With Passion & Purpose: A Philosophy of Teaching
by Jeffrey Carter
My own intent wasn’t to teach, although both my parents were educators and this seemed the family business. My training was as a pastor, and in my first employment after college I developed a two-pronged philosophy of religious ministry: 1) I must meet people where they are; and 2) I must model for people what I want them to be. As I fell into teaching in my late twenties-and found an affinity for the craft and art, coupled with tremendous satisfaction in helping others to new knowledge-this philosophy of ministry became the foundation of what I do in the classroom, the rehearsal hall, and the private music studio.
First, I must meet people where they are. For example, I must find them in the hallways and the lunchroom, and visit with them there. As I share a small part of their daily life, they will be more willing to share their daily life with me in the rehearsal room. In a broader sense, however, I must meet people where they are experientially. Since most of my students have not suffered the kind of persecution or hardship that leads to songs of sorrow, I must find something in their own existence to help them understand the background of a Jewish niggum or Ginastera’s Lamentations or Palestrina’s setting of Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis. Alternatively, I must paint such a vivid picture of the apotheosis of these songs that the students will understand and sing with alacrity and a kindred spirit. In other words, I must meet them where they are in their own lives, their own battles, their own understanding, then help move them to a higher artistic plane.
Second, I must model for people what I want them to be. Some of this is so plain as to be laughable: I must stand tall on the podium if I want them to use proper stance; I must not smoke if I expect them to not smoke; I must be kind if I desire kindness in return. But take this idea a step further, and one sees immediately that their passion is fueled by my own passion for art, for music, for communication. Their own fulfillment is an imperfect but exciting reflection of my own fulfillment in my artistic life. Their willingness to try new pieces, to make new sounds, to experience more deeply the thrill of music is a direct result of my own.
Along with these meeting them where they are, and modeling for them, my philosophy of teaching and choral rehearsal technique extends to various teaching processes. This is what my students will learn over the course of several semesters under my instruction:
- our work in a rehearsal or lesson is collaborative, and stresses teamwork over individual personality;
- our work in a rehearsal or lesson is ever creative, always being a result of the moment;
- our understanding as musicians demands personal discipline, personal responsibility, and personal enterprise, since it is an art that calls for constant re-creation from within ones own mind and body;
- our life as musicians inherently involves cross-disciplinary study, including history, philosophy, literature, art, psychology, and sociology; and
- our goal as musicians should exemplify the best of society and history as one of the ancient arts, and in its current manifestation also demonstrate an affinity for multicultural awareness and life-long learning.
I am keenly interested in helping students develop reference points . . . frameworks . . . paradigms . . . in which, through which, and from which they will understand, exemplify, and master concepts, content, and performance. As I grow older, this quest is ever more important.
In addition, from a meta-pedagogical perspective, I am increasingly focused on helping students make a transition early rather than later along the continuum of experience to information to knowledge to judgment to action. So much of my current teaching style and practice is rooted in moving students as rapidly as possible to the latter stages of this continuum.
A further thought–one that represents an ongoing struggle within–is the issue of product versus process. I put a high premium on a polished, professional product on stage. But more than that, I firmly believe that how we get there, the journey we take, is more crucial to us as artists and as members of this human race. If I am to be pushed to take a stand, I’ll take process over product any day. Passion and purpose reside in the daily, in the ordinary of our lives.
The journey we take together embraces numerous facets of the choral and entertainment art. It explores human needs and interactions, human emotions and human reactions. In the process of exploring and preparing we are better equipped to give the composer honesty and understanding, and to give the audience quality, good taste, sincerity, and fun. Now I know that what we do in performance is the final arbiter, and for many singing artists the performance represents the only contact we have with parents and administrators and public, but. ..which is more important: the final product or the daily process we share and manage and engineer in getting there?
Dr. Jeffrey Richard Carter is Chair of the Department of Music at Webster University in Saint Louis, former Artistic Director of the Gateway Men’s Chorus of Saint Louis, and former director of Ball State University Singers. He wrote this essay whilst an assistant professor of music at Ball State University, and has edited it slightly from time to time.
© Jeffrey Carter 2014