Teaching artists, teaching artistry

One of my current gigs (new this year) is as Program Director for a new program of outreach and community projects at an academy for “exceptional young musicians”. I’m going to avoid naming the place – let’s call it The Academy.

It’s been an interesting year so far there. Interesting, because I’ve had to completely revise the training and project plans I had made (which I’d made according to the brief I was given by the Academy senior staff), in response to a quite extraordinary display of resistance from the students I was to work with.

To set the context, this Academy offers a highly specialised, individually-tailored professional performance program for just a handful (~50) of extremely talented music students. The audition process is very competitive, and Academy alumni have a pretty good track record of success in orchestral auditions, overseas competitions, and so on. The outreach and community program that I direct is a new program this year, and is joined by other ‘non-playing’ professional development programs that seek to ensure Academy musicians are suitably skilled in a broader area of musical work than just orchestral, chamber and solo performance.

It became apparent soon after I started work there that there was a lot of resistance/resentment to involvement in the outreach and community program, from a significant number of students. Discussion with some of the more articulate members of the cohort shed further light on this – anxiety among the players that such studies took them away from their practice; frustration that it was a compulsory program, that the sessions were awkwardly timed within an already-busy schedule; that it made no allowance for the range of skills that students might already be bringing with them to the Academy, such as teaching qualifications or experience, or involvement in performance programs directed towards young audiences.

One argument that resonated strongly with me, because I remembered feeling exactly the same when I was a student at the Mozart Academy, and before that, at the Guildhall, was put forward by one of the student representatives:

It’s not that I’m not interested in these skills  – I am, and I can see that they are important and useful. But that I don’t want to be learning them now. We only have two years here, it is a chance for us  to just focus on our playing. Later, we’ll be able to develop other skills. But now is not the time.

The frustration that all the students were feeling played out in the few sessions I taught in some challenging ways. Students took part with very bad grace – lots of negativity, eye rolling, disdain, and slapdash approaches to the work that made it impossible for the power of the work to be revealed to anyone. It was a reminder of the importance in creative collaborative work of “buy-in” (to use a horrible corporate-speak word – but it is the only one I can think here!). Just one person present who is filled with resentment and frustration can destabilise the work for everyone else, because they don’t let down their guards at all, and become a witness to the more vulnerable efforts from others, rather than an equal participant. the hostility makes it impossible to create a safe workshop environment for everyone. When you have the majority of the group behaving in this hostile way, the whole process becomes counter-productive – it is as if it undermines itself. You set up each task hoping it will reveal glimmers of possibility to the participants, but they are only looking for ways to ensure it doesn’t work. In this kind of environment, nothing can grow.

I proposed to the Academy staff that the work needed to be halted until the students’ concerns had been brought out into the open and could be discussed and resolved in a calm, practical, respectful way. It led me to think about our respective roles in this kind of work.

Does it make sense to try to train people in creative collaborative skills if they don’t want to be there, or don’t feel it is relevant to them? I have always felt that it is important that this kind of training be something that participants come to freely and openly, with a curiousity about it, and a willingness to be believe in the possibilities it offers them. But this program at the Academy was not optional. It was compulsory for all students.

A colleague with whom I discussed the situation also questioned the wisdom of training musicians when they are right at the start of their careers.

“Of course it is important for them to have these skills, or be offered the opportunity to develop these skills,” she said. “But it seems to me that being a Teaching Artist is more of a mid-career choice for many artists. This may be because it is the time when reality hits, and they realise that as a freelance performer it can be an unpredictable amount of time between gigs, and the skills to work artistically in other environments can create additional income streams that don’t dull the creative spirit.”

“But mid-career is also a time when artists have a huge amount to offer a workshop environment. They are more deeply settled and familiar with the artform and their own artistic language and process. They have so much to offer – heaps more than when they were younger.”

“This is true for me,” she added, and it caused me to reflect on my own career path to this work I do now, of directing creative music projects for all and sundry.  I actually started leading and designing composition projects and workshops when I was still a young musician – 23 years old – so it wasn’t a mid-career choice for me. I think I was lucky though. I think my artform, and artistic language, is entirely bound up in collaborative processes and collaborative environments. I am happiest and at my most creative, when I’m working with other people – young or old, peers or first-timers. The resulting music, and the collaborative process that precedes it, is my artform.

What do other teaching artists think? Is ours a profession, or artform, that requires age or experience before it can be practiced effectively? Was anyone coerced into this area of work somewhat reluctantly, only to find the meaning it had for them revealed itself over time? (Or are you still waiting for meaning?!) What training experiences have people had that they feel really clarified and enriched their artistic practice?

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