One of my very favorite writers and thinkers is Atul Gawande. He is also a surgeon and public health researcher. I first discovered him when I got swept up in healthcare policy debates about 10 years ago.
In his book, Being Mortal, he describes how, early in his career, he missed an opportunity to easily give a dying woman what she most wanted — to take her grandchildren to Disneyland. In their efforts to prolong her life in her battle with cancer, he and his colleagues missed the chance to have a conversation with their patient about what she wanted out of her remaining months.
The medical treatment she got was, no doubt, the best anyone could hope for from some very skilled doctors. But the outcome was far from ideal.
Gawande encourages doctors, now, to ask their patients “What is a good day?” Sometimes, the answer for that question does not necessitate the skills and treatment that a doctor worked hard to learn. Sometimes in medicine, low-tech, simple care is the preferred form of medicine to give a patient the quality of life they desire.
The question he asks, “What is a good day?” is an important one for many professionals, including music teachers. The question may wind up being phrased differently. “What music would do you like to play?” Or “How does music make you happy?” Or “What do you enjoy most about playing music?” And then, work creatively with the student to help them reach that goal.
I had a conversation with a violin teacher I had not seen in years. I asked him how his work was going. He replied that, 30 years into his work, it has become effortless now because he has his systems in place. He gestured with one hand, palm up, “I start with a 6-year-old beginner” and then holds up his other hand, “and when they are done 10 years later, they are great violinists.”
As a young student, I had friends that went to teachers with effective systems. These teachers were celebrated for creating some very impressive students. But I also knew that the vast majority of the violin students that started with them, never completed the system. The outcomes that were available to them were not what they were interested in and they quit music.
Many of my friends missed an opportunity to be able to play music throughout their lives because no one asked them the musical equivalent of “What is a good day?”