Saturday, March 20, 2010

Look in the mirror. Are you a teacher or a performer?

Roberts, B. (2004). Who’s in the mirror? Issues Surrounding the Identity Construction of Music Educators. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education (3)2.

This article was based on a lecture given at Richland College, Dallas, Texas.

It opens with two versions of an introduction given about Roberts. The first focuses on his career as a music educator---where he teaches, publications. The second focuses on his career as a performer---where he studied, recently performed works, where he has performed. The latter he mentions because “most musicians tend to believe only other musicians about musical things” (p. 4). This sets the foundation for the main concern of the article, which is the process of a willing identification of students as music teachers.

He is particularly interested in “how [a student] convinces [oneself] and others…that [one] is a musician” (p. 3) and how you or I might come to convince ourselves that being a teacher is a desirable way to describe ourselves.

Role identity is therefore of primary interest. Executing acts as a musician or teacher is what defines one’s role as a musician or teacher. So, if I want to call myself a teacher, then I should teach. This label is one that he has found, through interviews with music education students, to be a difficult one to accept, because of a need to support the part of one’s identity that is a musician.

According to Roberts, the music school community plays a very important role in identification. To begin with, music students already feel bound together and separated from other university students because of their pursuit of musical studies. Roberts further identifies sub-groups within this community and looks specifically at music education majors and performance majors. Groupings are further reinforced by the fairly inflexible set of courses set by the institution. The result is a tight-knit group in which “differences between members are stressed [italics in text]” (p. 12). This usually leads to perceived, and perhaps exaggerated, differences in performing ability, such that performers are defined to be superior to those in other programs.

Difficulty arises when students with an interest in other areas of music maintain a desire to develop as performers. According to Roberts, “students report frequent examples of members of faculty treating those ‘non-serious’ students with disdain or worse” (p. 13).

Roberts then highlights the idea of “status points”, which are used by students to establish themselves as musicians within a hierarchy. To succeed, the “points” are gained by:
    a) attaining good marks in school
    b) going to a top-rated school
    c) being involved with classical music
    d) being a senior student, particularly in a performance program (in certain schools, seniors and/or those in performance are given priority in ensembles, for certain roles, etc.)
    e) playing a particular instrument
    f) studying with a particular applied music teacher
    g) involvement in the right type of ensemble (if an audition is required, more points!)
    h) being in a particular program (since performance programs provide more opportunity to perform, this is at the top)

The result is that being a music student is still equated with being a musician, and usually, this means being a performer. Of course, not everyone is as concerned with becoming a performer. For those in this situation, others impose the label, “non-serious musician” (p. 24).

For the music education student, being labeled a musician is continually sought. As a result, one’s music teacher identity becomes secondary, and sometimes, of little importance.

Upon entry into the teaching profession, music teachers are less able to identify with the teacher group as a whole. Roberts therefore concludes that the music identification process is “like a war, where the teaching self and the musician self battle it out for control over the person” (p. 38).

Thinking back to undergraduate auditions for music education and performance programs in various schools, I realize that I primarily thought of myself as a pianist who had many years of studio teaching experience. By the time I started my Music Education Degree, I had already taught for 10 years. I had not differentiated between the two supposedly separate identities of performer and teacher.

In fact, upon entering the program, I didn’t think that I was any less a pianist, until I started to get the impression that as a music education student, not everyone thought of me as equally capable. Despite being admitted to every program to which I had applied, I suppose being away from music studies (I completed a different degree before this) had already made me a bit self-conscious, because I started to wonder whether I could really play at all.

A particular classroom experience is still vivid…
The teacher asked for a sight-reading volunteer for a rather easy piece. Upon calling on a student, the teacher asked, “Are you in Performance?” Turned out the student was in Music Education. “Can I have someone in Performance?” was the next question.

With less time to practice as a result of course work and a demanding out-of-school job, I became more and more disappointed with my music-making. The hesitation to call myself a pianist began, aided by the exacerbated feeling that I was also becoming a non-musician in others’ eyes. Though I never hesitated to say that I was in Music Ed, I didn’t enjoying feeling compelled to choose a camp, so to speak. I was also starting to realize that expectations surrounding my playing were now lower (or at least that’s how it felt), though perhaps consistent with the short lesson time span. For someone that loved both to play and teach, the tension was not easily assuaged.

The influence of the music community, in my case, and apparently in the case of the many students interviewed by Roberts, is profound. I am still asked who I studied with, and reading through concert programs, apprenticeship under certain teachers is still an important part of bios. These big-name teachers are those who are themselves incredible performers, with a reputation for producing other incredible performers.

Interrogating the student teacher experience is rightfully seen by Roberts to be important, as teachers will likely propagate the same identification process in their students.

There is a positive side to all this, of course. I find that I am always mindful of why I choose to teach and why I choose to play. Not that this mindfulness allows me to define my identity in any simple way (I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to accurately label it. Maybe I don’t have to, except on a business card). But it does mean that when I teach, I am aware of the messages I might be instilling in my students.

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