As my mother neared her death at the age of forty, in many ways she was the healthiest emotionally, mentally, and spiritually she had ever been. My memories from that time are of a serene woman, whose gaze and words felt as if they emanated from a deep reflecting pool of wisdom, from an equanimous contentment with existence. My entire psyche was imprinted by this vision of healing, and it influenced the presence I try to be for my students. It shaped my journey out of early trauma and my perspectives, priorities, choices, and relationships today. It shaped the music from my hands. It shaped my approach to teaching and learning, to mentorship, and to creativity.
My mother once told me: “Getting older is a humbling process: you realize how insignificant you are, in the cosmic scheme of things.” Basing performing arts teaching on the premise of one’s insignificance may seem counterintuitive in a discipline that trends towards aggrandizement. I have found, though, that this premise creates artists that are powerful, athletic, and autonomous. It liberates creativity from the ego, and helps individuals connect to feelings of purpose, satisfaction, and joy that are stable and resilient, rather than fragile and brittle. The notion of insignificance inevitably also intersects that of mortality, and so palliative care has emerged naturally as an interest and arena for my work as a performer. Guiding my students through challenging discussions about end-of-life, and how music can enrich our experience of it, is an enormous challenge but also a joyful one. This joy surfaces as students reconnect with the love that led them to choose music in the first place. They see performance anxiety recede as their attachment to external approval loosens amidst the realization that it cannot make them immortal. Joy also comes when students lose a little bit of their fear to think and talk about death, and to re-assess their immediate aspirations and preoccupations within a broader context of life purpose. They are reminded of the unconditional nature of their intrinsic value, which gives them courage to be more confident, experimental, and compassionate in their creative expression. In this environment of compassion, they become more sensitive to the impact of their choices on others. A musician who imbues their performances with these realizations sounds very different from one who does not, and I have found no one appreciates this difference more than a listener on their death bed.
Whatever the subject or performance context, my approach to instruction, mentorship, pedagogic design, and even admissions begins with a presumption of aptitude and competence in the student, aspects of which are often latent. Bringing latent skills forward requires adapting responsively to diverse learner profiles, which requires significant flexibility in assigning repertoire, structuring delivery, adopting technology, and a reliance on peer interaction and feedback. Such flexibility necessarily shifts the focus away from the instructor as the locus of knowledge and emphasizes active peer interaction and modelling at the centre of the learning experience, with “teaching” and “learning” in continual exchange.
I assert the importance of challenging perceptions which group students into sweeping classifications of “strong” or “weak,” especially when these terms become associated with particular programmes, ensembles, schools, or studios. All artists possess titrations of both strength and weakness in constant flux; to be fully understood, any individual moment in an artistic process needs to be contextualized as only one point on a larger arc of development. I attempt to help students attain a vision of this larger arc so that their inevitable victories and defeats can be seen with greater balance and objectivity. My students have often shared with me how their experiences of being subject to sweeping classifications, such as those experienced through auditions, juries, or mentors, generated powerful statements of validation (or invalidation) which they often internalized as conditional acceptance or self-judgement. In order to avoid the technical, emotional, and artistic obstructions that can arise as a result, I strive to develop the student’s autonomy in factually evaluating themselves against their own standards, rather than those established through external criteria or through measurement or comparison to others. For the same reason, I also structure many of my classes and activities in a way that ensures every individual has the experiences of being both leaders and followers.
What ultimately emerges in the environment I try to facilitate is a space in which students feel it is safe to be authentic. Authenticity is the foundation of diversity, innovation, and inspiration. Authenticity is what allows us to engage in confrontation without entering into conflict. Authenticity is at the epicentre of entrepreneurial thinking and action, especially where entrepreneurship is defined in terms of mobilized personal agency rather than commercial enterprise. Finally, finding authenticity helps resolve the oppressive dispassion my students often share as being at the core of some of their greatest mental health challenges.
The lifeblood of authenticity is developing intellectual and emotional flexibility, which allows deeply held core values, passions, and perspectives to surface as simple expressions of the self without dogma or artifice. With such flexibility we become able to draw on the many sociocultural, political, and economic forces which influence us without being confined by them. We become more able to see and embrace the differences in others because there is no threat or exclusion presented to us by them. In developing learning experiences which strive to engender flexibility in students, I draw great inspiration from many innovative researchers in the creative education community who describe flexibility in terms of “porosity.” They advocate for porosity between performers, composers, and technologists. They advocate for porous exchange between amateur, professional, and community music contexts as a foundation for building diversity. They advocate for porosity between the creative lives of students inside versus outside the school environment. They advocate for porosity in how we define and differentiate people who produce art, from people who participate in it, from organizations and institutions that contextualize it. In every aspect of my teaching I strive to incorporate these perspectives into the active experience of my students, because the experiences and artefacts which emerge as a result of adopting them feel palpably more true and real to all participants.
When my students begin to develop a feeling for what feels true and real to them, they become more grounded and better prepared to advocate for the importance and relevance of their work in the world. A recurring priority in my teaching is for my students realize the importance of also advocating for the power of art more broadly. No one is more qualified to do this advocacy work than they are, yet the task is often left to those with less direct knowledge and experience. The anxiety around employment opportunities is a constant theme of discussion with my students, and so I often position their self-advocacy work as one of the most critical skills needed to materialize employment. Students are often initially surprised by the notion of creating work rather than finding it, but they soon realize the feasibility of doing so through strategic relationship-building, identifying mentors, and building their ability to clearly and precisely write down their ideas. As a mentor, I have found there are few delights that quite match that of witnessing the elation of a student bursting with pride in themselves for a professional success they feel to have created out of thin air.
My work as a teacher is complete when my students become stronger than me, and feel ready to embrace their cosmic insignificance and join me as a colleague in pursuit of healing our world. Our insignificance is our freedom, and it is also our power. Their strength is their joy, and mine.
Toronto, January 2023