Last weekend, I was invited to give an introductory talk at the Guitar Foundation of America’s national conference for Clare Callahan, before she was inducted into that organization’s hall of fame. Clare was my last guitar teacher, and seeing her again was a great honor and pleasure. But something she said in her acceptance speech has stuck with me ever since: "The reason we make music is joy. That's it: joy. And you can't buy joy – but you do have to pay for it."
I buy that statement. But it got me thinking: how on earth do we pay for joy? Let us assume for the moment that joy is the end goal of all our work. Either we do work simply because we enjoy it, or else we are doing work we do not enjoy to earn money – so that we can use it to do things we enjoy. Once we short-circuit the usual economic model by imagining joy as its unavoidable goal, it brings us right to the door of teaching – for teaching also thwarts our usual desire to classify it as an economy.
Of course, it's almost a joke among musicians: why do you teach? To make money. And we have all been there at one time or another. But such external motivation, even if believed in earnest, won't fuel us for long. Eventually, you will teach for the teaching's sake, or go mad. "For the teaching's sake" here refers to an experience you can only know directly. And yet the attempt to locate or quantify that experience, i.e. to depict teaching as an economy, results in the sorts of train wrecks we see in educational administration today: the attempt to pay teachers based on hourly labor, or student test results – things which may or may not have any correspondence the real quality of the teaching going on. To pretend that teaching is a traditional economy in this way is to draw causal connections where there are none.
Attempts to quantify the quality of teaching are always frustrated because in teaching, unlike a traditional economy, there is actually nothing being transacted. The common illusion is that information or skill is being transferred from teacher to student. But anyone who has ever taught knows that this is not exactly how it works. The student always teaches himself or herself. The teacher can serve as a catalyst for that explosion, but the real event begins and ends inside the student. As to what goes on inside the student: it is not the gaining of something external, something new. It is a recognition – as in a re-cognition or a re-knowing of something latent, intuited but forgotten. Something the teacher says, perhaps without meaning to, chimes against a need in the student which the teacher doesn’t even know exists. And with that little spark, insight is etched in the student's mind for life. It is this sacerdotal quality about teaching which seems to prevent it from being made sense of as a normal economy.
How do we know this? By examining our own direct experience, for we have all been students of something. Take a subject in which I have no interest or ability: chemistry. Once my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Wolverton (may he rest in peace), was trying to compare his days cracking code on a hill in a Vietnam jungle under heavy fire (while wearing nothing but his American flag shorts, which the company commander allowed because Wolverton was the only person who could crack the code by ear) to working a chemical equation. He said, "If you're in a bind, write down what you know." Today, I have forgotten all the chemistry; the periodic table might as well be North Vietnamese military code. But that rule – just write down what you know – has never failed me. It is always the way to get started, and it always delivers results.
Or I could cite the utterly lucid teaching of my conducting teacher in graduate school, Mark Gibson – whose teaching helped me realize (quite without his meaning to convey this) that it was time for me to leave school and start teaching. All the while, I thought I wanted to be a conductor, and he thought he was talking about score analysis and the quality of left-hand cues – yet something, quite apart from my listening or his speaking, was receiving it on a different level. Though I do not make my living as a conductor today, I nonetheless owe much of my professional life to his teaching.
These are only two examples among hundreds, and I imagine that anyone reading this could offer hundreds more of their own. Yet at the end of the day, no one can plan such silent transmissions, or even identify them as such until they are over – usually years later. (When we really see it, we see the futility of the attempt to “teach” teaching.)
Whether we can articulate it or not, there is an enormous power in the teaching relationship which is no more under the control of the teacher that it is that of the student – probably less so. It is an inconceivably forceful dynamo. Inside the teaching relationship, emotions and self-concepts are wildly magnified, for weal or woe. What would be a tiny disagreement in any other profession is amplified into a seething injury. A passing observation can become a life-altering sutra. Projections and inflations of every variety are mapped onto teachers (and sometimes students) who cannot possibly live up to them in their human frame.
There is a subtle field of psychological influence at work as soon as people consent to teach or be taught anything. The transmission of joy we can receive through teaching is a free gift. It can never be measured or paid for. The only question is whether or not we can share it. Perhaps teaching itself is the currency of joy my teacher was talking about. By that, I don't mean to imply that everyone should become a professional teacher – although anyone who has ever tried it knows that the only possible way to "repay " your own teachers is to offer your self (and by extension, everything your teachers have given you) to your students. Perhaps anything done with the openness of a teacher – the refusal to equate information or skill with any other kind of resource besides itself – is participating in this more subtle kind of transaction I have been calling teaching. The ultimately false distinction between teaching and learning vanishes at the point where people are merely sharing that thing – sometimes delightful, sometimes excruciating, but always joy.