Saturday, January 23, 2010

Teaching and learning

I've been watching Pavarotti's masterclasses on Youtube, you know, because I totally am an opera singer. But what's fun is the comments. I swear, he must be the most controversial figure ever in opera ("He's awesome!"; "He has no musical ability"; "He can't do dramatic roles"; "He's a great lyrical singer", all of which goes over my head because I know precisely nothing about music). But there really is a great argument about who judges aesthetic quality and even how you teach professionals who already have talent and training. And while I know nothing about opera, I am interested in teaching, so I watched for that.

The 3-4 class is a baritone (who apparently had a great career), and he is -- I think-- almost rude to Pavarotti and (I'd say) refuses to take with respect what P is trying to say. It's really interesting, because you can see where he resists and the mental arguments he must be making to push away the advice ("P is a tenor... he doesn't even read music..."). At the end, P says, "We're not finished," and the baritone says, "Well, I am." I didn't get it at first, but then I watched it over and saw he really was fed up-- didn't want to hear anymore.

What's interesting is what Pavarotti is saying. There's one part that he says you must seduce the audience into listening, be very quiet so that they have to lean forward to listen, and then blast them with a louder voice. It's all about performance, not perfection, and the baritone is not hearing it. Of course, Pavarotti's English isn't good, and he's not really articulating what he means (except that wonderful expressive face of his!), so maybe the baritone didn't get it, or maybe he just doesn't think it's a worthwhile suggestion.

But anyway, what I get is-- as a trained and talent artist, you have to know yourself. A good student should be able to learn from anyone, including a child in the audience who says that you were too loud... everyone has something worthwhile to teach you (if, of course, they are speaking in good faith). It's your job as the student to figure out what that is and how to apply it, or if you can and should apply it (not all suggestions are equally useful). BUT... you should also know yourself well enough to know if coaching or teaching or critiquing will help you or not. Some artists and writers really don't benefit from outside interference in their craft. Suggestions bring up their defenses or confuse them or make them doubt themselves. But that's not necessarily the fault of the teacher or of the act of teaching. We're not all the same, thank goodness, and we all need to figure out what helps us and what hurts us, and seek out the help and avoid the hurt.

This baritone apparently had a great career (at the Met even), and he didn't need this masterclass. (But who, of course, would turn down such an opportunity?) And maybe years later he looked back and remembered it as excruciatingly irrelevant, or maybe he watched the video and thought, "Oh, now I get what he was trying to say," or "I needed to learn that by myself, not have it taught to me," or even "He was just plain wrong, and I was right to be annoyed."

Not everyone needs to be "taught" to learn. I guess the trick is figuring out if you learn better by doing it yourself (as, interestingly, Pavarotti apparently did early), or by being taught by someone who knows more at that stage, or a combination of learning techniques. I think most people do learn a lot from being taught, but I wonder if the higher you get in your craft, the less you can be "taught" and the more you have to teach yourself?

Anyway, youtube is the greatest time-sink in history, and if I watch "masterclasses," at least I can tell myself it's educational. :)

Pavarotti masterclass 1 (there are others-- the one I mention is 3 and 4)

Here's my favorite Masterclass:
Brian Cox Masterclass with Theo
"The best drama student I ever had."


McLean Kendree said...

I especially agree about that you should be able to learn from everyone. I essentially draw heroes and monsters for a living, but my little brother who doesn't know anything about anatomy or color theory can tell me when something just doesn't look "cool", or if "that guy's skin looks kinda green".

"You don't have to be a master chef to tell the milk's gone bad," as I've heard it said.

Thanks for the great cross-disciplinary read!

Edittorrent said...

I did find it fascinating that (commenters said) Pavarotti couldn't read music! Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Teaching is like feeding birds. Birders can conduct research and take classes to find the best possible bird seed, present the seed in attractive feeders, make sure the feeders are in a safe environment and are continually refilled, and spend long hours planning how to improve the seed, but it’s still up to the birds to do the eating.

