Teaching is a Performing Art

The rows of forward-facing chairs fill quickly as the appointed hour of the recital approaches. Everyone there has purchased a season ticket for these recitals; for some, the next 90 minutes had cost more than $25.00. Some have come because of the performer's reputation, others because of the material that will be presented. The most optimistic hope to be inspired and instructed; the least optimistic hope not to be bored. With its varied expectations, the audience becomes quiet and is ready to be engaged by the performer who enters the room and advances to center stage.

If the preceding paragraph is read with a college classroom in mind, rather than a recital hall, the teacher-as-performer analogy becomes clear. At this point in the scenario the "performer" would begin not to play or sing but to speak, to impart information, insight and interpretation of a given body of knowledge in a manner that is lucid and artful. The most effective teachers prepare such a "recital" with care, and proceed as if the students were an audience to be engaged by this performance. The class meetings of such Master Teachers are similar to musical recitals in several ways:

Like a performer, the Master Teacher makes the material come alive each time it is presented. This may be the teacher's area of specialization and the twentieth time this lecture has been delivered, but it is the first time these students have heard it, and their interest must be captured. This same enthusiasm accompanies the teaching of material that is not the teacher's area of special interest, just as a performer presents less favorite works with energy, objectivity, and due respect.

No audience is expected to remain stationary and interested for two hours of the same style of presentation, so the Master Teacher plans a class period with variety and change of pace. A combination of teaching methods (lecturing, interactive questioning, score analysis, and listening to music being discussed) keeps a class involved and alert. An "intermission" during a long class period energizes a class physically and mentally and makes them more receptive to what follows.

Although most formal performances proceed as planned and without interruption, a classroom situation often forces the teacher to improvise in response to audience reaction. A question can force deviation from the printed "score," and a Master Teacher deals with this episode calmly and competently, relying on mastery of the body of knowledge and the ability to extemporize coherently, while steering the class back to the appropriate theme.

A seasoned performer sizes up the physical constraints of the room and adapts the performance accordingly. Some class sizes and settings may be more appropriate for grand opera than chamber music, and the careful teacher adjusts vocal projection and gestures to suit the room and the proximity of listeners. The teacher-as-performer learns to deal with the necessary "props" -- lectern, overhead projector, stereo equipment, chalkboard -- which can enhance or defeat the performance.

Concert programs are planned to come to a logical and satisfying conclusion, and a Master Teacher tries to bring the class period to an appropriate closure instead of trailing off as the clock indicates that the time is up. While the students may not leave whistling, they may leave with a well-timed question or revelation to ponder until the next class meeting, or with a sense of conclusion and resolution.

Teaching-as-performing places huge demands on the teacher. Few artists present from three to nine hours of recitals each week for fifteen weeks, with different material expected on each program. Unlike a professional performer, even a Master Teacher does not receive applause, flowers, or box office receipts at the end of a class period (although one can be assured that informal reviews are being circulated)! But given an enthusiasm for teaching, a love of the material being taught, and a respect for the institution that brings students to these "recitals," teachers may well be inspired to refine their craft to the level of a polished performance.

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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

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