On being a percussion teacher

I am a percussion teacher.

When students, parents, and fellow teachers meet me for the first time, this is all I should have to say. But when most people talk to me, these are the characteristics they notice first:

I’m female.

I’m a minority.

I’m short.

Yes, the above traits are superficial. But, they are part of my everyday experience as a musician and a human. I definitely can’t escape them as a percussionist. My instrumental area is male-dominated. My heritage confuses people, since I’m a mixture of many ethnicities including Filipino, Spanish, Scottish, and Native American. And being 5’1” makes it a physical challenge to play some percussion instruments at times. It’s not bad to be any of these things. However, I’ve had my fair share of racist, sexist, and sizist remarks throughout my studies and musical career. They were hateful, they were hurtful, and they made painful scars on my soul. Instead of being discouraged and spiteful, these encounters only further drive me to become a better teacher and role model.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know that I’ve been coaching marching band for the past few weeks. Yet again, the aforementioned traits were my pink elephant in the room. As a teacher, these characteristics are sometimes the hardest things to overcome. It’s not easy.

There is always the initial awkwardness. Every new beginning is initially awkward. But I’ve always supposed it’s extra awkward for male students to have a female teacher. Thus far, every percussion group I have worked with is predominately white and male. While it shouldn’t be a problem, my presence inadvertently makes people rethink what they are saying and how they are saying it. Let’s just say the room always gets really quiet.

I always break that silence by trying to get to know my students. Every group I work with is different. Each has their own unique social dynamic. And each student within each group has his/her own personality and life story. When I first meet a group of students, I try to learn their names as quickly as possible. It’s the first way to break that awkward silence and give reassurance that I want to know them. The next way is getting to know their interests beyond their marching band music or All-State audition. This always comes with time, graphic T-shirts of a favorite anime or band, and the occasional enthusiastic conversation of current events.

Regardless of my gender, race, or height, my students always respond positively when they know I want them to achieve. If you expect great things of them, they will rise to that challenge. Despite our backgrounds, they came to rehearsal for a reason. It’s almost always because they like music and want to learn more about it. For anyone that has ever studied with me, they know I’m strict with technique and musicality. I bark out cue words for technique and stick height like a drill sergeant. But I also stress the reasons why. I explain first hand that correct technique will aid in the music making process and reduce injuries. In order to play faster, I’ll reframe students’ minds in order to think of a fast passage as a single phrase. I even will do quasi-interpretative dances to get my students to play more musically. We both end up working hard to make good music.

For me, one of the biggest ways to shoot down stereotypes is to simply play. I always do as much as I can to play in front of my students. Demonstrating a simple rudimental exercise, playing timpani with correct stroke, playing four mallet marimba, or even putting on a short recital becomes proof. My students can see and hear that I mean what I say and, most importantly, learn to respect me for my skills.

Unfortunately, I still have other challenges to face. Fact: I am short. It usually puts me at a height disadvantage in drumline rehearsals. Please understand, I have no problems carrying my own drum. I work out regularly in order to carry and play my instrument. However, when I’m teaching, I’ll often demonstrate on a student’s snare drum. And it’s always too tall for me. I almost always have to apologize for the unexpected rim shots. Usually, the poor student has to squat down to accommodate my height.

Also, being short always means a faculty member in the school will mistake me for a student. I do my best to introduce myself to the faculty once I start at a new school. Also, I ALWAYS wear my teacher badge. Dressing up in a nice pant suit does not mean that I will be recognized as a teacher.

Lastly, I admit that I am more sensitive to prejudices in the room. School and band always comes with its fair share of drama. And often times, those dramatic moments aren’t helped by perpetuated stereotypes. If I hear a gendered or racial remark, I sit my students down and talk through it. If there is tension between members of my section, we sit down and I help mediate the situation. If I realize there’s a simple breakdown in communication, my students and I discuss how to improve the situation. Personally, these moments can be pretty terrifying. However, it’s an opportunity for my students to learn and develop empathy. Most importantly, I can bring awareness to certain injustices and guide students to realize the weight of their actions and statements.

It’s important to note I have not found a formula for erasing prejudice and discrimination. Though, I realize that I can help in my own way. Just being there is the easiest way. But mentoring my students is perhaps the most powerful way. My goal is for students to learn to love music and continue that love for the rest of their lives. And in the process, I hope they become more aware and empathetic of the people around them.

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One thought on “On being a percussion teacher

  1. this is really inspirational! i have a whole laundry list of insecurities that bog me down, but i can’t imagine what it must be like to have these additional major obstacles that you deal with on a regular basis. thanks for being open about it, and keep the blogs coming!

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