Good Teaching at Juilliard
JOAN BAUM, Ph.D.
may be no more reliable assessment of a teacher than the observation
of a teacher by another who becomes a student. This past spring
I, a longtime college teacher of English, took an evening music
course at The Juilliard School with Peiwen Chao, and I was able
to recognize and admire her methods.
When I started the sight reading for voice class, I really didn’t
understand what I was getting into. Sight reading, I found out,
has little to do with voice and a lot to do with arithmetic and
music theory. Two thirds of the registrants dropped out by the
third week—the homework was hard, the class recitations a bit
unnerving, and the teacher was demanding.
The good Professor Peiwen Chao was nothing if not a poseur, playing
the part of Demanding Teacher, declaring her intention to extract
hard work from her innocent charges. But, those who stayed, even
those somewhat overwhelmed by the growing complexity of each week’s
activities (“you have to do the homework, you cannot miss a lesson”),
had praise for Peiwen’s ability and willingness to explain. At
turns calculating playful and patient (though not infinitely so),
she was always encouraging. Though she was quick with “good,”
“perfect,” “beautiful,” when answers or recitations were correct,
she never confused self-esteem with learning, and she knew the
difference between an accidental right answer and a wrong one
that nevertheless evidenced reflection. Wrong answers were met
with high dudgeon and an insistent invitation to get it right.
A less experienced teacher would have probably backed off. Peiwen
persevered, often probing with mock disbelief.
She had a bit of the school marm about her: Memorizing, for example,
was important, she insisted, as she took us through the paces
of what we’d better know by heart by the next session. Significant
conductors such as Nello Santi memorized whole scores, which allowed
them to sing along quietly with the other instruments. Luciano
Pavarotti had to memorize because he could not read music.
Peiwen’s analogies were outrageous as they were legion. Comparisons
are critical to learning, drawing on what is known and extending
the mind to embrace, in part, a like condition. The best of her
analogies were woolly and wild, often downright hilarious, imaginative
stretches more readily associated with abstract visual arts than
with the world of do-re-mi.. She would not let go until the fog
had lifted. Then, artfully, she would zoom back around a minute
later and call on the person who had been confused, usually with
another clarifying comparison thrown in.
From the start, she laid out the semester’s work and called on
individuals by name. By the second session it was clear that she
also had memorized our voice ranges. Her invitations to perform—offers
we dared not refuse—were met by immediate transpositions on the
piano. Albeit our class was small, her method no doubt extended
to all her classes, regardless of size. Beginners, particularly,
need to feel grounded and welcome. Peiwen was prepared and focused,
knowing that some basics could be explained, others had to betaken
on faith, until their home truths could be acknowledged. She had
thought carefully about how to start each class and how to end
it; yet, there was nothing lockstep in her manner. Interruptions
were fine if they helped instill or maintain confidence. But then,
just when you thought it was safe to go back into measures full
of ties and rests, she would introduce a “surprise.” Suddenly
the voice teacher would become a dance teacher, relating the disciplines.
Indeed, the word “chorus” comes from the Greek word for “choreographer.”
There were other unexpected delights as well, such as the discovery
that a certain group of notes we were sight singing were actually
from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
So what is distinctive about teachers such as Peiwen Chao? They
are evidence of the fact that memorable teachers are made and
remade. Confident about their own talent, they take pleasure in
engaging those at the first step to explore theirs. It is, alas,
too rare in education that those starting out to learn a skill
or subject matter have their way paved by experienced and dedicated
professionals for whom teaching as well as performing is an art.
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