The Ideal Student, Good and Bad Horses.
Over the past several years I’ve done more and more teaching, which has been a deeply fulfilling part of my life. I’ve had such a wide-range of people walk through my door. All ages, all backgrounds. One of the things I enjoy most about teaching trumpet lessons is the one on one nature of the lesson itself. We are two people coming together to work on something. Each person brings their own personality, history, approach and goals to the lesson, and I try to treat each of them as their own unique experience. The more I hear them play, the more information I get and the better I can prescribe certain exercises and guide them towards improving their playing and technique. The more I talk to them and understand who they are as people, the better I can communicate with them and more clearly relate to their own individual outlook. Every student is different, and that’s what I love most about teaching.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on who I was as a student. I’m sure that changed at different points in my life. I began playing trumpet when I was 6 years old and I can tell you now that I didn’t care at all about the trumpet until I was 16 years old and heard a recording of Dizzy Gillespie. This experience totally opened my mind to what this instrument could do. So from 6 to 16 I was probably a fairly bad student, in that I simply didn’t care or practice much.
After I finished my undergraduate degree in Music, and had put so much time and energy into music, I moved to New York City to study with Laurie Frink, who was widely considered the greatest trumpet instructor in the world. I desperately needed help on my technique, which was the reason I sought her out. Throughout my entire time working with her(2 years weekly, then once a month for several years, then eventually just once a year: 8 years total), I always thought I was her worst student. I never felt I was someone with natural talent or ability, but I was always willing to work as hard as possible and to practice with discipline every single day, whatever she told me. I was so singularly focused on the process, I really didn’t think at all about a social life or even what it was to have a natural balance to my life in general. For these reasons, I made a lot of progress in my playing under Laurie’s guidance. I still remember one October Laurie telling me to take the night off from practicing and to go to the Halloween parade in the village. Essentially she was telling me to go enjoy my life and that it was bigger than just trumpet. She never had to worry about me not practicing. Beyond our work together, I always got along really well with Laurie as a person and felt like we had a natural understanding and related easily(part of me feels like everyone she interacted felt this way.)
As a teacher now, it’s funny to think with my current view that I wasn’t actually her worst student.. I was probably one of her best, but it had nothing to do with my ability. I was supremely committed, downright obsessed with improvement and structured my entire life around it. I was disciplined, believed in her method and practiced everything she told me without any excuses. I was enthusiastic, motivated and eager to work. As I teacher, I now realize THESE are the traits of an ideal student. These are the students that you can do a lot with. These are the students that you really get excited to teach.
Several months ago I had a mother contact me about her son’s desire to learn the trumpet. His school’s band director wouldn’t let him play trumpet in school because he thought it was too difficult, so the boy was forced to play saxophone instead. The boy was so obsessed with the trumpet, he begged his mom for months to let him play. She eventually found me, we talked, got him a trumpet and he’s been studying with me since. He loves the trumpet, practices every day, he listens to great recordings every night and even writes poetry in his school’s english class about the horn. He has made more progress in the past 3 months than several other of my students have in a full year. He has no natural gifts that the others don’t have, he just loves the trumpet. Working with him is such a reminder of the importance of motivation. He is the ideal student and through that realization, I’ve come to see that I was the ideal student when I met Laurie. A teacher can do so much with a motivated, committed student, who has the right mentality. The ideal student isn’t the one to which things come easily. The ideal student is the one who is passionate and works hard.
I want to end this post with something I re-read recently from a favorite book of mine: “Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind” by Shunryu Suzuki
“In our old scriptures , it is said that there are 4 types of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. […] When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. [..] If you think the aim of zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst horse. When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.
When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. [..] Those who find great difficulty practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best horse.[..] One who thinks he is one of the worst husbands may be a good one if he is always trying to be a good husband with a single-hearted effort.”