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  • Writer's pictureChloe Vieira

All eyes on me

We have a new friend at school: our very own school guitar! Ki is a ½ size Yamaha, with quite a nice sound for such a small guitar. My own journey with the guitar has been so profound and exciting lately, I decided it was worth the investment to be able to share that passion with the kids. I set up a sign-up sheet, and I call over one student at a time for a short guitar lesson while the other kids are engaged in their project work. At first only a couple of kids signed up, but now the sign-up sheet is full, and kids are anxiously awaiting their turn.

Over the last year or so, I have been experiencing a revolutionary shift in my relationship with the guitar. After feeling stuck in the “strum a few chords every once in a while” stage for maybe 10 years, I’ve finally found a repertoire of music and an approach to learning the guitar that is pulling me deeper and deeper, and profoundly expanding both my skills and my self-confidence. For the first time in my life, I feel like a guitarist, rather than just a guy who picks up a guitar every once in a while.

Much of this shift is a result of my studying the music and teaching of Derek Gripper. For the last ten years or so, Derek has been studying the music of West Africa, particularly the kora of Mali, and translating it to the guitar. By signing up as a patron on his Patreon account, I have access to many hundreds of hours of zoom lesson recordings, scores of his musical translations, and the opportunity to join in with live zoom lessons, which he conducts daily (shameless plug, I know, but it’s the least I could do for all he’s given me. Besides, he’s really worth checking out if you’re a guitarist, or would like to be one). Mostly I’ve been taking it very slowly, working through the lesson recordings one bar at a time, pausing the video to take a half hour to wrap my mind and fingers around 15 seconds of music.

What I love most about Derek’s teaching is his ability to break down incredibly complex music into totally manageable chunks that anyone could play, and slowly and patiently build the connections between those chunks until the whole piece emerges. I’ve learned from his teaching about the Montessori teaching principle of “no instruction”, which I hadn’t encountered before but absolutely love. The idea is that instead of telling students what to do, the teacher simply presents an example while the student watches, observes the student to see what they understood and what they missed, and then presents the example again so that the student can fill in any gaps in what they’ve noticed. As a teacher, it’s a powerful exercise in restraint, to watch a student make mistakes and carefully refrain from commenting on them. Ultimately, it’s immensely liberating, to relax into the knowing that the student will correct those mistakes when they are ready, given the space and time and the correct example to compare to. And, while they are making those mistakes, they are practicing and deepening all the things that they have gotten right already.

Today, I used this principle to help shift myself out of some of the teaching ruts I’ve been feeling stuck in lately, spending too much time nagging and telling people what to do, and ending up exhausted at the end of the day. I made myself a rule today: no telling anyone what to do (or not do). I broke it almost instantly, of course, but still, it was a good guideline. Instead of telling people what to do, I tried to watch what was going on and imagine how I could present the behavior that I wanted to see without giving instructions. Today, this mostly took the form of little mini skits, where I would say “all eyes on me” and then present a very brief one man play about what I wanted to see, with no explanation given.

For example, when we had finished putting down the sand floor of our martial arts arena, I wanted the kids to sit around the outside of it so I could demonstrate how to rake the floor nicely at the end of the day. Instead of saying something along the lines of “ok, everybody take a seat along the outside so I can show you something”, I simply called out “all eyes on me” and very deliberately stepped outside the circle and sat down. At first, nothing happened, then shortly afterward a kid or two understood what was happening and sat down. The others saw them and sat down also. But most of them sat within the circle, so I said again “all eyes on me”, stood up, stepped into the circle, and deliberately stepped out again before sitting down. It took a few rounds of this before they got it, but for the most part it did get the message across and get everybody seated in the right place, without me having to tell anyone to do anything. I think part of what makes it work is the mystery and the challenge of figuring out what it is that I’m trying to convey, the insatiable human desire to make meaning out of strange and unfamiliar experiences.

This method didn’t always feel effective, but it did force me to look past my annoyance, frustration, or discomfort with student’s behavior, and try to get clear on what it was that I wanted to see, rather than thinking in terms of “don’t do that”. Perhaps the most positive bit of internal feedback was the fact that I felt enlivened and inspired at the end of the day, rather than exhausted and irritated.

I’m curious to see where this method takes me. How do I “present” complex values and behaviors, such as how to respond with grace when somebody is doing something that bugs you, or how to work quietly and independently during story time while still listening to the story? It feels like an excellent invitation to use my theatre training to get creative rather than getting upset.

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