Awhile ago I learned about the teaching pedagogy in the world of chess. A chess enthusiast/musician friend and I were discussing student/teacher relationships in music and he made an interesting analogy. The world of chess is one that has remained impervious to becoming a 21st century million dollar industry. While it is a respected and time-old game the lack of financial enterprise has created a consistent tradition of a teaching philosophy based off of points and levels. Each teacher can be rated in order of experience based off of a point system that denotes a player’s strength. In teaching chess it is recommended that a student studies with a teacher that is only one or two classes above them. Why? Because the student is more likely to learn from a teacher that can more closely relate to their students skill level. Certain challenges, struggles, and problems are more fresh in their mind. A teacher that is far more advanced would not be able to relate to their student and the student would become frustrated and not learn by playing with that teacher. My friend suggested that the same could be applied in music. It’s not always the best idea to have a virtuoso to be your teacher. It may be best to find a teacher that can relate to your current level.

This got me thinking about some of my own experiences. In grad school I had a teacher who was not able to relate to me in many ways. First off, he was playing Liszt and breaking piano strings at age 12. When I was 12 I was throwing apple and oranges at boys during free periods and singing Beatles show tunes in my school choir. When he was 22 he was winning international competitions. When I was 22 I was learning my first Beethoven sonata EVER (the reason being after quitting at age 10 I decided to go back into piano as a freshman in college. Every piece I was learning was my first time ever doing anything). Second, my teacher did not teach piano to children or beginners, only on a collegiate/graduate level. He was use to a certain skill set and knowledge base. He was constantly bewildered by my lack of knowledge in everything: performance practice, theory, repertoire, pedaling, technique etc. In one particularly bad lesson I finally broke down in tears and told him about my situation- that I had only been playing piano for 5 years and had no idea what he was talking about- to which he replied, “Oh thank God, I thought you just couldn’t put two and two together”.

My teacher and I ended up having a very good relationship. I learned invaluable insights into the artistic, aesthetic, and intellectual aspects of music. However, in terms of technique and the basic mechanics of learning I’ve come much farther in my own practice using yoga and by playing shorter and less demanding pieces. Playing more accessible repertoire has strengthened my technique because they were within my skill level and comprehension.

This philosophy of setting achievable benchmarks is great. How many of us can relate to shooting for perfection and having high goals and then being discouraged or disappointed by not reaching it right away? Like anything, music, yoga, work, relationships is an ongoing process. In order to reach that archetype or ideal self we have to reflect honestly on where we are now, where the most realistic next step is, and where we are headed.