It’s All About Communication (In our teaching and our everyday lives)

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Communication. It is all about how we communicate, in life and in our teaching and conducting. Take it from me, someone who used to constantly struggle with communication skills, in both my personal and professional lives. (I am still proud of my epic awkwardness in some social settings, and my occasionally weird moments talking to audiences. Really, the jokes are funny in my head.)

Obviously what we communicate is key, but how we communicate is equally as important. It is not rocket science, and we all know everything I am about to say, but we also all need reminders from time to time. These are in no particular order.

  • Be honest! – This goes without saying. Don’t tell your group how great they sound if it is not true. Believe me, they know how they sound, hopefully. That is not to say you shouldn’t stay positive, but you should also help them grow. Ask them how they played something. Get them to be their own critics. Open their ears up to how they really sound, and how they can improve. Do point out the positives, but don’t shy away from the areas that need work. Just think about how you approach what you say. “Trombones, you suck!” doesn’t really cut it, even if they do! If you know me you know I don’t believe in always making sure my ensemble is happy and it’s all rainbows and unicorns. I can be blunt, but I am always honest and only say things that will help my ensemble members become better. For those of you still hung up on ratings and trophies, there is nothing worse than the reaction to a bad rating when an ensemble has heard nothing but praise about their awesomeness…
  • Be invested in what you are saying. –  The biggest way we sabotage ourselves is in how we can look disinterested while we are trying to teach something important. Be invested in what you are saying. Be engaged in the conversation, musical or verbal, every moment. What you say matters to those on the receiving end of the conversation. Shouldn’t it also matter to you? Do we have to be happy and cheerful every day of our teaching lives? Nope! But when we are in front of our group or in front of  class we need to be totally dedicated to those moments. Leave the distractions behind and invest in the students or people right there in front of you. Who knows, it may even make your day a better one. Oh, and put the cell phone away! Sigh.
  • Communication is not all verbal. – Be careful that your body language matches what you are verbally communicating. This is a big one for conductors! Your gestures and body language might not match what you are trying to tell your group. The first place to focus on is the eyes. Are they telling the same story as what is being communicated in other ways? Are you making eye contact with who you are communicating with? What is the rest of your body saying? The best way to answer these question is by videotaping your rehearsal or your class. Seeing yourself in action from the classes perspective can be an eye-opening experience. Maybe the class seems bored because you seem bored. Maybe the ensemble isn’t playing quiet because your body language says “how loud can you play?”
  • Don’t over communicate – When to talk and when not to talk. Those of you who know me know that I am not a fan of the whole silent rehearsal thing. Does it work for some people, of course! But it isn’t me. (spoiler alert: My next blog will go in to more detail about why I am not a fan of this technique as well as other things) In a rehearsal we probably all could talk less, and we need to learn when to let mistakes go unfixed. We need to trust in our ensemble members to correct themselves some times. If they can’t correct a mistake on their own, there are deeper problems with how they are learning. But there are times when communication is vital. Some times we have to talk. In our studies we don’t always learn how to effectively communicate with our ensembles and classes. I have one simple rule (which I constantly break because I am a world-class rambler.) What you are about to say can be said in fewer words. For those students reading this, I hope all of your classroom and lab experiences are recorded for you. Don’t just watch your physical conducting. Listen to what you are saying, and is there a way to say it in fewer words? Is there a better way to say it? Simple rule: More talk means less creating music.
  • It is about the words you use – Look, watch, follow. Words that, in most cases, should disappear from our conducting vocabulary. You don’t want your ensemble to follow you. You want your ensemble to be with you. If they are following you, they will always be behind you and you will spend all of your energy dragging them along. You don’t want an ensemble that is reacting to you. You want an ensemble that is in the moment with you. Ensemble that just follow a conductor are not very musical and expressive ensembles. As for look and watch, do you really want your ensemble always looking at you? Look and watch both lean heavily towards the follow model. That isn’t to say your ensemble members should bury their heads in their music! I would much rather use the words listen and hear. Eyes are important for the notes on a page. Ears are important for the notes to become music. What does your ensemble sound like when you stop conducting them? Can they create music without you flailing your arms around like an idiot?
  • Don’t avoid the conversation – I am good at this one! Just be open and talk. Lack of communication is a bad thing. It will have a negative impact on just about every part of your life. Talk to your ensemble. Don’t avoid giving criticism when it is needed. If you have an ensemble member struggling, talk to them and help them. Our ensemble is needs to be a complete ensemble. We like to say our ensemble is only as good as our weakest player, but to me that just seems so cruel. “Hey third tuba kid, you are a horrible player, and that is why our ensemble isn’t good.” Seriously? Do you know what is holding this kid back? Find out.

At the end of the day there is only two rules about communication though. Number 1: Be authentic in your communication. For those of us tuba players who don’t know big words that translates to: BE YOU! Don’t create a conducting persona. Be you. If you feel completely dumb talking to audiences, embrace the dumbness. Number 2: Communicate! It is so easy to avoid talking. It is easier to not have difficult conversations. But in life this is a good way to end relationships and friendships, and in our ensembles it is the best way to lose ensemble members. Misunderstandings magnify when left unattended, in every aspect of our lives. If you work on being better at communicating in one aspect of your life, it will improve communication in every aspect of your life. Being a better person will help make you a better teacher and conductor. Being a better teacher and conductor will help make you a better person.

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