Team teaching gives viola students at Aspen the wisdom of three very different advisors, performance experience and group support. Barbara L. Sand discovers how it works.
A chance conversation with a friend, Curt Carlson, executive vice-president of one of the US's major scientific research firms, about the role team-work plays in the success of this company, bears a startling resemblance to the philosophy behind a "team teaching" programme at the Aspen Music School in Colorado. The Aspen programme is for violists, and the basic idea is that the students work with a team of teachers, who also attend each other's classes, rather than with just one. Here, too, the collaborative approach seems to be working. While there are other shared factors, including mutual respect and a non-judgmental attitude, the vital common ingredient between these two apparently disparate worlds is the value of working as a group rather than individually. "A huge amount of time is spent teaching a few critically important principles about co-operation to our groups in every way you can think of," says Carlson. "Genuine co-operation requires three things: one is a shared strategic vision, the second is unique complementary skills and the third is a shared reward."
These words could easily have come from Heidi Castleman, one of the most respected viola teachers in the US, who has organized the team teaching approach at Aspen since 1993 and who in 1995 inaugurated a similar programme at the Juilliard School. At present, students study with a team of three at Aspen and two at Juilliard, and beyond the weekly private lesson, all the teachers are on hand for classes in performance, orchestral excerpts and technique. The only time they are conspicuously absent is at the student-run "play through" classes, which are deliberately designed as a sort of a safe heaven from any sort of pressure beyond that of their peers.
Victoria Chiang, one of Aspen's gang of three, describes their shared strategic vision: "All three of us have as a common ground, a similar understanding of the fundamentals of viola playing and compatible approach to teaching" she says. "At the same time, we each bring to the partnership different information, styles and areas of expertise." Chiang, who has both studied and taught with Castleman previously, is professor of viola at the Peabody institute and serves as the Aspen preogramme's coordinator, although all three team members share in its administration.
Castleman is professor of viola at the Cleveland Institute of Music and at Juilliard and has also taught at the Eastman School of Music, Rice University, the New England Conservatory, Purchase College of the State University of New York and the Philadelphia Musical Academy. She has been at the centre of the chamber music world, both as performer and teacher, all her life and her roster of students over the years includes many of the US's most outstanding chamber and orchestral violists. In addition, she is a founding trustee of the national service organization, Chamber Music America, and served as its president from 1983 to 1987.
The third member of the Aspen team is Ellen Rose, principal viola of the Dallas Symphony and a teacher who has helped many violists negotiate successfully the hurdles of getting through an audition. Rose runs the orchestral excerpt portion of the masterclasses and is an irrepressible inventor of ways to make things like practicing scales and arpeggios positively enjoyableñthrough group involvement, need one add.
The team approach might seem to have considerable potential for confusion and the fact that it works so well is testimony to the amount of planning put in by the teachers. Among the basic ground rules is the designation of a "lead" teacher who is responsible for each student, and an agreement not to change fingerings and bowings once a student has begun a piece with one of the other team members.
The personalities of the three are very different, which they welcome as a plus, since the idea of exposing the students to a variety of approaches is a large part of the point of the programme. Castleman, Chiang and Rose clearly respect each other, spark off each other's ideas and are completely committed to this way of teaching. They are a shining, textbook example of the requisite "unique complementary skills" advocated by Carlson.
As for "shared rewards" there seem to be many. There are, of course, also "shared goals" since both students and teachers are working to achieve a higher standard of performance. The Aspen students uniformly and enthusiastically reported that they felt their playing ability had improved in the course of the summer, and that the experience had stretched their musical understanding in a way that differed from the one-on-one teaching to which they were accustomed. Far from finding it disturbing to have three teachers, they appeared to relish being exposed to different viewpoints. One student in particular remarked that the realization that there was no single right way has also helped her to be more trusting of her own judgment. Most of these students are a bit older than those in the Juilliard team-teaching classes and are definitely geared to a professional career. Many are already out in the world as members of an orchestra or a chamber group.
Talking to Castleman, one gets a vivid understanding of what "shared rewards" mean for the teachers. "I had a selfish motivation in developing the programme," she laughs. "I adore teaching. You could wake me up at any hour of the day or night and I would choose what I am doing again. My only sadness throughout the years I have been teaching was the isolation from my peers. That was a prime motivating factor for me and my colleagues in each with whom she took private lessons when she was an undergraduate case. Team teaching gives one built-in support as well as another good mind, or two minds, with a different vantage point, assisting and thinking about the student. The three of us here in Aspen feel that every summer we learn more and more from each other. Of course, it's crucial to find the right people. It's like chamber music ñ it takes people who are willing to put others first. You have to feel that you benefit fully from having other people shine, and being given the space in which to flourish. You want other people to blossom."