Jami Gold said...

Alicia said: It's your job as the student to figure out what [the person is trying to say] and how to apply it, or if you can and should apply it (not all suggestions are equally useful).

This applies perfectly to critiques we receive on our work from family, friends, or critique groups as well. Even if we disagree with what they're saying, we have to look deeper into why they're saying what they're saying. Fine, maybe their suggestions don't exactly apply, but maybe we can take the gist of their message and find some way to improve our work.

Thanks, Alicia,
Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Okay, now let's think about evil situations-- like the critique partner is undermining you, or the teacher is jealous of you-- and they give you hurtful "help".

This sounds like a good story. :)
But has anyone had that experience?

Jami Gold said...


No, I haven't had that experience, but knowing me, I'd never notice if I did. :) Even if someone told me something purposely destructive, I'd still look deeper at my work in some area and I'd still find something to improve (because I am a perfectionist and there's always something to improve! LOL!). So, without ever realizing they were trying to be hurtful, I'd improve my work and think "That must have been what was bugging them!"

Jami G.
(proving that a person can be detail-oriented and oblivious at the same time :) )

Riley Murphy said...

Wow, Alicia, you must be some kind of an evil genius or something. Hilarious! A great story on that line would be - the critique partner who purposely sabotages said work - only to have that writer sell something big - because of all the sabotage. ;) Wouldn’t that be a butt burner?


Riley Murphy said...

Here’s a true story (and I’ll never forget it, for as long as I live - hell, I’ll be talking about it when I’m lined-up at the pearly gates. That’s how pissed I am about it. And for the record, Mr. W - grade thirteen Canadian history - if you’re reading this (and yes, this was back in the day when they had thirteen grades and again, for the record? Canadian history could be summed up in about an hour! So it was a boring course) I was so right and you were so wrong!

*insert deep breath here*

I wrote a stunningly brilliant thesis on how Canada had no choice, but to agree to an open door policy and allow free trade with the United States. I had amazing quotes, information - personal, in-deep and analytical thoughts that were well represented and backed up. Because, let’s face it, two years later it happened, just like I said it would.

Did I get an A on this masterpiece of political ESP? Nope. The prick gave me a B- and his only comment was: This is a history course. If you’re looking for creative writing credits visit the English department. There was nothing else on the freaking paper. No redlines - no questions and there was no discussion about the grade afterward.

SO, when free trade was announced a couple of years later - I opened up my box of old papers and dug the sucker out. I blew off the dust and actually took the time to go back and visit my old high school. I walked into Mr W’s classroom and handed him that paper. He read the first few lines, the grade and his comment, and looked at me nonplused.

I said, “Well?” Because, you know, it was obvious that I was right and clearly I deserved better than a B- And, you know what? I realized he didn’t give a rat’s ass.

Of course, he eventually changed the grade, because I shamed him into (on principle *shrug* it didn’t matter to anyone but me at that point) but truthfully? I think this was the first time in my life, I understood that the people who teach you - can have their own agendas and if they don’t like what you have to say or even how you think - they can wield their limited and respective powers over you.

The evil thing about this particular time? Is that it was one of the topics offered for the paper. I mean, really, how was I supposed to know that he didn't want anyone to tackle the subject when he had on his list: Prove or disprove, eventual free trade with the United States? *Sigh* Well, now I’m old enough to know - that the guy was some kind of masochist or something - otherwise he’d have steered clear of topics he didn’t like, right?


Edittorrent said...

Well, you know, I really was going to write a murder mystery set in a critique group. The victim was the one who had hit it big... but it turns out she'd stolen the idea from someone else in the group.

Really, I still think it could be good!

Not a good judge, obviously. :) I also thought up a great plot about a writer falling in love with her (male) agent. No one thought that was a great idea either. Maybe if the agent was a murder victim...?

