Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Japanese Pedagogy of Art

According to scholars of Japanese arts:

‘The teacher seldom identifies the error, but waits until the phrase is played correctly and then expresses approval’ (repetition of practice), and its ‘goal is to perform the piece exactly as the teacher has presented it’ (Trimillos 1989).

Throughout the process, verbal instruction and conceptual understanding are intentionally avoided as they may distract a whole-body grasp of artistry (Hare, 1998).

There is no artistic content for the performer to ‘grasp’ cognitively, but instead a surface aesthetic that ‘grasps’ or transforms the performer, shaping the artist into the form of the art itself’ (Keister 2004).

Yamaguchi Goro's students have written about his teaching style (see for details the edited book dedicated to Yamaguchi: ISBN-10: 4882933381). It was basically "teaching by non teaching." Here, I translate Mizuno Komei's memory of studying with Yamaguchi, which he posted on his website.

I have studied shakuhachi for 31 years since 1968 without any break. What's most gratifying to me was that I could study with Yamaguchi Goro sensei during this period of time.

During the 31 years, I had just one time in which Gamaguchi sensei made a complimentary remark on my progress, and two times he critiqued my playing. Otherwise, he normally said, "That's fine, that's all about it today." There was no feedback, whether my playing was good or bad, let alone any advice to my playing.

His mother told me these things: "Long time ago, the master teacher (Yamaguchi Shiro) got a student who was very serious about shakuhachi study. He memorized the music. The sheet music was put on the table for the teacher, not for him, and during the lesson, he kept starring at the teacher. He copied everything even when the teacher moved his eyebrow." Another time, she said, "One student complained that the teacher (Shiro) didn't teach anything while receiving the lesson fee. Artistry is not something you are taught to master but you steal from your teacher."

Surely, there is not much we can explain about music through language, as music expresses subtlety of human emotion. I believe that Goro-sensei also shared the same idea with Shiro-sensei, namely, you can only "steal" artistry from your teacher. Those who cannot understand it cannot understand it any way even with words, and those who can understand it can understand it without verbal explanation. Thus, either way, verbal explanation is unnecessary. I tried to be the latter by sensitizing my ability when I was taking lessons. When playing together with Goro-sensei, I tried to restrain my volume so that I could hear what he was trying to teach me. I am not sure even now if I could ever steal any of his artistry.
[This is a Japanese way to be modest.]

Teaching by non teaching is a part of the Japanese teaching style. I've come across many teachers like Yamaguchi Goro who are not explicit in words. Playing together is the dominant format of teaching. But then, one may question, does this work outside of Japan? Many shakuhachi teachers, especially non-Japanese teachers, have reported that they needed to change their teaching styles they naturally acquired in Japan in order to accommodate to the needs of students outside of Japan. I remember local students of Kumamoto prefecture, upon meeting North American shakuhachi students, repeated several times, "You have only studied shakuhachi for 4 years, and you are already so good. I envy you because our teacher...."

I can see the values of both sides.

1 comment:

  1. "You have only studied shakuhachi for 4 years, and you are already so good. I envy you because our teacher...."

    They may have meant it, but can you imagine the Japanese students saying anything but this? I've found that effusive compliments in Japan, especially when meeting a foreigner, are simply considered good manners and they may or may not be sincere. In other words, I can imagine that if those foreign students had sounded absolutely terrible, they still would have been greeted with applause and cries of "jouzuuu!"

    It took me a couple of years to realize that I was taking polite conversation in Japan to mean I really was good-looking, smart, handsome, intelligent, and fashionable.

    That said, I much, much prefer the teaching technique of sharing ideas, explanation, praise, and discussion. I simply need that kind of social interaction in order to progress.