cultural transmission, and subsequently, contemplation and reflection are at the centre of my teaching philosophy. These go beyond techniques such as learning-centred teaching and modality teaching to form a teaching-learning practice that is more akin to spiritual discovery and practice than modern educational pedagogy.
As a teacher I have developed into a facilitator, setting the stage for students to experience, discover, and reflect upon things for themselves. This manifests in both my ensemble rehearsals and my academic courses. Not surprisingly, there is still a great deal of conventional teaching that takes place in such facilitations. This includes things such as defining terms and parameters, assisting with techniques, demonstrating and teaching necessary skills, and providing helpful information, guidance, and assistance as needed. The greatest change in moving towards facilitation is in my ability to watch students for indications of discovery and understanding. My teacher observation skills have developed rapidly as facilitation has moved to the centre.
The Student/Teacher Partnership of Discovery and Transformation
Although facilitation places student experience at the centre, it also benefits the teacher greatly. Supporting student discovery and experience changes the way in which the teacher encounters the materials as well. There is a partnership of discovery wherein students and teacher encounter materials together, and experiences and reflections are affirmed and supported. This is very fulfilling for me as a teacher. I share in students’ “light-bulb moments,” but more often than not, student insights inform and challenge my own assumptions, resulting in more discussion and reflection. In this “facilitation/discovery” paradigm students and teacher work to support, affirm, and ultimately negotiate and mediate what is gained from the experiences. Both students and teacher undergo transformation and growth. (Unfortunately, there is no way to gauge this in student course evaluations).
The Importance of the Teacher: Transmission
With the rapid advance of widely available information via the internet and especially cross-cultural and global information, the role of the teacher has changed from being the sole conduit of higher level knowledge and information (a gatekeeper) to being a guide, facilitator, and a contributor to wisdom in sorting, processing, and managing the media deluge that students confront. The role of the teacher is arguably more crucial today than in previous times precisely because personal experience is now more crucial in the learning formula. Yet, we are ill-equipped to integrate direct experience into conventional pedagogical models.
For the past three decades, I have been a spiritual student of esoteric Buddhism (Zen and Mahayana) and a musical student of the Japanese Zen Buddhist shakuhachi. Transmission in shakuhachi seeks to deliver more than techniques and traditions. Because it was developed within the context of Zen Buddhist practices, shakuhachi transmission immerses the practitioner in the fundamentals of musical contemplative practice (meditation, posture, breathing, concepts of pitch, breath rhythm, phrasing, cultural values/concepts, and sonic manifestation of philosophical ideas) while simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening the musical/spiritual practice of the teacher. Both teacher and student are transformed through direct experience of the encounter. It is the dedicated student that makes the teacher great, although conventional wisdom teaches us just the opposite.
During transmission, openness, empathy, and the wisdom of the teacher figure prominently in order to create a safe and accepting environment in which a student can be immersed. Under this form of teaching, openness and empathy are even more important than expert knowledge. The particulars of these elements are, of course, under control of the teacher and his/her wisdom and experience. Although it is completely possible for transmission to occur with a large number of students at a time, it is extremely effective as personal dialogue between teacher and student as it can require subtle cues not possible in conventional lessons or classroom techniques. If I approach my studio, classroom sessions, and rehearsals as transmissions, it allows for a greater sense of dialogue, openness, and empathy.
Creating a Learning Community
Working in community music for decades, one does not think precisely of teaching. Teaching is in the realm of academe, and community choirs, orchestras, cultural music groups, and summer community music schools are something else, perhaps regarded as pastime, enjoyment, or enrichment.
But, community music making and community building are at the heart of a strong learning environment. Coming from prestigious institutions in the United States, I was steeped in the use of competition to encourage top-quality student results. After working in this mode for many years, I have almost wholly rejected the notion. The most informing and fulfilling artistic and intellectual experiences for myself and my most successful students have been through direct experience and discovery rather than through direct competition. I realize this goes against much of our society’s popular wisdom. But, it is central to my approach and to the successes I have gathered since my immigration to Canada.
Teaching in the graduate program in community music at Wilfrid Laurier University has worked to focus and solidify these ideas. We learn best together. Music in this context is, as Lee Higgins describes, an act of hospitality. This is a particularly apt notion for any classroom or performance ensemble, and most definitely one that has succeeded in a number of instructional settings.
My personal teaching philosophy is informed by the following four concepts derived and developed through my own teaching experience with much of it derived from my experiences with global musics. Teaching is facilitation, whereby space is created for discovery, creativity, reflection and contemplation of direct experience. Teaching is cooperative learning between student and teacher, where each affirms, inspires, and supports the growth of the other. Teaching is transmission where knowledge, skills, and values are contextualized within the student/teacher dynamic. Teaching is cultivating a community that supports and enhances ongoing development, growth, and personal transformation.
 “Musicking” refers to music as a multifaceted activity rather than a thing. This idea is thoroughly presented in Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The Meanings of Performance and Listening. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.
 Higgins, L. (2012). Community Music In Theory and In Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.