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, Alicia, that critique group idea could be tweaked. Let see, the victim had hit it big (because, as you say, she stole the idea from someone in the group) - but you need a twist, because otherwise - it goes without saying, that when the theft/plagiarism is discovered , the person who was stolen from - becomes the prime suspect, right? But, what if the purposeful sabotage concept is introduced? What then?

Say that there’s a third person in the group, who is well respected and has major clout in group discussions (could be that this third person was published - but unbeknownest to the group he doesn’t have another book in him) - so, he frequently uses this misplaced clout to feed bad info to the more talented writers amongst them - only the writer who is eventually stolen from - has figured this out and (secretly aligns with the victim so that she can have her work critiqued. You know, because she couldn't very well have the group look at this the way she was truly writing it) This would give the victim/stealer the opportunity to do so, undetected by the group (as they have no idea about this project and secret alignment outside of their group) - this way, you get an arms length distance between a victim and a valid motivation. To the regular observer - the person who was stolen from has good reason to kill or have the victim killed. But what if, the person with the clout finds out - from the person who was stolen from (who’s obviously jealous of the stealer for making it big from their idea) that the two of them knew all along about the purposeful sabotage and that’s why the bad information was turned into an advantage - in fact, in a fit of frustration the person who was stolen from suggests -to this third party - that the Victim/stealer is going to make that their platform when they do their publicity junkets - so, while the person who has been stolen from marks this down as an unfortunate kick in the ass by a colleague - the third person is the one who actually gets mad enough - after thinking about what kind of a fool he’ll look like - to commit the murder. That could work.

And hey, for your second idea for a story? The male agent aspect? Feel free to use Murray - but not the burka - as that has a special place in my heart.

Murphy :D

Dave Shaw said...

Uh, Murphy? You can breathe now. ;-)

Edittorrent said...

What about an agent or agent or crit partner sweetly undermining you by telling you you're great at something you are bad at? Or something that will detract from the story?

"Oh, your descriptions of the furniture are so lyrical, so vivid-- I feel like I'm right there sitting on that couch! Could you do more of that? Like the easy chair? I am dying to know what the upholstery is like."


"Oh, and that little kid who says all those cute things in that cute lisp? God, I love him. In fact, I think HE ought to be the main narrator!"

Alicia who would NEVER do this

Riley Murphy said...

Dave, are you sure?

And, Alicia? After that comment? I'm sooooo not sure about you anymore.


Jami Gold said...

Alicia said: "Oh, your descriptions of the furniture are so lyrical, so vivid-- I feel like I'm right there sitting on that couch! Could you do more of that?..."

LOL! Umm, if someone fell for that, they don't deserve to be published.

Jami G.

Leona said...

Yeah, Murphy, breathe! Of course you were right. Besides, look where you are now? You are a good writer and he is still stuck on middling because he won't let his personal feelings go when grading a paper. As a teacher it is so important.

My art professor, who does impressionistic work, is one of those great teachers who can honestly and fairly give you an opinion, no matter the style. I've seen everything from "gang style" to complete abstract to impressionis in his class, and he is able to find the strengths in everything, even if it isn't to his personal tastes. He is also abel to constructively critique to help students improve in their own style.

I think he is a rare combination of giving and teaching. In one on one discussions, you learn he has definitive personal tastes but he doesn't let that reflect on the grades he gives you.

I'm sure Alicia is just as fair when giving out her own grades :D I can say this because I'm not taking her class LOL

But teaching is a gift. I think everything said here about being the student and learning can also be said about teaching. Not everyone wants to learn what you have to teach - not everyone can.

Hey, I think I can write that story of the one who made it big on stolen ideas :D. I've learned all too well how cut throat a business writing can be.

Thankfully, I've also found what a great haven of learning and a wonderful community it can be. The latter is largely due to this site and those who hang here :)

Leona who is so busy trying to finish up all loose ends on stories ALMOST finished and gird her loins to edit her NaNoWriMo project. Plus look for work. The whole starving artist thing so doesn't work for her :D

PS Loving it in Washington