Have a Musician Evaluate the Music Teachers

A friend of mine has two careers. In the evenings and on weekends, she is a professional violinist. On weekdays, she teaches music in a public primary school. Recently, she told me a distressing story about how her performance as a teacher is being evaluated. Her supervisor, who is not a musician, criticized her for following time-tested methods for teaching children how to handle their instrument.

For her second-grade violin students, my friend begins each class by repeating the most important lessons for a child of that age to learn about the violin:

  • The correct way to handle the violin case.
  • The correct way to take the violin out of its case.
  • The correct way to hold the violin.
  • The correct way to hold the bow.

The primal importance of these lessons is obvious to any serious musician. You want to keep the child from destroying the instrument, and you want correct posture and technique to become second nature to the child. If children open the violin case wrong side up, they could end up destroying their instrument. Children who hold the instrument incorrectly will never learn to play well, and they could end up injuring themselves.
Second-graders need to learn these basic lessons through tiresome repetition. Yet to my friend’s supervisor, who is not a musician, all this harping on the subject of how to pick up the instrument seemed to be a waste of time. So my friend was told to stop “wasting time” on that part of the lesson. This put my friend in an awkward situation. To be a good violin teacher, she has to ignore the well-meant advice from her supervisor.

My friend is facing a problem that many people with specialized occupations have always faced. They are hired for their special expertise. Yet they are often managed by people who lack the ability to evaluate the quality of their work. Unfortunately, the managers themselves may be unaware that they lack this kind of judgment. This problem is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people who have poor skills in various social and intellectual domains also lack the ability to judge their level of skills in those domains. Their very lack of skill makes it impossible for them to notice their own mistakes. Thus, they end up with an awkward combination of poor judgment and overconfidence. The solution to this problem is to provide training in the skills that the person lacks. As their skills develop, their judgment improves, even as their self-confidence erodes.
My friend’s supervisor has been given an impossible task. Unless you are a trained musician, you simply cannot know enough about music and music pedagogy to judge the quality of a primary school’s music program. It would be like having someone with no medical training judge the quality of a training program for brain surgeons. Laymen simply lack the specialized knowledge and skills to make useful judgments. As a result, they are unlikely to be able to provide useful guidance and are likely to make suggestions that do more harm than good.
A conservatory-trained orchestra musician is an elite professional. Music pedagogy, which is the science and art of teaching music, is also a highly specialized field. If you want to get a reliable opinion about the quality of a music program, you need to seek out someone who has credentials in both fields: a professional musician who is highly respected as a music teacher.
I think that music is important, and music instruction is no less important. A school system’s music program should have several goals. One is to help a large proportion of the student body become competent amateur musicians. Another is to help even the nonmusicians develop an appreciation for classical music and jazz. Yet another is to serve as a farm team for the local conservatory, just as the school system’s athletic program serves as a farm team for collegiate and professional athletics. Therefore, it makes sense to have a music professor from the local conservatory, as opposed to someone who is not even a musician, design the school system’s music program and guide and evaluate the music teachers. Photo by Spicules

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