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Ideas on Learning

Asking students “What is a good day?”

One of my very favorite writers and thinkers is Atul Gawande. He is also a surgeon and public health researcher.

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. Of course, many students will not be able to visualize or articulate what they want. The younger the student, the less clear it will be. The question may wind up being phrased differently. “What music do you like to play?” Or “How does music make you happy?” Or “What do you enjoy most about playing music?” And then, over time, work creatively with the student to help them articulate and reach that goal.

I grew up in a very vibrant musical community with every musical advantage one can imagine. The vast majority of the violin students that played with me, and both my siblings, no longer play music. It is not that they don't enjoy music or appreciate the opportunities we all experienced. It is simply that the vision our teachers had didn't ultimately match up with the visions we had.

My siblings, friends and I were never really asked along the way to consider the variety of ways we might want to enjoy music as adults. No one was asking the musical equivalent of “What is a good day?”


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