Teaching Philosophy

Simply put, my approach to pedagogy can be exemplified by understanding the conflict between received wisdom and critical thinking. A successful faculty member at a high-level music school must be possessed of many things, chief among these are excellence in one’s field. But, one must also have the ability to organize, prioritize, plan, and communicate effectively in speech and print; and one must have highly developed critical thinking skills. Most other disciplines (e.g., English, History) can safely assume the latter skills to be contained within the discipline itself, but that assumption cannot be the default assumption made of a musician hired to teach solely on the basis of performance skills, no matter how brilliant. Many fine performers who are also teachers may never conceive of the need to construct a pedagogy that differs from how they were taught, or from what they think they currently do, in order to meet the needs of their students. So, they become caretakers of received wisdom.

The received wisdom approach, widely used by artist-teachers, tends to be solipsistic, unexamined, and often leaves students with the impression of understanding. Its emphasis on imitating a supposed “master” often does little to solve a student’s problems and simply addresses a symptom of the real problem. This type of guitar pedagogy is often—to borrow a medical term—iatrogenic pedagogy, that is, it creates more problems than it actually solves. Still today I must often help new students overcome the deleterious physical, psychological, and artistic effects of iatrogenic instruction.

What is needed is clear, accurate, and concise information presented to students in a way that will help them thrive. The creation of a body of knowledge that would satisfy these criteria occurred concurrently with a flourishing national performance career, for how can one be a truly effective teacher of high-level students if one is not in possession of high-level artistic experiences oneself? The result of this work was my Mastering Guitar Technique and Giuliani Revisited, both published in 1997. Mastering Guitar Technique explores in great detail the physical capabilities and limitations of our bodies—the instrument we use to play our instrument—and applies that information to the formation of a musically sensitive and physically responsive technique. This book was the first for the guitar to explore physiology and neurology, and their relationship to guitar study and technique, in any meaningful way. My books are difficult, but they have a following amongst thoughtful and serious guitarists.

The antidote to an approach rooted only in received wisdom is one that relies on critical thinking skills. In my work with my students we uncover the value and meaning of a thing, whether that thing is an exploration of using one’s body more efficiently, learning how to memorize a score so that one is secure when one walks out on stage, developing practice strategies best suited for them, developing a fluency with their material that is beyond the mere familiarity that results from mindless repetition, or exploring ways to shape a phrase to reveal better its emotional impact on the audience, as opposed to blind acceptance of the sum of conventional and unexamined views about guitar playing and music-making. This means guiding students through a way of overcoming their confirmation bias (i.e., their trying to confirm rules that they had made up or been taught about themselves and their work). Because I ask my students to radically change the way they view themselves and the means whereby they acquire their technical and artistic skills, it is essential that I develop healthy and trusting relationships with them in the studio.

'Mr. Berg's analysis is among the most thorough and professional to come my way.
—Classical Guitar Magazine'

My thoughts about teaching and the student-teacher relationship can quickly be inferred by reading “The Virtuoso Teacher” an article available on Leanpub. (This article is an updated version of “The Re-Imagination of Guitar Pedagogy” that appeared in Vol. XXVI, Nos. 3/4 of Soundboard, the Journal of the Guitar Foundation of America in 2000 and Volume 2, Nos. 1–3 of the Piano Pedagogy Forum in 1999.) This article can also be read online here or downloaded from Gumroad.

Once mastery of the technical and procedural exigencies of high-level guitar study are underway, I stress critical thinking applied to one’s musical approach to a piece as well: which interpretive ideas are truly creative and inspired and which are simply the fashion of the day masquerading as artistic intuition? How is one to tell the difference? And how is one to parse the often conflicting grammars of historical performance, compositional intention, and artistic intuition? See my discussion of performance here. In my teaching I argue for literacy and clear thinking in all their manifestations to help my students navigate the conflicts between critical thinking and received wisdom, whatever or whomever the source of the latter. Good teaching is much more than the stale master class model of “No, no‚ play it like this!” (read: “Play it like I do!”).

I believe in the value of a broad-based education in the humanities, arts, and sciences. This might seem odd coming from a performer and teacher of something as highly specialized as the presentation of concerts, but John Muir said it best: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The creative mind thrives on discovering the connections between things that are “hitched” to one another, especially when they’re not immediately apparent. The late Jacques Barzun, reflecting on the words of William James, tells us that “all knowledge may be put to two uses: it may serve an immediate and tangible purpose by guiding technical action; and it may serve more permanent, less visible ends by guiding thought and conduct at large. If we call the first the professional or vocational use, the second may be called the social or moral (or philosophical or civilizing) the term does not matter. One is know-how, the other is cultivation.”[1]

I want my students to emerge from their study with me as highly trained professionals, which involves a lot of technical know-how, but I also want them to have cultivated minds. Barzun thought both endeavors were worthy and practical, “but they require distinct uses of subject matter and of the mind, and they cannot be fused into one.”[2] I find that they can complement and enhance one another, they can exist side by side, and they can (Barzun contrary) be fused into one. W. H. Auden reminds us that “everybody in the teaching profession ought to read Mr. Barzun, if only to be able to argue with him.”[3] I approach the highly specialized work of training concert guitarists from a humanistic background and will take advantage of every cultivated idea, whether social, moral, philosophical, or civilizing, that western civilization has to offer, and my students have been better off for it.

  1. Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve: A Critique of Disenlightenment, (Wesleyan 1989), 111.
  2. Barzun, 111.
  3. Quoted in Edward Rothstein: “Jacques Barzun Dies at 104; Cultural Critic Saw the Sun Setting on the West,” New York Times, October 26, 2012, A30.

'I want my students to emerge from their study with me as highly trained professionals, which involves a lot of technical know-how, but I also want them to have cultivated minds.'

© 2023 Christopher Berg. All Rights Reserved. Contact Me.