The Over-Explaining Teacher

Monday mornings I go to tai chi class; I wish I could go ANY other day of the week, because I hate the Monday morning class. It’s taught by a person who over-explains everything before we actually get to doing it. By the time we get to actually practice the “grasp bird’s tail” move, our muscles have already cooled and stiffened from listening to him ramble. The ideal mode of instruction in the International Taoist Tai Chi Society that our teacher represents is this:

1. Demonstrate the move for the class 3 times.

2. Do the move together with the class 3 times.

3. Have the class do the move for you 3 times.

And it’s all without talking. In many cases, you can’t avoid explaining things, but the modus operandi for these types of classes is that you teach by demonstration, and the students learn by doing, which is of course really effective for physical activities like martial arts. But my instructor lets his BLAH BLAH BLAH get in the way of his demonstration, which wastes time and confuses people. And I hate it. But I grit my teeth and bear it, because it’s the only chance I get all week to have tai chi instruction of any kind, and since I’ve been doing tai chi for over 2 years now, I got enough of the basics where I won’t hurt myself if I follow this instructor.

That’s Monday morning. Now, Monday night rolls around, and it’s time for choir rehearsal. I get up in front of my singers, and they ask me questions, or I try to get them through a difficult passage, and I pride myself with being all clever about the colorful analogies I use to explain everything. I go BLAH BLAH BLAH, we sing, and then we all go home.

Around comes Wednesday, and I have a voice student with a question: “What are lip trills for?”

And as I’m halfway through my clever exposition on muscle relaxation and airflow, I have a sudden flash back to Monday morning. My student is nodding at me with understanding, and I say, “…so yes, it’s just to get the tension out; I know I tend to over-explain things sometimes.”

So now I’m weighing the benefits of explanation vs. demonstration in singing lessons and conducting. At what point does an explanation become a ramble? At what point do you have to open your mouth and explain something, even when no question has been asked?

It’s a tough question, because singing is not entirely visual. You can observe posture, breathing, and vowel shapes, to an extent. But there’s much more happening that the eye doesn’t see, and it takes real practice for a singer to get present to them. That’s why singing teachers and conductors invent so many colorful analogies, or go into long treatises on the structure of the larynx, to explain things.

But there has to be a point where we just stop and do it. You can read all the books, all the blogs, all the boards, and everything else. And you can get a lot of good explanations. But it is possible to get stuck in the explanation and forget to sing.

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2 thoughts on “The Over-Explaining Teacher

  1. Timothy Gay says:

    I find myself in this picture on both sides as well. One of my brothers over-analyzes everything and one explanation takes 7 minutes for something that only takes 1. However, I’ve also found myself in that exact same position rambling on and not noticing it until I decide to take a step back.

    I have my first private saxophone student tomorrow and after reading this, I’m thinking about how I can streamline my analogies to make it all straight-forward. What I’ve also had to realize is not everything is an easy description. Some things are just lengthy topic and the student really needs to deal with that. It’s not easy, we wish we didn’t have to drag on but there aren’t always alternatives. Regardless, you’ve given me something to think about and to work on and as always, I thank you!

    • Yes, this is one of the hardest skills in teaching music, I think. Probably the thing to do is really get to know your students as best you can, and be in the moment with them. Don’t be afraid to try things, and don’t be discouraged when your Plan A doesn’t work.

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