Great Player/Teachers

By Mark Van Cleave
©2015 MVC

Recently, I was reminded of the sentiment in the trumpet playing community that “A great player doesn't make a great teacher and vice versa.”

This got me to thinking about many of the teachers that I have studied with. I have taken lessons with some GREAT PLAYERS (primarily know as great players first) as well as with some GREAT TEACHERS (primarily know as great teachers first). Both the “players” and “teachers” played the trumpet… some better than others, but they all had valuable things to say concerning how to play the trumpet. Not all of the trumpet teachers that I studied with were gems. But even with the worst teachers, I learned something… even if it was to NEVER take another lesson with them.

Some of the most valuable lessons that I ever had were not really lessons at all. They were more just casual trumpet hangs… Being in the same room and listening to someone play and just talking shop with them. Watching their trumpet wind-up… hearing the overtones in their sound LIVE. Being in the same room while a great player warms up or just practicing in the same room with another player can prove to be a GREAT LESSON while at the same time being an intangible learning experience.

Being a PLAYER or being a TEACHER are two quite different things… but they certainly are not mutually exclusive. You certainly can do both WELL! The BEST teachers I have known were ALL very advanced PLAYERS in their own right. Again, some better than others, but they ALL achieved a high level of expertise as a PLAYER before teaching others.

I have known some GREAT trumpet players that did not have a clue how they played the trumpet… or how to teach someone else to play the trumpet. Don’t think I am dissing these players… in fact, I am jealous of them and think that it is somehow genius to be able to perform at such a high level without the burden of knowing (and thus thinking about) how to play at the same time. The adage Analysis is Paralysis comes to mind.

I think that it all depends upon the nature of the person involved as to how they will best deal with wearing both hats as a teacher and performer at the same time. Some people (myself included) are wired in such a way that they need to KNOW how things work and then others do not need/want any of this information… they just DO. Both methods can work. Neither method is right or wrong or better or worse… it all depends on the results.  A good teacher will know which method will be best suited for each student and will teach in the most effective manner for each individual student.  A one size fits all ONLY approach is a lazy approach by the teacher.

In order to be a good teacher, you have to have a teachers heart. This is more important than just being a great player! You really must have the students’ best interest at heart. You must want the student to progress to the extent of THEIR potential… even if this means that they get better than you. Also, as a good/responsible teacher, you have to recognize when you have exhausted your limits as a teacher and when it is time to send your student to study with a new teacher that can take them to the next level.

The true quality of a teacher should be judged solely by the success of their students, and NOT by the position of the teacher. Having a position in a great orchestra or as a professor at a large university does not by itself say anything about the quality of their teaching ability. In fact, many colleges and universities hire their applied teachers because of their reputation as PLAYERS… not teachers. 

Many times, teachers are hired by universities based upon their perceived ability to recruit new students (make money for the school) because of their big name and professional playing resume rather than their ability to actually TEACH the students. There are also times when smaller colleges will have financial motivations to hire players in the local symphony orchestra to help split the costs of the symphony/applied teacher salaries by making the teaching position part of their orchestral position… which is won by a PLAYING (only) audition. This can result in these orchestral PLAYERS ending up HAVING to teach rather than wanting to. In these situations, students end up HAVING to study with these reluctant teachers in order to earn a degree… not good!

I think that you have to WANT to teach if you are going to have any chance at being good at it. I also believe that it is almost impossible to be a good teacher if you cannot play reasonably well yourself. I don’t mean that you have to be a top professional or anything like that… just that you should have achieved a reasonably high level of expertise as a player first. If the teacher cannot play well, you have to ask yourself “WHY?”. It is either because they don’t want to (they don’t really care about playing the trumpet well), or because their methods do not work. A well-motivated teacher will always teach themselves FIRST and thus be able to teach by example as well as by methodology. I would not want my kids studying with a teacher that either didn’t care enough to be good at it themselves, or that had no methodology. 

If you are a PLAYER that wants to teach… make sure that your heart is in the right place. If you are a not a player and want to teach… teach yourself FIRST! You can be a great teacher, no matter where you start, but you must understand that there is a BIG difference between being a just a PLAYER or a TEACHER. If you are just a PLAYER… fine! But if you are going to be a TEACHER, you have to be able to wear both hats well at the same time.



© TPO 1992-2015