Twenty Questions: Curiosity and Your Private Studio

Next fall, I have committed to teaching a pedagogy class at Ball State. You would think that this task would be straightforward for someone who runs a website on the subject. I thought so, too, but then I started designing my curriculum.

As students, we expect our teachers to have the answers to our questions. The more I prepare my course materials, however, the more I have come to believe that we cannot become great teachers unless we ourselves ask great questions.

Consider the most seemingly innocent of topics: how to oil a valve. Now think of the questions that a student might ask. For instance:

  • Ought we to entirely remove the valve from its casing when we oil?
  • Do any of the “shortcut” oiling methods actually work (oil down the leadpipe, first valve slide, valve caps, etc.)?
  • What advantages, if any, result from using synthetic oils?
  • Different thicknesses of oil for different models of trumpet?
  • How often do valves stick as a result of the grime that tends to accumulate at the bottoms of valves, and how should we remove these deposits?
  • Is it dangerous to insert the valve upside down in its casing?
  • Should you rotate the valve in its casing before locking it in?
  • How should we clean the valve ports?
  • How often should we apply fresh oil?
  • If I own a brand new trumpet with a single habitually sticky valve, should I be concerned?

Do you know the answers to all of these questions? (Do I?) How many of those answers are what you prefer, as opposed to the answer that, say, a trumpet manufacturer might provide? Consider that these inquiries do not even begin to address the issues of springs, felts, metal versus plastic valve guides, grease that seeps into the valves from the slides, different tolerances of valves in different trumpets, valve alignment, dents within the valve casings, etc. Someone might ask whether any of this information relates directly to trumpet pedagogy, but I defy anyone who teaches first-year beginners to go through an entire academic year without ever receiving questions about valves. If this example represents only a fraction of the possible questions about even so mundane a topic as oiling, what about the bigger issues of embouchure, air, sequential presentation of assignments, and time management during a lesson?

My ideal student is curious. Curiosity betrays enthusiasm, and enthusiasm (hopefully) begets practice sessions. But I believe that great teachers are also curious. Our ability to stimulate our own curiosity is our lifeblood, guarding us against complacency, stereotyping, and burnout. Curiosity is also the impetus for our own musical growth, especially if we do not regularly take lessons ourselves. In fact, I am convinced that the simplest and most effective way to take my own teaching to the next level would be to write out, once a week, a list of questions related to my subject. Some of these questions I might answer in the form of blog posts or prescriptions for my students. Others might hang in the air for a while as I think them through. But all of them would keep me engaged with my work and on the lookout for new information.

Try it out this week. Pick a topic related to your area and write twenty questions that relate to it. If you’re feeling ambitious, shoot for thirty. You don’t have to answer them, you just have to ask them. Then wait to see what happens. The answers you uncover might surprise you.

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