MTNA Chicago National Conference: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The national conference in Chicago was the first MTNA conference I attended. I loved being in a city renowned for its architecture and full of wonderful restaurants. The best part of being at the conference for me was the resources that were available (I spend a lot of time developing and diversifying my resources so it saved me a lot of time and money to do it all there!) and the networking opportunities with other teachers and artists. It has been two months since I attended MTNA national conference in Chicago, but I finally had some time to go through my notes so here are some one line nuggets and gems I got from the sessions I attended at the conference.

  • You can tell the greatest artists by their rests. (Byron Janis)
  • You gotta be a singer (not a pianist): go listen to singers, their breath is inevitable (Byron Janis)
  • Practice less and play more (live your life). (Byron Janis) (*I think this only applies to people who practice 3 or more hours a day.)
  • Never be afraid to not accept a student. (Karen Thickstun)
  • Are we preparing our students for our past or their future? (Bonnie Barrett)
  • “Treat your art like business and business as an art form.” 
  • Be actively engaged in your own destiny. (Bonnie Barrett)
  • Put music where it normally isn’t. (Jeremy Siskind)
  • Be a teacher, mentor, support and advocate [for our students]. (Vanessa Cornett)
  • Remember the teacher-student relationship with sacred, private and intense. (Vanessa Cornett)
  • The importance of doing interdisciplinary teaching such as using imagery in music; advanced thinkers make connections. (Susan Osborn)
  • Present new concepts to the students in more than one way. (Emily Book McGee)
  • Do one thing at a time. Teach one thing at a time. (Nan Baker Richerson)
  • There is only one correction in the world; self-correction. (It means, if the student doesn’t understand, the correction is a foreign language–Thanks, Diane Hidy!)
  • Don’t work on the hardest thing [in the piece] the first, that happens to be the least important. (Diane Hidy)
  • If a student continuously plays wrong notes, ask, “Why is it happening?” (Diane Hidy)
  • You don’t have to play everything all the time. (Diane Hidy)

And now, to the bad and ugly. The biggest disappointment for me was how they decided to use the plenary session times. Of the three plenary sessions, two of them were Advanced Piano Master Class, on Sunday with John Perry and on Tuesday with Spencer Meyer. I went to the Advanced Piano Master Class by John Perry on Sunday and decided not to go to the other one. I guess I should’ve known better when the title is “Advanced Piano Master Class.” And I’m not sure what I was expecting either, but I just found the whole thing uninspiring and disturbing.

I really didn’t think that listening to top graduate piano students (there was one undergraduate), of all same ethnic background (They were all Koreans! How do I know? Because I’m Korean.), playing pieces that required incredible technical precision and musicality (and they all played well, although some played better than the others) being critiqued about things so intangible (which I did agree with John Perry) was the best use of the plenary session times when there were only three during the entire conference. The plenary session is when everyone is gathered in one room–like hundreds of (probably close to a thousand?) independent music teachers in one room.

Yes, it was interesting and it definitely reminded me of the years I was going to competitions and playing at my finest (in term of classical music) but also so inapplicable.

I think MTNA should use the plenary session to do something that is relevant and applicable to everyday music teachers. I’m talking about us who day in and day out work with “average students” or “challenging students.” Inspire us to inspire them. Tell us why what we do with them is important and significant even if they never play Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, rather than putting a show that is so lofty and irrelevant that while interesting, it is demoralizing to contemplate that we will (at least most of us) probably never have a chance to teach a student like that.

Diane Hidy talks about in one of her blogs (titled “The Joy of Jimmy”) about doing an UN-masterclass where teachers can bring their most challenging students. At the UN-masterclass, she noticed how much joy the teachers had in talking about working through the challenges of their students. She says that our satisfaction as a teacher comes from working through the unique problems of each student. Our joy come from teaching itself and seeing the desire to learn in each student. I can certainly identify with that; I love that moment when I can see the light turns on in their head (almost like a cartoon image!) and their face is filled with that knowingness and they exclaim, “Ahhhhh….. I get it.”