Just Enough Teaching

From Growing Without Schooling 2

Not long ago, an extremely intelligent and capable friend (Ed. note — now a brilliant student at law school), not at all daunted by most forms of learning, and a lover of music, told me that she wished she could read music, but that ever since she had studied music in school, the task had seemed hopelessly mysterious, terrifying, and impossible. I asked if she could think of any special part of it that seemed harder than the rest. She made a large gesture and said, “All of it. I just don’t understand anything about what those little dots mean on the page.” I asked if it was the rhythm or the pitch that seemed most mysterious. After some thought, she said the pitch. I then said (there was a piano handy), “If you like, I think I can show you in a few minutes how to find on that piano any given note.” She agreed. Within half an hour she was very slowly playing, by herself, a piece out of a beginning piano instruction book.

Five things made it possible for me to help her find out how to do this. 1) It was her idea, her interest; she wanted to do it. 2) I was at all times ready to stop if she wanted to. She knew that I would not, in my enthusiasm, push her into the confusion, panic, and shame into which eager or determined teachers so often push their students. 3) I accepted as legitimate and serious both her anxiety and her confusion. Even in the privacy of my own mind, I did not dismiss any of her fears or questions as silly. 4) I was ready to let her ask all the questions, to wait for her questions, and to let her use my answers as she wished. I did not test her understanding. I let her decide whether she understood or not, and if not, what question to use next. 5) I was not going to use her to prove what a gifted teacher I was. (Ed. note — I might once have done so). If she wants to explore written music further, that’s fine. If she wants to ask me for more help, that’s fine too — though even better if she can do it without my help. But if, having proved to herself that she can figure out what notes mean, she doesn’t want to do more of it—well, that’s fine too.— John Holt