Castleman's teachers include Dorothy DeLay, at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and she credits her with having served as a major source of inspiration. "A number of things had a profound impact on me from working with Miss DeLay," she says. "One is the quality of attention she gives people. She has this ability to look at someone and treasure what is special and build on that. Within one or two weeks of being with her, I knew that that's what I wanted to do with my life -- there was simply no question about it. The decision came about completely as a result of studying with her -- the combination of her incredible attention and the accessibility of her logical mind in breaking things down into do-able sequences. I know those things molded a lot of how I would be with my own students later.
When I came to Aspen, I was impressed by the potential of all these people coming together and also the extreme loneliness it is possible to have in something this large. I knew that what Miss DeLay was doing in terms of having students perform a lot was central to the reality of a musician's life. Performance is not a closet art. You don't go easily from the practice room to the stage without some linking experiences. It seemed to me that the task at hand lay in trying to construct opportunities for people to take on challenges that were achievable for them.
Even when I was teaching by myself at Eastman and had studio classes where the students performed for each other, I started to realize that it is probably useful to have an even safer environment in which to try out material. Here, we have an older student run the play-through class. Only students who play are present. I don't go. I think that having the option of a teacher figure is an important ingredient, as well as having only people who have just been in the same position responding. I think it helps people take the first leap. In that teacher-free class, they say what kind of feedback they want. They can ask everybody to leap up and cheer, they can ask people to sit on the floor and beam at them, as though they were kindergarten kids, they can ask for help with their bow arm -- whatever they want, so that they are in charge. I stay in close touch with the person who is running it; sometimes they need guidance in terms of how to direct the group."
Castleman introduced the idea of team teaching at Juilliard last year, where her associate is Misha Amory, violist of the Brentano Quartet -- a young ensemble whose career has taken off in the last few years. Amory studied with Castleman at age of 15, at which time he worked with her on the Bartok Viola Concerto -- a work which he performed with the Boston Symphony the following year. In addition to his prodigious musical gifts, he seems to be another natural-born teacher. "I was full of trepidation because of my lack of teaching experience and because I was worried about continuity," says Amory, of the initial weeks of team teaching with Castleman at Juilliard. "I was willing to take it on faith when Heidi told me how well it worked -- I believed what she said as I would have believed no one else. Of course, I wasn't completely blind because I knew her opinions and her way of expressing herself. Now I feel that the students have twice the teacher. One of us may perceive a specific problem or think of a piece that would be good for a particular student ñ and it becomes a commonly shared task. Some students thrive on team teaching and some do not. It doesn't work as well for the younger students and those who are in need of greater technical attention. We've only done it for a year and it's an ongoing process of discovery."
"The viola may lend itself particularly well to being studied in this manner. Since it is not, for the most part, a solo instrument, a much higher proportion of a violist's life is occupied with chamber or orchestral repertoire, as well as with being a member of a group. There are far fewer opportunities for young violists in terms of competitions, for example, than there are for violinists. In the team-teaching situation the students have to learn to turn towards the audience instead of away. "They get shy, says Castleman. "There is something out there that doesn't feel natural. A lot of it has to do with projection and how you balance your attention on what you are doing and being heard."
Castleman is married to David Klein, a physician and a past chairman of the board of Chamber Music America, and she uses a computer programme her husband designed for DeLay. At the click of a mouse, Castleman can take out all the lessons for any one of her students and get an overview for an entire semester; or type the letters BRA, for example, and get a list of all of Brahms' works to help choose something appropriate for a particular student. Castleman keeps a running diary in her computer after every lesson, partly for herself and partly to share with colleagues. In the summer, before the teaching team meets at Aspen, the three discuss the students and share the lesson plans by e-mail, fax or phone. Castleman "nearly commutes" between Cleveland and New York in the winter, and Amory says that she and he get their heads together by one of these means practically every day when she is not on the spot.
"Working as a part of a team is not for everybody," says Carlson at one point. "It does not do for authoritian types or control freaks, for example, but it's the best possible -- sometimes the only -- way to achieve your goals." His words have a familiar, pleasantly musical ring. I hope he and the team teachers and their students meet sometime -- I bet they would have a great time together.