I’ve been posting an ad for my cello teaching business on the local craigslist. Another fellow, Peter Metcalf, is also advertising cello lessons. He may be a wonderful teacher and a fine musician; I’ve never met him or watched him teach. But his ad leaves me a little uneasy. Since craigslist is not really the place for a critique or a dialog, I figured I’d comment on his ad here. All of the quotes below are verbatim.
Here’s how his ad starts: “For the professional, child, adult, or…musical newborn!” Personally, I’m not charmed by the image of the musical newborn — it makes me think of spitting up, drooling, diapers, and a total inability to understand simple verbal instructions. But perhaps that’s just me. On the other hand, that may be the sort of student Metcalf is angling for. The most likely explanation is that he’s trying to say, “No prior training is necessary,” and is just doing a really clumsy job of it.
“I provide for my students the tools for realizing swift musical growth.” All good teachers do that. But in my experience, the swiftness with which a student progresses depends primarily on how much time the student spends practicing and on their innate talent. Metcalf is making, implicitly, a claim of some sort here about the swiftness with which his students can expect to learn — a claim that, if he were to articulate it more carefully, might be tricky for him to back up. Some students learn quickly, some don’t.
“And, I offer video recordings of lessons for help with home practice.” Great idea. I wish I was set up to do it!
“As will be apparent in our consultation or first lesson, all this is integrated with a holistic, creative, and (non-sectarian) spiritual approach.” I have no idea what this means, but perhaps it will appeal to drooling musical newborns. When I tell a student (as I often need to do), “You need to arch your fingers,” is that a spiritual approach? I doubt it. Certainly, I do my best to encourage my students to approach music creatively, but if they have a creative approach and can’t manage to arch their fingers, they’re in for some rough sledding. First things first.
I always try to be supportive and encouraging. I make a point of mentioning the things the student is doing right, and I never, ever use the words “bad” and “wrong.” What I like to say is, “Here’s something you need to work on.” Is that spiritual? Perhaps it is, but I cringe at the thought of describing it that way.
Metcalf goes on to explain that he offers discounts for students who are in difficult financial situations — arguably a good thing to do, though fraught with difficulties. And then we get to this charming concept:
“In regard to lessons for children: I prefer teaching very young children simultaneously with an older family member.” This is how Suzuki teachers do it. I doubt Metcalf is a Suzuki teacher; if he were, I’m sure he’d say so. The Suzuki method, be it noted, is anything but creative or spiritual. It’s a method for cranking out little robots who can play the violin or cello. But that’s an aside, because he’s not a Suzuki teacher.
“In addition to providing parents or siblings an exceptional and unique opportunity for nurturing a youngster’s maturation and love, this supports rapid musical progress. The parent or older sibling needn’t study the same instrument – I can teach any of the strings simultaneously, including cello and bass. Of course, the joy of playing chamber music with your family may be an additional incentive to taking this approach.”
Joy of family chamber music is a wonderful thing. And I’m sure that playing with others can support rapid musical progress. But trying to teach two kids, or a kid and a parent, different instruments at the same time, strikes me as a very bad idea. I currently teach one shared lesson — two adults, both cellists. The room is barely big enough for three cellists, but that’s only a detail. More to the point, each of them gets only half of my attention, but at least they can pick up pointers from the stuff I’m telling the other one. If one was playing a violin and the other a bass, and if one was 35 years old while the other was 5 … the mind boggles.
As I read that passage more closely, it starts to feel spongy to me. In what sense, if any, can we consider music lessons “an exceptional and unique opportunity for nurturing a youngster’s maturation and love”? I’ve known parents of students who seemed to be more interested in controlling the kid than in dishing out love. I prefer not to have parents of that sort sitting in during lessons, though of course they write the checks, so they get to do what they like.
I don’t think it’s the cello teacher’s business to help parents nurture love in their children. I think offering to do that is crossing a boundary in a really messy way. I would speculate that the results may be confusing for the kid. And I’m pretty sure the messy goo-goo stuff, if actually present in the lesson, will get in the way of the student’s actually learning to play the cello. Playing the cello is difficult enough, without we clutter up the learning process with a lot of new age mumbo-jumbo.
I hope Peter Metcalf’s students learn to play the cello. Playing the cello is a wonderful thing. Based strictly on his ad, though, I’d have to say that even if my schedule were full, I wouldn’t steer any students to him.