Monday, April 9, 2018

A Clarinet, A Typewriter and A Teacher

A Clarinet, A Typewriter and A Teacher

By Jim “Gymbeaux” Brown, April 9, 2018

You are probably wondering what these three things have in common, I’m so glad you asked.  I could have titled it “Educational Malpractice.”

My mother was musically inclined having played saxophone in an all girls band back in the 30s; my father, not so much.  When it came time for me to consider playing an instrument as a youngster having music in the family seemed a natural fit – we selected the clarinet.  I don’t remember how old I was when I first started but the best I can remember I was in elementary school. 

I took lessons and played through High School.  What did I learn playing the clarinet?  One of the first things the music teacher taught me was finger dexterity by requiring me to exercise all the fingers on BOTH hands by doing coordinating exercises.  What does that mean?  I would take a finger on my right hand (I was right handed) and I would move it in a certain motion and then replicate the motion on the corresponding finger on the left hand and match it while increasing the speed of the movements over time.  I would do this for all 10 fingers and that obviously included my thumbs.  It seemed like a dumb thing to do when you were only 9 or 10 years old but it did pay huge dividends later in life.

Playing the clarinet taught me several things. 

  • Coordination between my right hand and my left hand
  • Coordination between the music I saw on the page and the movement of the fingers on both hands
  • Timing
  • Being an integral member of a team working as one (once I joined the school band)
  • Believe it or not, the bigger picture of a completed project – playing a piece of music on my clarinet that others would be able to recognize and hopefully appreciate
  • Self satisfaction of learning to play a musical instrument

Of these skills, the hand coordination was probably the most important lesson learned that proved to be invaluable throughout my life and this is why.  During Junior High School, my mother insisted I take a typing course.  I played sports in school and I took a lot of criticism from my fellow teammates for taking a “typing course.”  Looking back, it was unquestionably the most valuable of any of the courses in all of my 14 years of formal education as it paid and continues to pay dividends for me.  I can’t say that for the rest of the courses I took in school most of which I can’t even remember what they were or even name more than 3 or 4.  I envy people who remember the names of their various teachers and then explain how much they have meant to them.  Me?  I can’t remember the name of just one such teacher.  I was either unlucky in regards to having memorable teachers or they were simply not very memorable; I believe the latter.

At the risk of immodesty, I became quite good on the clarinet (also played the Baritone Saxophone in the dance band and drums in the marching band).  Having dexterity using both hands on a clarinet worked FOR and AGAINST me in my typing class.  When I signed up for typing, I indicated on the class entry form that I had never typed before which I had not.  Extremely important to remember is that I had been playing the clarinet for several years using both of my hands and fingers to do so.  Compare that to my classmates who were also typing for the first time.  They were either Left or Right Handed but few if any ever used BOTH of their hands and fingers to do anything coordinated before in THEIR short lifetimes.

THE BAD: I barely passed the typing course; did so with a C if I remember correctly.  Why is that important?  It was an extremely valuable lesson that I did not appreciate until much much later in life.  If there were 30 students in my typing class, you would think that we all started to play on a level playing field.  But that was not true.  I was light years ahead of the rest of my class in my ability to use both hands and fingers in unison.  As for the rest of the class, not so much.  I picked up the typing technique very rapidly thus causing the teacher to believe that I had previous typing instruction and/or practice and graded me accordingly.  The lesson I later learned – how it is impossible to prove a negative? 

I could NOT prove to my teacher that I did not know how to type when I entered her class.  There was no way I could – thus the C grade.  I was furious but there was nothing I could do to sway her thinking.  In her mind, one size fit all and we all were suppose to be that one size or in this case, no typing skills and that was true.  But in regards to two hand coordination or eye to hand coordination; that was an entirely different story at least for me. 

THE GOOD:  Think about this, as a result of the typing class, I can type 250 words a minute without an error!  Think not?  Think again – I just did it for you!  Get it?  Also, typing became second nature to me.  I began on manual typewriters and progressed through to the computer terminals of today.  During my service in the Coast Guard I taught typing for about 3 years.

I learned another valuable lesson by taking clarinet lessons.  I could play almost any instrument “by ear.”  What that means is that I could pick up an instrument and with no instruction, I could play music I have heard before and play the instrument as if I had training to do so.  That is why I was able to play so many different instruments in the High School Band.  I remember playing at least 8. 

The problem with being able to play by ear was that I was also able to improvise the music that was on the sheet music by adding notes while playing what was on the paper.  My music teacher had a choice that I did not recognize or understand at the time.  He could either make me play what was on the sheet music as written or he could have encouraged me to “take off” and do “my thing” with the music.  He chose to stifle my creativity and made me stick to the sheet music.  As a result, I lost interest in taking lessons and eventually quit.

Some people may say the music teacher did the right thing.  Others would disagree.  It is easy to look back to see what should have been done.  In my case I should have been encouraged to be creative.  Living in New Orleans I have witnessed firsthand what it means to be musically creative.  You can see and hear it every day of the week in the French Quarter.  Yes it was important to learn how to play the music as it was written but it was just as important NOT to require someone to color ONLY within the lines.  There is a wonderful world outside the lines and teachers should recognize that some students should stay within the lines while others should be encouraged to explore.

Here is a more important question that even today goes unanswered.  If a teacher makes a statement on any subject you want to consider like music, English, math, science, art, or whatever, and then expect that EVERY student will accept what is taught in the same way, that teacher is doing a disservice to his or her students.  Let me explain.  I remember teachers making a statement and then my mind would literally take off.  I would mentally expand on what the teacher had just said; my mind was like a rainbow of ideas all related to what the teacher had put forth.  Then I would realize that 5 to 10 minutes had passed and I had not heard a word she had said after making that initial comment.  Do you think that may have affected my grades?  You know it did.

I later discovered that there is a Left Brain/Right Brain concept and it was explained to me that I grew up a Right Brain person in a Left Brain world.  That may sound abstract but it made perfect sense to me once explained.  People either have technical type minds (Left Brain) or they have creative type minds (Right Brain).  School systems back in the 1950s and 1960s and probably sill are designed as Left Brain Models meaning that it was the desire of the education system at the time that all of the students that graduated would be identical to each other based upon what was taught – same input – same output.  That was the objective and it worked great for Left Brain students; not so much for Right Brain students like me.  It turned out that I am living proof that a one-size-fits-all educational system is NOT the ideal system for everyone.  Just like not every student in my typing class started out equally, not every student in a math class started out equally yet the standard for teaching, at least back then, was that everyone was taught the same way.

In reality, I had a very difficult time staying focused on what was being taught in all of the courses I had taken.  This was for two reasons.  First it WAS the Left Brain/Right Brain thing but more importantly to me, it was that I had absolutely NO INTEREST in most of what was being taught.  I can say with certainty that of all the courses I took, the typing course benefited me the most.  I still use it today followed closely by what was then taught in English Class (as compared to what might be called a Writing Class today).  I can no longer dissect a sentence and graph it out as we were all taught.  Still I can recognize a good sentence as compared to a poorly written sentence.  If you want an example of the latter, just read almost any page of Sean Penn’s latest book (it is so bad I won’t even provide the title).

I attended two years of college where I supposedly majored in Marketing and Advertising.  In my two years I NEVER took ONE class on either of those two subjects.  The result is obvious to me now but not so much then.  I did not fit well into the 4 year college educational system where you HAD TO TAKE a lot of useless courses that you/I had absolutely no interest in.  Case in point – explain to me what taking a course in Geology had to do with Marketing and Advertising.  Answer – NOTHING!  I don’t remember all the courses I was required to take in College except for the Air Force ROTC classes.  The ROTC classes reinforced my belief that my future lie in a military career and that is what I ultimately did – a twenty year career in the U. S. Coast Guard and I LOVED IT!

I can’t be alone in my thinking.  I would challenge anyone who completed High School and then graduated College to make a list of the all courses they took where they can say without exception that THIS COURSE or THESE COURSES made them better at what they eventually did for a career. Your High School and/or College Degree may have enabled you to be hired but I seriously doubt you knew what to do on your first day on the job based solely on what you learned in High School and/or College.  Most people learn what they must do, ON THE JOB!

For anyone reading thus far, I would HIGHLY recommend you read Dr. Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education; Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.  As I read through this wonderful book I had the recurring thought – HE’S TALKING ABOUT ME!  But he is NOT talking only about me; he’s talking about everyone that ever attended formal education in the United States and probably the world.

To all the parents or would be parents of the world, I would also strongly recommend that you do research on the Left Brain/Right Brain concept and then make an effort to evaluate each of your children to determine how it may apply to them.  It will make a difference as to how they are able to learn.  Ideally you should want to match your child’s ability to learn to a school system that can adapt the way they teach to match.  Sadly that is much easier said than done.

Here is an excellent place to start that research:

This is my story and I’m sticking to it.  I can still type 250 words a minute without a mistake – see I just did it again.  I haven’t played the clarinet in over 50 years.

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