We had a little neighbor across the street when my kids were little whose father used to call him "bucket-head," and that's what he grew up into--a bucket-head. Every time I heard that man say that word. I just wanted to hit him. That is a terrible thing he did. If you are sitting in the studio and you want a kid to do something, and he's a very sensitive child, and rather timid, the best thing to do, I think, is to wait until what you want happens by accident. And you say, "Hey, look what you did. Isn't that wonderful! I like that." Then a child will repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.
Teaching by Example I used to have teachers who tried to teach me by example, and what they would do is say, "No, no, do it like this"; and I would think, Well that is different from what I am doing, but I can think of a hundred ways it is different. I wonder which one they are talking about. I would try something and the teacher would say, "No, no, do it like this," so I would try it again, change it, do something else, and that wouldn't be what was wanted either, and I would go home very upset. I never could figure out which aspect of what they had done was what they meant. It was the most frustrating experience I have ever had. Also, I don't like the idea of one person's performance being the supreme influence on a young person. I don't think it is healthy. I think they need a tremendous diet of listening to many, many different people so that the intake is spread out over many styles.
The Power of the Spoken WordCommunicating is a very difficult thing to do. When students start using words in a sloppy way, I try to pin them down: "What exactly do you think that means?" so they get the habit of understanding what they are doing when they speak. Words are so powerful. Musicians are the worst criminals in being careless about what they say. Musicians will say, "Oh, that goes so deep!" OK, "deep." Presumably, they mean something inward, but "deep"? Inward what? There is no information in that word. It is a sloppy word. It is like "love," We don't know what the word love means.
I try to tell them that you can use words to communicate, you can use words to conceal, you can use words to impress--you can use words for many different motives. When somebody speaks to you, you try to figure out which this is, and if somebody is really trying to communicate something, it is a gift--it is a great gift when somebody tries to tell you something, because a lot of the time, that is not what they are doing. They are not interested in sharing something. They are interested in trying to conceal or to impress or to do something else.
I find it difficult to teach someone who doesn't talk back. Working with one of the kids today, I was thinking that I get as much from his ideas as he gets from mine. I was trying to keep things in balance, but every so often I would slip up and say, "Oh, I don't think I would do this," and then I would think, Shouldn't have done that, DeLay, shouldn't have done that, because it doesn't open up thinking and reasoning. I love to watch the kids think. I do not find giving instructions very satisfying.
Asian students have a totally different take on the use of words than the Americans. I try to tell some of my kids, "Stop being a nice Asian girl, and start being an American woman, there are certain things you don't have to put up with, and I will teach you naughty language with which to tell people off." So I do, and they do, and they feel wonderful.
The Barrier of FearPeople can be terribly afraid that nobody is going to have any respect for them. Many people go through a period in their teens and early twenties when they find getting instructions extremely threatening because being corrected implies that you have a job and you are not capable of doing it properly. You have got to believe you can do this job properly or you will have absolutely no self-respect. There can be any number of years where they are struggling to establish their own autonomy, and trying to prove to themselves that they are capable of making decisions of their own. During that period of time, they seem to be very afraid of other people's opinions, and sometimes they throw the baby out with the bath and they refuse good advice when it's available.
I can sympathize with that. I can remember going through it. I could not hear criticisms from my teachers--they frightened me terribly. If I recognize something like that going on with a kid, I try not to make a statement. I say, "Well, what do you think about that?" Or, "That is very interesting." Or, "I like this very much."
What stops some people from making the transition to thinking independently? If you are a child who has been put down, you start to feel small. You start to feel unimportant, and as a result, you start to feel fear. It is a very frightening thing to feel that you are unimportant to everyone. You feel you may cease to exist. You have to know that you have been terribly important to one person at least--maybe more--but very important to one person who gives you tremendous support.
Pleasure PrincipleFear can provide a spur, but the moment the source is out of the room, the spur is gone. Success stays with you. When you are successful, you remember how nice that was, and you do it again. I think people who are successful have learned to be proud of what they are doing--at least intermittently--but always with the hope of doing better.
PerseveranceAre there particular qualities one looks for in a student? If you get someone who is really staggeringly better than other people, you have the feeling that it may be easier for that person than it would for someone who may be more borderline. I don't know what it is that makes it possible for people to go on in the face of discouragement because no matter what you do--music, politics, art--are going to face times when you are not successful, so I suppose the ability to go on anyway is the most valuable. One of my friends who taught used to say that determination and drive were most important. He thought the important thing was to keep going, keep going, not get too excited, just keep going--and I think he had something there.
Making Plans; The Meaning of DisciplineThere has to be a transition point where we realize that our own reactions have validity. We have to realize that our own thoughts, our own ideas, our own emotions, really are all we've got. But because we are intelligent people, they are very reliable, very valuable, very interesting. I think that when we are very small we assume that there are certain things we can't do, that we have to be told every move. I have always felt that it is necessary to respect children's minds, because they are so incredibly intelligent and so knowledgeable, without realizing it. They are so imaginative--they have such wonderful ideas. When you start doing your own planning in an independent kind of way, you begin to realize that there are certain mental processes that you have to go through.
I know that this sounds strange, but I remember the point at which I became really conscious of the fact that if you're going to make a good plan, you have to set your goal first. It sounds like a primitive piece of thinking, and perhaps we do this all our lives on some subconscious level, but I remember the day on which it suddenly became conscious with me--light bulb above my head, you know?--and I thought, Wow! You set a goal and then you know what you're doing. Rather like that New Yorker cartoon of the young wife watching her husband filling in the stubs on his checkbook and saying, "What a good idea--that way you always know how much money you have. What a good idea!"
People are always talking about discipline--another of those obvious things--and I had this image of some horrible sort of Simon Legree person with a whip standing over me, and then I realized that discipline is very simple; after you set this gorgeous goal, you say, "OK, now this is where I want to get, and now how do I get there?" So you say, "Step one, step two, step three, here I am--I got there, that's my plan." So discipline is just the process of carrying out your plan. I don't know how to describe it except that something that ought to be obvious to us has not been obvious and then suddenly becomes obvious, so that everything comes together in your mind. But the only way that can happen is if you are feeling comfortable and not feeling some kind of demands are being made on you; if you are feeling that you can trust your mind, and that it's a good instrument, and that what you need to do is to figure out how it works.
I swear to you, it is in the concentration. If you take any task, and it looks like its too big and it's not working, you have to break it into small steps, and take it in small steps. You just have to find those small steps, and I do find that process fascinating.
An Unimpeded VistaIs musical sensitivity innate? I think it is too easy for a teacher to say, "Oh, this child wasn't born with it, so I won't waste my time." Too many teachers hide their own lack of ability behind that statement. I don't like that statement. It gets my back up. I don't want it to be true that a quality like that is inherited, because you can't do anything about it. I want it to be true that we can all learn anything. At the same time that DeLay believes passionately that the best learning takes place in an atmosphere of support and encouragement (That's great, sweetie-pie! Wonderful, sugarplum!), she can be as tough as old boots in the demands she makes of her students and in refusing to settle for less than somebody's best. Being a master of psychology, she knows precisely what that "best" is and how to elicit it--in particular, when to speak and when to keep still. "Most of the time," DeLay once remarked, "I am just sitting here thinking of things to say and then stopping myself from saying them."
From Teaching Genius: Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician by Barbara Lourie Sand, published in 2000 by Amadeus Press. Used by permission; all rights reserved.
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