(Written in June 2007.)

Dear All,

Kahlil Gribran, in his collection The Prophet, wrote, “Then said a teacher, “Speak to us of Teaching.” And he said: No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.”

Some months ago – almost on impulse – I bought a set of drums from a local music shop. Drumming is not altogether unfamiliar to me as I had played the side-drum in a marching band in my youth and I can still do a moderately respectable triplet, paradiddle and roll. To start off with I took some drumming lessons at the shop where I bought the drums and then had to take a break as I went away on business for a while. Upon my return I enrolled for a tryout lesson with another drumming instructor, at another music shop in the area.

Now, for those who believe that things in the Universe conspire to bring about the right conditions for us to learn what it is we are seeking, you should know that quite by chance, I had, a week before, picked up a copy of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom and was turning over in my mind two important teaching concepts that Freire proposes:

  • Firstly, effective teaching is not a process in which information is simply passed from one person to another, as though one were making a deposit in a bank; but teaching is a process in which the teacher and the learner explore the subject together. Moreover, they re-learn the subject matter together and in so doing they both extend their knowledge.
  • Secondly, it is crucial that the teacher has respect for what the learner already knows – even if the teacher thinks what the learner already knows, is wrong.

So the big day for my tryout lesson with the new instructor arrived. I had a head full of questions and CD’s in my hand so that I could play snippets of music I had researched with the expectation that he could show me how it was done. I had proved to myself as a dancing instructor that I knew how to pick up a rhythm so I was confident. I was ready to explore. I was ready to make music.

This is a drumstick. This is the 1/3 point. Hold it like this”, he said. You don’t understand I replied, demonstrating that I knew how to hold a drumstick by giving a short roll. “The wrist position must be like this, not that.” You don’t understand I said, demonstrating with a triplet that I changed wrist positions to get different effects. “Look at this (stave of music on line 1, page1 of book 1) and tap out the (first) pattern while counting one-two-one-two- .” You don’t understand I said ….. “Do you know what this is?” What, the written note on the stave? You don’t understand I repeated……

We were 4 minutes into the lesson when I got up, paid the instructor the full fare owed for a ½ hour lesson and left. Both of us, the instructor and the learner, were upset and bewildered. So, what went wrong? Certainly inexperience on both sides played a part. Certainly there was miscommunication and within a short time, a breakdown in the little communication that had taken place. Fortunately, having just read Freire’s book, I can be more specific about the reason for this unexpected turn of events.

The new instructor’s own learning process appeared to have been formed in what Freire calls a ‘banking system’ of education. The instructor’s experience as a learner seemed to leave him with the fixed idea that there is only one way to play a drum. “It is this way. (Implying that all else is failure)!” Possibly his conditioning in the ‘banking system’, more than anything else, prevented him from asking the questions that cried out to be asked. “What do you want to achieve? What do you already know? What ‘already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge’? How shall we explore your desire to learn together?” Most importantly, “How do we move past the rote and get you to make music as soon as possible?”

Subsequently I returned to my original, less formal, drumming teacher. Sure, I didn’t get many of the finer points as the other guy wanted to teach me, but I was able to make music. I looked forward to the lessons and my teacher listened patiently to what I wanted to ask him. He deciphered the rhythms from the CD’s I would bring to class and he would send me home to try them out. Perhaps he was amused at my trying to take on things that were too ambitious, but he never said so. I know that I will never learn to read music properly but in my mind I was making progress and was convinced that one day I would be able to “jam” with my son Giles as we would pick our way through some of our favourite melodies.

For those who believe that things in the Universe conspire to bring about the right conditions for us to learn what it is we are seeking, let me say that I am extremely grateful to the formal drumming instructor at the shop where I took only one very short lesson; even though that lesson was not about drumming at all. It was about teaching and learning. It was a perfect moment in which my grasp of what Paulo Freire had to say became so clear that I could see to the very bottom of it. It was a great 4-minute lesson.