Thursday, May 11, 2006

Intuition and Repetition in Education

Experience has taught me that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Yin and Yang, plus and minus, hot and cold, whatever phrase best describes it to you, each requires the existence of the other for a meaningful exchange of information to occur. I associate learning with the process of correctly executing precise repetitions of a given exercise until muscle memory replaces conscious effort. I associate teaching with allowing my intuition to play a valid part in discovering or designing the most effective and most efficient exercises to be repeated.

Repetition requires a stubborn adherance to a sometimes painful regimen. Repetitive exercises may seem boring but a true student will work through this knowing that the skills he is seeking depend on following directions each step of the way. Allowing intuition a place in teaching requires the courage to admit that something I may think is brilliant has failed, and the imagination to look further and try something completely contrary to what I had thought to be most effective. Each student is unique and it is the teacher's responsibility to use every tool possible in providing the student the best opportunities for success.

My first formal teaching experience occured during my third year in college. I had no business teaching private voice at the community college level but there I was, at the piano, and there they were, looking to me for the key that would unlock the secret door of stardom, or in some cases, just matching pitch. As the only teacher on staff without credentials, I was assigned the most beginning of students. In retrospect, it was a blessing. Any auto mechanic can make any car run better just by changing spark plugs. My intuition told me to think along those lines and I learned quickly that too many wrenches under the hood will screw up the finest car, especially if all that it needed was spark plugs.

So I taught...and I learned. And what I learned was that most students are not in any way inspired to PRACTICE! Now, I don't care how much a teacher knows, there will be no inmprovement in technique if the student is not inspired to practice...and with a purpose. I knew that repetition had to come into play in a big way for my students to succeed. And all the impressive bullshit I could spew about "inter-costal diaphramatic breathing" and "glottal strokes" or "the arc of the soft palate" would not get them interested enough to reserve a practice room on their own. And so I resolved to find some way for each student, in each and every lesson, to achieve some breakthrough, no matter how large or small. I decided to take it upon myself to leave no stone unturned, to get to know every detail about each of the forty odd students thrust upon me by the learning mill, with the express idea of making tangible progress at some point during each lesson. And THAT...took intuition.

One student in particular comes to mind as a prime example of the interaction between intuition and repetition. "Mary" came into her first lesson with the score of the Italian art song "Tu Lo Sai" in her hands. She would be required to perform this song in her voice class in six week's time. Mary had a pretty soprano voice and the range of the song suited her very nicely. But mary had a problem...when she tried to pronounce "Tu lo sai", it came out as "too low thigh" and that's a problem better attended to with repetitive use of a stairmaster. My intuition told me that this was not a new issue with Mary, I was certain she was aware of her extremely pronounced lisp. So I very tactfully said to her, "Jesus Christ, Silvester, did you thaw a puddy tat?"

Well, that broke the ice and we went to work. Mary didn't come from money so she didn't have the benefit of a Beverly Hills speech therapist camping out in her house as a child. She did have some limited experience working with therapists but as she told the story, the work they did with her was not inspirational enough for her to work at it on her own so she just "got youth to it."I knew nothing at all about speech impediments but i was determined that we could do something if we could get past her resignation.

Every sound we make is the result of one or more pieces of meat in some way interacting with one or more other pieces of meat. I brought a mirror into the room and made an esss for Mary and asked her to observe, in the mirror, what parts of my mouth were involved in making that sound. She discovered that the esss was produced when air was released between the tip of the tongue and the roof of the mouth just above the teeth. Then I had Mary look in the mirror and think...just think at first, and then methodically and without making a sound, put the tip of her tongue just above the tooth line against the roof of her mouth. Then I asked her to let her tongue relax right where it was and gently exhale through her mouth. And out came the first esss Mary ever made!

After intuition helped us to identify the cause and the remedy of the impediment, Mary and I invented a series of repetitive exercises which isolated and trained her muscles to remember what to do. It was a real victory for both of us when she sang "Tu Lo Sai" flawlessly in her voice class.

Intuition and repetition, no matter how the coin lands, you win every time.

No comments: