I began teaching trombone lessons in 1974, when I arrived at Wheaton College (Illinois) as a transfer student from my freshman year at Indiana University. Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music had a Preparatory Department where young players could come to take music lessons; students at the College were often the teachers. Because there were a number of students who wanted to take trombone lessons, I was asked to help with this. And thus my teaching career began.
Over the last 42 years, I’ve developed a manner of approaching the art of teaching, some of which I learned from the example of my teacher, Edward Kleinhammer. There are well-known teachers who try to get the best out of their students by treating them harshly, by getting angry, employing guilt and humiliation, setting students in a studio in competition against one another to “toughen them up.” I’ve never gone down this road. I have very high standards for my students. But I have found that when I lead by example and work with them in a way that both encourages and challenges them, we build a relationship that leads to good results all around.
When Edward Kleinhammer died in 2013, I wrote a tribute to him for the International Trombone Association Journal. For part of the article, I asked several of his students to write a few words about how they would remember him. Eric Carlson, second trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra–Eric and I also were students together at Wheaton College and played together for four years in the Baltimore Symphony–wrote this:
I had an hour train ride home after every lesson. During those rides, I formed the habit of writing down everything I could remember from my lesson, so I would be sure to practice properly in the upcoming week. By the time I finished writing, I would usually have a page or two of notes about things I needed to fix. I remember thinking at one point, “With all of these criticisms, how come I always feel so confident after my lessons?” With time, I realized it came down to two things: I always knew that the severe critiques came out of Ed’s desire to see me succeed. And, towards the end of every lesson, Ed would find a problem small enough to fix right then and there, so I always finished the lesson feeling like we had solved at least one problem that day.
“Ed’s desire to see me succeed.” Yes. That is a very important thing for teachers to communicate to their students. There is nothing like offering encouragement along with a challenge to fuel a person’s desire to continue working to a goal.
Last week, I received an email from a student in Japan. I’ve been to Japan over a dozen times, both on tour as a member of the Boston Symphony but also to teach and give masterclasses. Many of these teaching opportunities have come at the Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival where I have been on the faculty on six occasions. Last week’s email came from Yuta Aoki who was in my class at the Hamamatsu Academy in 2014 and 2015. He told me that he had formed a trombone quartet made up of students who had been in my class during those years and that they had recently taken 4th place in a trombone quartet competition; their debut concert will be in September. I was so happy for their success, but also so pleased that they wanted to share this news with me. Even though we are 6000 miles apart, they know that I rejoice with them. To (left to right in the poster above) Yusuke Nishi, Ayaka Watanabe, Noriyuke Komatsu and Yuta Aoki, I send congratulations again, and I wish you well in your upcoming concert. Bravi! And to teachers who are reading this, don’t forget to celebrate the success of your students, no matter how small. Your encouragement is part of the fuel that drives them.