Lean In, Lean Out

How much do you teach?

Usually, this question refers to the number of hours a private studio teacher or college or conservatory professor teaches per week, or to the number of students they have on their roster.

I’m pondering this question this week in regard to how much energy you invest in each lesson, how much control you exert, and whether you think it’s okay to lean in or lean out. (Thank you, Sheryl Sandberg, for this deliciously juicy and loaded metaphor. I almost typed meatophor. That’s how juicy it is.)

In regard to energy expended in lessons, I inevitably think of the beginners I’ve taught over the years. These lessons always seem to demand the most of me. With my intermediate and advanced students, I can say, “Here’s your sight reading. (I always start the lesson with sight reading. That’s a topic for another blog post.) Would you like some water? Take a look at it, and I’ll be right with you.” And I can go get them a drink, take a restroom break myself, come back in, take a deep breath, and begin the lesson.

With beginners, I have to guide them the moment they walk in the door:  Your case is upside down; turn it over before you open it. Put the flute together like this. Remember your posture; do you remember how to produce a sound? This is a quarter note.

The teaching of fundamentals does not allow much room for a teacher to lean out. When a teacher leans out, they give the student room to breathe (metaphorically, and I suspect physically as well) and make their own decisions. We can’t do this often with our less-experienced students. They need to be told what to do. We need to demonstrate for them. And there is simply not much decision-making to be made. The fingering for second-octave F is the fingering for second-octave F.

I still look for opportunities to lean out with these young students, though. Leaning out offers the student the chance to take responsibility for their own playing, beauty and warts and all: When you roll your head joint in and out, where do YOU think the best sound is? Which Bb fingering should you use here? Do you think “Hot Cross Buns” sounds better with connected notes or separated ones?

The last example above, (my apologies to everyone who reads this who will now be humming “Hot Cross Buns” for the rest of the day), is a perfect example of an opportunity for a lean in/lean out hybrid. Perhaps the student doesn’t know which articulation will make this fabulous tune sound better. The teacher can demonstrate Hot Cross Buns with legato articulation, and then staccato articulation, and maybe even a few of the horrible examples the beginning students give us (stopping the sound with tongue, “tut”; or gasping in-between each note), and help the student to decide. The student, at this point, is beginning to take ownership of her own playing.

Lean In/Lean Out works particularly well with intermediate students. As players become more accomplished, they begin to develop their own ideas as to how to interpret the musical codes in front of them. And this is a good thing. They are not always right. This is STILL a good thing. Really, I promise.

As the parent of a teen and a tween, I am experiencing the joys and challenges of living with and mentoring two young humans who have their own opinions on how the world should operate. I find myself doing quite a bit of tongue-biting and evaluating when I should and should not speak my mind. I have found that if I make direct edicts (leaning in), I am often met with rebellion and absolute snubbing – meaning that they shut down and refuse to discuss the issue with me. I ask my teen and tween many leading questions, hoping to guide them to make the right decisions most of the time. Sometimes, they will fail, but as a teacher, I’ve also seen the results of over-controlled, hyper-parenting, which produces students/humans/adults who either feel they are entitled to win all the time and never fail, or students who are timid and afraid to make their own choices, lest they fail.

As a colleague/mentor once said to me, “Too much control is a bad idea in parenting AND teaching.”

For example, once a student has learned what a typical phrase looks like (4 bars with an arc shape), they can begin to recognize the many departures from this standard set-up. So rather than dictate how the phrase should be played, I ask questions like: What is the most important note in this phrase? How will you make that apparent to the listener? Do you think that worked well? What can we do differently?

Sometimes the student will pick the wrong note to emphasize. Let them try it. I can’t recall a time the student didn’t realize they’d chosen the wrong note once they tried to execute the phrase and heard how ridiculous it sounded.

It’s ok to let your students fail, and it is healthy for them.

It’s important to begin to lean out with our intermediate students. Give them an opportunity to express themselves, even if it doesn’t always work out.

This is not to say that we don’t lean in sometimes:

You MUST have this memorized by 2 weeks from Tuesday.

You are clearly unprepared for this lesson. Let’s chat. (And I don’t mean we’ll be chatting about what happened on last week’s Downton Abbey. Actually, they probably don’t watch Downton Abbey. See? We definitely won’t be chatting about that.)

Blow!!! Just MOVE SOME AIR!!!!

The Lean In/Lean Out Hybrid is an art form and takes a bit of practice. You can gauge whether your levels of leaning one way or the other are correct by observing your students. It is a balance of giving them enough guidance so they are not lost, dazed, and confused. (One very specific sign of an over-taught studio is one in which the students simply do not project their sounds.) A well-taught student should be confident, curious, and willing to try new ideas and ask questions. Take the risk. Watch them fail, and then watch them fly.



About fluteromano

An active freelancer, private teacher, and university professor settles down to raise a few kids in a small town. For my professional bio, please see my studio website: www.charleneromano.musicteachershelper.com.

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