Saturday, November 20, 2010

Paternal Teachers

I saw my old composer friend Dan Worley a good while ago, and he reminded of a conversation we’d had about the word “paternal” applied to composition teachers. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

His use of the word “paternal” in describing a composition teacher had outraged a student of his—I believe because it came too close to “paternalistic,” which has such a negative connotation, as “patronizing” seems to be lurking in there too close-by for comfort.

If we choose instead to speak of “fatherly” teachers, then that will mean (for some) "domineering and controlling", maybe even "abusive and violent." If you choose to speak of “motherly” teachers, then that will mean (for some) "smothering and overly protective" (and for others it might mean "domineering and controlling," maybe even "abusive and violent.")

“Parental” seems like an uncontroversial choice for an adjective to describe our caring older teachers, but why do we want to describe the student-teacher relationship in terms of generational family relationships anyway? The age difference between teachers and their charges often makes brother-sister parallels a stretch, and of course I’ve had students who were older than me too—am I then the son?

I think the answer lies in the operative truth that we all show up for our music lessons with pretty deeply ingrained reaction patterns to authority stemming directly from our relationships with our parents.

I saw another former student recently who wanted to apologize to me for some of his past behavior, explaining that it had more to do with his parents pushing on him as a child than it did to my teaching. I told him that this was par for the course, and that no apology was necessary, because while I could tell he was struggling in the lessons, and I certainly had to try to work with and around his resistances, he at least wasn’t rude. All the rest can be forgiven as normative.

I think it’s inescapable: many of us just need to work out some issues from our early lives that may be related very closely to our reasons for composing and making music in general. These motivations can be very sensitive to the ways in which we relate to authority however it may be expressed, and those sore points definitely come up in composition lessons. Sometimes I think that finding ways to modulate those relationships might be the real content of our study with a teacher, and that all the tips on how to develop craft might be secondary.

I simply don’t see any way for the process of teaching composition or performance to be a merely technical interchange. Feelings and reaction patterns are inherently involved. It may be that one of the main roles of a creative mentor is to help us break free from the way we were parented by offering a similar but safely different and less crucial relationship that is limited to our musical lives.

While its true that many of us could frankly use a little re-parenting, or perhaps a little continued parenting, there are others of us who might really need instead to enter the vast loneliness of ourselves to try to find something that can’t be coaxed forward with a parent, (even a supportive metaphorical one) standing there watching. (As a teacher, allowing this to happen could also be seen as helping to renegotiate an ingrained parental dynamic, of course...)

But once that something been discovered and coaxed out into the open, we could all use some help and support in creating a shape for that vision from a sympathetic and knowledgeable elder. Every one of us does truly live and work and make music in community, in relationship with others, and not solely in the isolation of the smithy of our souls…even if we might sometimes want to tell ourselves otherwise…

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