Performing v Teaching – The Great Divide

“I Want It All!!!”

Every since I can remember there’s always been a debate as to what musicians should do – perform or teach.

As a small child I recall being present when my father (possibly the finest musician I’ve ever met) was discussing with a couple of performer friends the merits of his teaching work, who were shaking their heads sadly. The implication was that he’d somehow sold out by going down the teaching route. He was still performing at that stage too!

I don’t remember this but apparently they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and (true to form) said I wanted it all!

The story goes like this. If you teach, you must be a second rate performer and if you perform you can’t ever be a decent teacher. Personally, I’ve always found it a vacuous argument – I do both and have done for many years. How well I do them is a matter of conjecture of course, but I have managed to balance the two – and I believe I am a better performer and music educator for the experience.

I know most of my students would tell you that they come to me because I am a performer and understand what it takes to be that kind of musician.

Recently, I had a phone call from a family member, who took the teaching route after graduating from a prestigious Australian music conservatorium. She teaches at an International School in South East Asia and many people I know would be jealous of her career and lifestyle. Nevertheless, a touring musician made a thoughtless remark at a concert she recently attended that amounted  to saying teaching was second rate compared to the exciting life of touring.

Touring is hard work. Yes, it’s exciting going to new places and playing to new audiences but very risky financially, physically very draining and (no matter what anyone says) can be grindingly dull when you’ve played so many dates you can’t recall what town you’re in anymore. These days I try and break up my performance schedule with a little time off, a day for relaxation and sleep and just playing tourist or catching up with friends or family. Fellow Tasmanian musicians The Sign are a good case in point. Currently touring in the US, they’re making it a road-trip holiday and family get together plus a very slick and professional music tour. Smart people!

In many respects I think teaching is the harder gig. One-to-one or groups, students hang on your every note and word, and they’re very happy to question if  you do anything that might contradict what you’re trying to get across! The process of educating for me is a different kind of performance, with it’s own specific skill set. And it must be said that just because someone is a brilliant live performer that does not follow that they will be an equally brilliant educator!

For me the old “those who can, do – those who can’t, teach” chestnut just doesn’t stack up – I love both and will continue to educate and perform to the very best of my ability.

If you want to read more, this 2007 blog from professional double bass player & educator Jason Heath is recommended.

I’ll finish by quoting US classical pianist Joshua Nemith;

The path to a narrow musical career is paved with good intentions. Today, more than ever, that path needs to widen rather than permanently branch into two unconnected avenues: educators who are not performers, and performers who are not educators.

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