Three years ago …

For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching for the Meridee Winters School of Music. The job offer came at a rough time for me. I was overwhelmed with the amount of band and freelance work in my life and wasn’t able to focus on truly honing my craft as a composer. My relationship with friends and family was frayed for various reasons. Emotionally, I was not in a great place. I was busy but far from thriving, and I felt like my career in music was stagnating. I was maintaining rather than moving forward.

I needed a change.

 

The school and methodology

The acceptance of the job offer started me down a path that’s helped me thrive not only in my solo music career but also as an educator. The school’s goal is to transform students into people who are free and able to express themselves creatively in whatever manner is meaningful to them. Furthermore, the school’s founder, Meridee Winters, has developed a methodology to help students learn by alternating between left brain and right brain approaches. She’s constantly researching pedagogical methodologies, new approaches to teaching, and breakthroughs on how the mind learns and using that knowledge to keep her methods up to date.

It’s pretty incredible stuff, and the results show.

Even the recitals are far from your stale, run-of-the-mill music recitals. There’s always a theme and a drive by families and teachers to put on a truly inspiring and entertaining experience rather than a long wait for a 3 minute performance followed by zoning out. It’s amazing how students talk to each other after the show, complimenting each other about their accomplishments. No one has to tell them to do it; it just happens, and most of the kids had only met each other for the first time at the show.

I’ve seen the methodology and approach completely change students’ outlook on music. Many of my students were kids who had taken traditional music lessons but were feeling bored. Parents came to the school hoping that they could make music fun for their kids. The loyalty of the families that work with the school really shows.

Which was why it was really difficult when I told them I wouldn’t be teaching there anymore.

 

Building relationships through understanding: my teaching approach

In my mind, teaching music has little to do with bestowing knowledge of chords, theory, scales, and “the proper repertoire.” Music lessons have everything to do with building a strong relationship between student and teacher. Do you remember what it’s like being a child? How misunderstood you felt by adults? How little grown-ups would listen to your wants and needs? By necessity there’s a clear line of separation between kids and adults, but it’s still an obstacle to overcome for any child.

Now imagine being a child and having access to an adult who’s there to listen to you for the entire time. It’s an adult who knows the same music you do, is savvy to the latest pop culture trends, watches the same movies, plays the same video games, empathizes with how busy a schedule can become. Now imagine having that access on a consistent, weekly basis.

Kids idolize. Adults envy.

I can’t teach discipline, hard work, passion, patience, collaboration, humor, kindness, or humility, but I can model it. I can also embrace the things that make every student unique, things that they may not know about themselves, things that maybe other adults ignore or discourage. Hyperactivity and a seeming inability to focus isn’t a flaw just the same as shyness and reservedness is not. They’re personality types. While a teacher in a classroom might not have the time to tailor lessons to each and every student, a private music teacher does.

For example, pretty much all of my hyperactive students were able to concentrate on playing when I engaged their bodies in lessons further. I was a restless kid (and still am judging by leg that shakes like a wagging puppy’s tail). What’s the worst feeling if you’re feeling hyper? Being forced to sit and stay quiet. Solution? Try playing the passage while standing up. On one foot. With your eyes closed. While jumping up and down. The body is engaged leaving the mind to be focused. Most kids can’t keep up that level of exertion for 45 minutes (most kids). Eventually, they’ll want to sit back down or try something else.

Too shy to even talk to the teacher let alone play music? Then don’t talk. Draw. Come-up with a story. Then we have material to work with. We can write a song to the story. I can be the one playing music. The student can direct me by showing me drawings for loud, quiet, fast, slow, happy, sad, simple, complicated. As they get more comfortable with me and open up, then we can work on making music together. As an intense introvert, I understand the feeling that the world predominantly seems to favor extroverted behavior which can be overwhelming. Music is my safe place, and it can be theirs too.

And for all of my students, I’m confident that music will remain a safe haven for them for the rest of their lives.

 

How I feel now

Yesterday, I woke up at 7am after a long day of working until 4:30am. I rolled into the recital hall at 9am and didn’t get back home until 10:30pm. I left exhausted and returned home completely energized. Each and every one of my students made me so proud. Save for a couple of exceptions, I’ve had them all since I began teaching through the school, so I got to see their musical growth over a long period of time. Sure, the three years went by quickly for me, but imagine the changes you go through from age 5 to 8. Or 7 through age 10. Or 13 to 16.

It doesn’t take much to make me cry. But I managed to stay strong for the kids and their families as I said my goodbyes to them. For many of my students, it’s their first time saying goodbye to a music teacher because of circumstance rather than a desire to quit. I was there to listen to them and to help them improve week after week through some pretty important developmental periods in their lives. (For perspective, they got to spend more one on one time with me than they have with their grandparents.) Some hugs from them felt like desperate pleas to not go away. Some parting looks were of sadness and confusion. Some goodbyes sounded more like questions than statements.

I had wonderful kids and wonderful families. It’s a two-way street. I spent every week with each and every family, heard about what was going on in their lives, things they’re excited about, things that they’re worried about, things they were curious about, and things they were frustrated about. It’s going to be a huge change to not have that in my life anymore. But I’m invested. I made it very clear that I’ll always be their teacher and that I’m always there to listen, answer questions, vent to, celebrate with, and talk to. Just because I’m moving on to a different phase in my life does not mean that communication ends upon my leaving. Not unless they want it to.

I’m excited about what my future holds. However, that excitement couldn’t have come without the support of my families. They helped me put out both of my full-length records, finance my touring, become a better workshop teacher, and cheer me on through all of my successes. They were happy for my for my engagement, enthusiastic when I got a puppy, frustrated when my car got destroyed, concerned when I was sick. It melted my heart when my families unanimously told me that while they’re sad to see me go, they’d suspected that I’d eventually move on to find more success.

They believe in me far more than I do myself.

 

What does the future hold?

To be perfectly honest, my future is a lot more vague than I thought it’d be. I know what I’d like to be doing. And I’m taking a leap of faith in hopes that my efforts will help me soar both personally and professionally. But it’s okay. The uncertainty is okay. Uncertainty isn’t a prison, it’s a blank canvas. It’s endless opportunities.

What is certain is that I have a wonderful family, wonderful friends, and a ton of wonderful people who support what I’m about and what I do.

As long as I have that to anchor me, I will thrive.