How to Spot a Master Teacher: A Field Guide

homeYou should read this story. It’s called “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” and it’s by Jeremy Denk, who happens to be a world-class pianist, but those details don’t really matter.

What matters is that his story shines a bright, useful light into the role of the master teacher. Denk looks back over his lifetime and gives us what amounts to a greatest-hits album of insights that apply to all of us. (Bonus: here’s a great video of Denk talking about the story.)

For instance, here’s Denk quoting Mr. Leland, one of his first teachers:

“Practicing a passage is not just repetition but really concentrating and burning every detail into your nervous system.”

Later, Mr. Leland wrote this in Denk’s practice notebook:

“Welcome to the summer during which you will learn to hate me. We are going to do precision drills. Exercises in perfection of fingering, notes, and rhythm…. every slip means back to the beginning.”  That was the summer the music died [Denk writes]. Long, tedious lessons solely on scales, arpeggios, repeated notes, chords. But this misery proved a success.

For me, the best parts were the descriptions of Denk’s unfolding relationships with his teachers. He remembers them with a novelist’s eye, picking out the key attributes, the practical and emotional tools they used to help Denk grow his talent.

In fact, Denk’s teachers turn out to be a beautiful set of case studies for analyzing what qualities master teachers tend to possess. I’ll list a few here:

  • 1) Master teachers love detail. They worship precision. They relish the small, careful, everyday move.
  • 2) They devise spectacularly repetitive exercises to help develop that detail — and make those exercises seem not just worthwhile, but magical. As Denk writes, “Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that  removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address.”
  • 3) They spend 90 percent of their time directing students toward what is plainly obvious. They spend the other 10 percent igniting imagination as to what is possible.
  •  4) They walk a thin line between challenging and supporting. They destroy complacency without destroying confidence. This is tricky territory, and requires empathy and understanding on both sides — particularly when it comes to understanding the moment when it’s time to move on.
  • 5) They do not teach lessons; they teach how to work. As Denk writes, they “ennoble the art of practice.”  (Isn’t that a fantastic phrase?)

I also like how Denk shows what the master teachers are not; namely infallible superheroes. Master teachers are master teachers because they’re good learners, constantly reaching to build the ultimate skill: constructing the talents of others.