Those Who Can’t: Why the Best Teachers Aren’t Always “Talented”

By Miranda Wilson

There’s an old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Teachers love to hate this expression.

It’s obviously insultingly reductive, but sometimes I wonder if there’s something in it. Even if, like Shinichi Suzuki, you believe that talent is not inborn and that anyone can develop their ability, the fact remains that some people play music better than others. Even if you account for the quality of their teachers, instruments, and practice habits, there are people who simply pick up physical concepts more quickly than others.

You might say those people have a special kind of physical intelligence. The same kind that makes you physically coordinated, or good at sports.

The Problem With P.E. Teachers

I hated P.E. at school. I was slow, clumsy, and bad at every possible physical activity. I was always the last picked for teams. (What kind of monster came up with the idea of letting kids pick teams anyway?) Without a doubt, part of my ineptitude was because I wouldn’t practise any of the skills, and why would I? They brought me zero joy.

At the time I thought, well, I’m bad at P.E. and that’s that. Some people are good at sports and some people aren’t.

It didn’t occur to me until adult life that maybe the reason I was so bad was that I had absolutely no idea how to do the skills I was attempting. I was quite literally playing a game where no one would let me in on the rules.

I’m sure there are some wonderful, supportive, exciting, visionary P.E. teachers. Unfortunately, the ones I had were all the sort of people who were good at sports and had no patience with children who weren’t. No one ever taught me how to throw a ball, they just noticed I was bad at it. Of course I was bad at it: I didn’t know how to do it and no one ever explained it to me. No one ever taught me how to run properly, they just noticed I was slow.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An unsporty P.E. Teacher?!

What would have happened, I wonder, if I’d had a P.E. teacher who had been lanky, weak, knock-kneed, slow, and poorly coordinated, like me, but learned to overcome it and became an excellent sportsperson?

It might very well be like learning an instrument from a teacher who has struggled with hard techniques and spent years reflecting, thinking, and experimenting with ways to perform them.

Confession #1

When I was a student, I was never, not once, considered the best player in any studio. I sometimes felt quite resentful of students who had a kind of physical fluency that I lacked. Everything seemed so easy for them. When I asked one of them how she got so good at sautillé bowing, she just shrugged and said she “just did it.” I couldn’t replicate what she did, not even when I tried on her cello and bow, nor could she explain further how she learned the stroke. I felt frustrated and clueless and didn’t even know where to start.

Confession #2

It took a while, but one day, in my late 20s, I figured out how to do sautillé. This was after more than a decade of trying to practise it every day. I tried everything: different parts of the bow, different contact points, heavy arm weight, light arm weight, starting with spiccato, starting with détaché, a floppy wrist, a stiff wrist, a circular motion, a sideways motion, an up-and-down motion… And then, one day, it finally worked. And let me tell you, oh boy, having been through all this, I definitely know how to teach sautillé. I’ve taught it to dozens of people. I could probably teach it to the neighbours’ cat.

Some of my best teachers were top players, and I learned huge amounts from them. But I learned just as much from the ones who weren’t top players but had had to really think about what they were doing in every aspect of cello playing. And now that I’m a teacher, I have more sympathy and practical suggestions for the struggles of my students, because every weird technique problem you could name, I’ve had it too and I’ve relentlessly thought about it, experimented with it, and learned to explain it.

© Miranda Wilson, 2021. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

One thought on “Those Who Can’t: Why the Best Teachers Aren’t Always “Talented”

  1. Once I told my friend who sat on the admission board for the University education department that they should not base their admission solely on GPA. High achievers, sometimes, have a hard time not understanding why students just “don’t get it” or why students don’t want to do homework.

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