Arnold Schoenberg, preface to Harmonie lehre, 1911.

“I hope my pupils will commit themselves to search! Because they will know that one searches for the sake of searching. That finding, which is indeed the goal, can easily put an end to striving.”

Teaching is just as important as learning in my daily activities as a musician. Yet I have always been skeptical about specific outcomes of the teaching profession: sometimes, most students from a teacher’s studio end up sounding all too similar. Once, I was sitting in the audience enjoying some performances at a competition. I realized I could recognize a particular teacher’s strong influence or some of his/her performing traits simply by listening to the student’s playing. While this is not necessarily a negative feature, it is not a particularly interesting attribute. I have always been fond of the very different interpretations by the great pianists of the past since they sounded all so remarkably different from each other! This is not often the case today, but luckily for our ears, we do have some notable exceptions.

During the past several years, I have strived to cultivate a very peculiar aspect in my teaching–that of recognizing the individual differences of my students and celebrating them. In fact, all students have strengths, and my goal, I feel, is to assist them in identifying and building upon these. Yet, I must challenge their weakness by superimposing my ideas without ignoring their inner potential. This implies a slower pace of teaching and the potential for some errors. To be sure, I do not try to be infallible; on the contrary, I have said things that I later had to correct. Perhaps the fact that I acknowledged these mistakes set a student to think. Ultimately, I aim to help them develop a voice of their own.

Elisi's students, 2015

Obviously, the most meaningful learning occurs when students are motivated and interested. One way to achieve this goal is by giving students a voice in the learning process and encouraging them to find connections between the musical meaning of a given work and its relationships to some aspects of their own emotional lives, perhaps, or other works they are studying. As a result, students feel empowered and build their self-esteem and musical problem-solving skills in unique and unpredictable ways. When that happens, I feel happy and rewarded. I get a boost of mental energy because this reinforces what teaching ought to be: liberating the student from the very need that keeps her seeking help elsewhere but deep inside herself.

A good part of the learning process happens initially through musical imitation–a transfer from teacher to student. However, imitation of someone’s idea does not profoundly touch the student; the pupil only captures the surface of that idea and only shows his ability to reproduce specific phonological effects. Unless one explains the reasons, the student cannot retain specific ideas. Ultimately, these ideas must be deeply rooted in the student’s imagination, or they will not achieve the desired results. Fortunately, I realized that there are two ways to work around this. First, as time passes, students only remember their teacher’s suggestions in unique ways and not so precisely. That happens through natural processes occurring in their subconscious minds. Only in due time will these unique connections that emerge from subconscious activities occur. Secondly, questioning the students and bringing their attention to explore more attentively what they are trying to achieve while activating their enthusiasm and curiosity brings about the potential for quantum changes–the long-lasting ones. I wish to empower students to become teachers of themselves–a concept I learned from Mr. Fleisher as a student.

Former student Sangwoo Park performs Ravel’s La Valse