Whenever a few people discuss music teachers they’ve had or watched, they discuss whether they’re a “tough” teacher or a “nice” teacher. The conversation continues as if there were only two options; a tough teacher that gets things done with well set-up, nice sounding students, or a nice teacher that lets things go to maintain the relationship and has students who can barely play but love them. The more teachers I meet, the more I believe this is an unhelpful and false belief. You can be kind, without ignoring bad technique. You can have a good relationship with your student, and also maintain studio discipline. In fact, it’s more effective.
Reading Teaching Genius: Dorothy Delay and the Making of a Musician by Barbara Lourie Sand was so validating to this belief. Dorothy Delay created incredible violin playing in countless violinists; from Itzhak Perlman to Sarah Chang. She also treated them with kindness and respect. Her desire to have a relationship with students made her a more effective teacher, not less so. Instead of portraying the one and only way to play the violin, she asked questions (and waited for answers.) “Where is the top of the phrase?” “Sugarplum, what is your concept of F-sharp?”
Her care for her students as a whole person made her encourage Itzhak Perlman to become as independent as possible, even as a 13 year old with a disability in a new city. She “encouraged his interest in art, got his parents to get him an art tutor,” took him to museums, concerts, baseball games, taught him how to drive.
Toby Perlman, Itzhak Perlman’s wife said, “One of the things that she did-the most remarkable thing-was that she recognized that his disability was going to be a real problem in the eyes of the public. She knew that it was no problem at all-it was just no problem-but she saw the way people responded, and she understood that half the battle was going to be convincing the powers that be that this was a boy who could do anything, and she set about doing that.”
She knew Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg well enough to let her “forget her violin at home” for weeks at a time, then recognized the right time to push her back into playing.
Sarah Chang discussed how Dorothy Delay’s teaching style changed as she grew. Because Delay cared about her students, she knew the right times to become more clearly critical, or to ask for more purpose in phrasing.
And it’s not like she reserved her great teaching for only her star students. Another great quote from Toby Perlman, “I didn’t play very well, I didn’t believe in myself-but in her studio, I felt competent. I learned from her that no student needs to feel incompetent.” A student’s belief in their competence makes them work harder and make more progress.
To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations for Teaching Genius. I thought I’d enjoy it because I love biographies, but I didn’t think I’d get many clear teaching takeaways. I was wrong. I know I will read this again. It has made me recommit to building a relationship with every student, teaching them to teach themselves through thoughtful questions, and believe in their ability to gain talent.
I’m excited to hear from you in the comments. What were your favorite takeaways from the book? Did you have a different opinion? Love it or hate it, we’d love to know.