It’s a strange experience, going from student to teacher. I wonder if all teachers feel like they still have a lot to learn before they’re “ready” to take on pupils of their own. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100% comfortable in this role, but I’m getting used to it pretty quickly.
This past summer I received an email from Paula Zeitlin, Berklee violin alumna and jazz strings instructor at The Rivers School Conservatory in Weston. She was stepping down from her position at the school, and looking for a replacement. Someone passed her my name, and that’s how I heard about this beautiful college prep school in the suburbs. I was thrilled by the prospect of having my very own students – not only string students, but also string students who wanted to study jazz exclusively! What a gift!
I’ve always been apprehensive about teaching, since I admire educators so much. I know that many students have those few teachers in their lives that have inspired them to achieve greatness, or given them the encouragement they needed to get through difficult times in school. My high school orchestra and band directors inspired me to study at Berklee, the only school where you can major in jazz violin. In my eyes, it would take a lifetime of study and work to become half the teachers they were.
After accepting the faculty position at Rivers and starting private lessons in the fall, I quickly realized that no matter what, my skills in jazz were always going to be above my students at their current level. What I learned that really prepared me to teach them were the skills in live performance and interaction with other musicians that I had honed over the years. It wasn’t just that I knew more. I had done more. I had experiences that they didn’t, and that was the knowledge that I had to combine with basic jazz curriculum to teach them. Playing for Wyclef Jean in the studio, performing at Berklee’s commencement every year, a week-long rehearsal commitment for graduation, countless film scoring sessions and dozens of recitals. I had already been there, done that, and seen how my studies were put into action. After I realized this, it helped quell some of my anxieties.
Currently, it’s slow going at Rivers. I have one student signed up for a 30-minute private lesson. Another one wants to study with me in the next few weeks. Because of this slow start, I suggested to the chair of the jazz department at an informal meeting that I shadow a few teachers during school hours. This, I suggested, would help me see first-hand the culture and daily life of the school and its students, give me a better idea of the curriculum and instruction style, and perhaps prepare me to be a sub if a teacher had to call out sick one day. He thought it was a great idea, and this past Tuesday I came in early and observed all his classes. I definitely got a great inside look at being a daily music teacher at Rivers. It helped me understand my role at the Conservatory much better.
You see, as a Conservatory teacher, I only instruct private lessons for students who choose the conservatory program outside of school hours. So at the moment, my only source of income is from private lessons with students. In order to try to increase my popularity within the school and encourage more private students, I hope to shadow and assist the jazz chair one day a week, and see if the string department would be willing to support a few improvisation projects with the younger students. I know that the Conservatory Program, which combines daily academic classes with extra after-school music courses instead of sports, is trying to start string improvisation in the middle schools. That idea is something I know I need to be behind, as the only alternative styles string teacher at Rivers right now. The school could become a guiding force in early alternative string education for middle and high schools students serious about becoming performers.
With this goal of helping Rivers develop a strong Jazz Strings program in mind, I think of what I can develop for my own career. I can create my own method of classical-to-jazz crossover programs for other schools and different performance levels! Using the basics I learned in my private lessons with the fantastic educators in our own Berklee String Department, I can bring basic improv workshops to students all over the greater Boston area. Or even the east coast. Or even nationwide! By using my motivation at Rivers as a starting point, I can do something great for string players all over the country.
Berklee showed me many styles of music that string players can perform. I find it difficult to imagine limiting the potential of these students, who are all fantastic, high-level players, to classical and jazz. Their skills should be as varied as their imaginations and ambitions of what music they dream of playing. Hopefully someday, after the jazz strings program is strong enough, the school would be willing to introduce more contemporary music instruction: studio playing training and pop string writing as composition classes, songwriting seminars, who knows? Berklee isn’t too far away from the school…field trip, anyone?
Sue Buzzard is a Berklee alumna currently teaching at the Rivers School Conservatory. She also runs a blog about acoustic string crossovers called String Warriors.