Is Teaching an Art or a Science?
The thoughts in this piece were occasioned by a conversation where i was asked if I thought teaching more of an art rather than a science. I responded that the question was a false frame, and was asked to explain.
My explanation comes in part from my background and formal education in music.
I think what we are seeing in education is neither art nor science, but the attempt to turn education into an engineering problem. In engineering, it is of course important to have rigorous standards. In manufacturing the ideal of exactly the same interchangeable parts is an important component of mass production, which provides consistency, and may even save on cost.
But students are not, and should not be, widgets or other manufactured outputs. They are absolutely unique individuals, and should be respected as such, even as we try to assist them in growing and developing and learning how to learn. Please note that last phrase - learning how to learn - we thereby empower them to lifelong learning that does not depend upon a formal school/educational setting.
Is music composition an art or a science? Is performance of a pre-composed piece an art or a science? Is the improvisation one sees in jazz, which is part of fulfilling the continuo of many baroque works, which was originally what was done in the cadenza of a concerto, an art or a science?
The answer is, as far as I can tell, both and to a lesser degree neither. It is both because it is not an absolute dichotomy. If I compose and have in mind how the piece is going to sound, there are elements of science - harmony, acoustics, timbre, the range of instruments or of human voices - but by itself that does not a meaningful musical work create. I might create a work that technically follows the rules of strict counterpoint or sonata allegro format, which is performable by the instruments and/or singers for who it is written, but is absolutely boring. It is then equivalent of much of what we are seeing happen as a result of 'reform' in American education.
There is more.
When I play a piece of music previously composed, I have material with which to work: the printed music, with notes, dynamics, perhaps even fingering. I also have knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument. I could mechanically move from the sheet music to the sound production, which I suspect would be a boring performance for any listener. Or I can engage with the music, perhaps discovering something new each time I play it. In preparing to perform, I am likely to take apart the music, try different things, reflect (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps fully consciously) on the differing results. In a sense one could see the lesson, no matter how well defined, as the notes and the students as the instrument(s) being used - except this puts the students into perhaps too passive a role.
In improvisation, one has some idea - perhaps a theme, perhaps an outline of a musical idea - and works with that, making changes as one goes along. Each time one improvises on the theme the result is somewhat different, which makes it scary, even as it is potentially exciting.
Yet even these images are but partial descriptions of the process of classroom teaching.
There is another role in music, and it is that of conductor: there is pre-written music, there is an ensemble of instruments and/or voices, and the conductor is attempting to get all to work in common for a common purpose, an interpretation/performance that has a vision.