Choosing a music teacher

K playing the tea towel

Me playing a tea-towel.

Would you chose a reading teacher who couldn’t read? Lot’s of “music teachers” can’t read music properly. If you chose them have some very good reasons. Even some registered music teachers cannot sight read and/or sight sing, including in Australia and New Zealand.

Some teachers might play or sing wonderfully but actually be musically illiterate. It’s like being able to recite a wonderful piece of poetry beautifully but not be able to read something simple when it’s put in front of you. Sad and very limiting.

So when you go to meet the prospective teacher, take some sheet music. Ask them to sing it. Ask them to play it. Ask them to clap the rhythm. If they can’t, or won’t, look elsewhere.

Tell the teacher you want your kid to learn to sight sing first, then learn to sight read. Tell them you want your kid to be able to write music, to be able to take musical dictation and to compose their own stuff by writing it down. It’s just like learning to read and write in school and will come easily if the child is young and the teacher makes it fun. Tell them you think an important part of making music is to make it with friends and other students and have lots of fun soirees. Tell them the last thing you want is for your kid to be pushed through the examination system.

Unfortunately when I was sent to piano lessons as a young kid the whole music teaching culture was designed to produce playing monkeys for the exams and NOT kids who could read music. The musical literacy part of the curriculum was worth 5% of the exam mark. Serious. This is a great pity and condemned a few generations of people to musical illiteracy. And there are still a few teachers around like that.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I remember being very pleasantly surprised when I first went to China that all the kids and adults I met could sight sing. Popular tunes were printed on playing cards in a simple notation which I had never seen before.  The notation card is below and here’s the song being sung on youtube –  The Little Swallow (小燕子).

little_swallow_chinese muscial notation card

When I first went to China I took some sheet music with me (a book of Mozart Sonatas) because I couldn’t bear to be away from the piano for three months while I studied Chinese. Getting to know people on the train journey from Guangzhou to Beijing included singing each other our favourite or national songs. So it occurred to me to whip out my Mozart and show people. They could sight sing the western notation too!!

MozartPianoSonataE-flat major

Mozart Piano Sonata above.

I’ll always remember finding a vacant piano practice room in the institution I was studying at (now renamed Beijing Normal University 北京师范大学) and happily plonking away. Suddenly I was aware of someone standing in the doorway listening to me. He said he loved what I was playing and could I play it again. So I did. Then I realised it might be his turn at the practice room because I hadn’t booked it. I asked him to play and he sat down and launched into a stupendous display of virtuosity. It left me feeling like I had been Using an Axe in Front of Master Lu Ban the Carpenter’s Front Door (班门弄斧 Ban’s Door Brandish Axe) in the four character Chinese proverb (most Chinese proverbs are four characters).

Here’s the story of that Chinese idiom which I’ve copied and cobbled from various sources:

Master Lu Ban was a famous carver of the Spring and Autumn Period. His carving was so skilful that a phoenix he did flew for three days. The great Tang dynasty poet, Li Bai (李白), was an outspoken and romantic type of person who loved a good time and often went out drinking with his friends. One time, when he and some friends were out boating, Li Bai got dead drunk, fell into the river, and drowned.

For centuries after Li Bai’s death, many people who felt themselves to be geniuses would go and inscribe poems in front of his tomb. Finally a Ming Dynasty scholar Mei Zhihuan (梅之煥) went to his grave. He felt that the people writing their own inscriptions were highly overrating their own abilities. So, after all of their poems, he added another one, the meaning of which was: “Here lies Li Bai, a poet who will go down in history, Inscribing one’s poem in front of his tomb is the same as showing off one’s skill with the axe in front of Lu Ban’s door.” I don’t know if anyone else wrote another inscription after that, and history doesn’t record terribly much about Mei Zhihuan.

So brandishing an axe in front of Lu Ban’s door means to flaunt your ability in front of an expert, to show you don’t know your own limitations. Sometimes, this idiom is used as a polite expression, indicating that the people to whom we are speaking are much more talented than ourselves.

And if f you ask me to teach music I’ll say 班门弄斧 [ban1 men2 nong4 fu3].


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