A Teacher's Gift
A Philosophy of Teaching
A Talk by Ruth H. Barrus
Given at the Regional Convention of the American Guild of Organists held at Brigham Young University, April 30, 1971
Published in the Ensign April, 1972
What does a philosophy of teaching involve? Basically, I am sure that it involves caring, preparing, obeying, projecting and fulfilling. But how does one talk about one's own philosophy of teaching? This has concerned me greatly ever since Dr. Alexander Schreiner early this year asked me to deal with this subject. For a long time I strove to approach this problem objectively and intellectually, and I wandered through ideas as if in a dark cloud. Only when I concluded that this matter could not be satisfied except I approach it subjectively and spiritually did my ideas take any form. May I share a few of these ideas with you. They will be neither profound nor new. They will have strength only if these ideas find echo in your minds and hearts.
At a special dinner one evening I listened to a noted micro-biologist, Dr. Dale Moss, a native of Rexburg, Idaho and now at the University of Minnesota, who had just returned from five years in the orient searching out oil deposits, for he had discovered that a certain micro-organism existed in the soil only in areas where there was oil. He picked up a fork from the table, and, looking at us intently, he asked us, "Do you realize that only one-fifth of the people in the world eat with forks?" Incredulous, I thought, and glanced down at my own fork - - so common a utensil to me and so long taken for granted. I wondered how many more things I had taken for granted. Through an open door my eyes rested on a baby grand piano in the adjoining room. What per cent of the world's population enjoy such an instrument? I asked myself. My mind went even further - - How many organs are there in the world and what percent of the world's population have had the opportunity to play them. Suddenly I realized as never before that there were really few who have enjoyed such a privilege, and I asked myself how I who was born and reared in wilderness Idaho, one of ten children of a widowed mother, could be so blessed as to enjoy this privilege. Deeply I knew that my opportunities were the result of many generations of people who cared - - cared about the basic values of life. Who cared about God, about freedom, about education, about the good and beautiful things in life. Once, in trying to express my gratitude to my aged mother because she "cared" so much by providing rich opportunity for my development at great sacrifice, and that I felt helpless to ever be able to repay her, she smiled and replied, with astonishment in her voice, "Why don't you know, Ruth, how you repay - - you "care" as much and more for the next generation."
In trying to determine what truly is the teacher's gift, I would have to caption the word "care". A teacher is one who cares, not only for those who look to him for guidance and direction, but he cares also for what he has to give them. A teacher cares about truth! He is a searcher after truth. Sir Isaac Newton, the great 18th century scientist who discovered the universal law of gravitation, said: "If I have seen a little farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." The whole purpose of life is to enable man to advance and progress toward perfection - - a perfection that is achieved only through knowledge of and obedience to the laws that govern. All sincere study seeks to determine the laws that govern the natural relationships in life of things, concrete or abstract, whether these studies be related to any of the sciences, arts, religion, or life itself. The greater the knowledge we obtain, the greater regard we have for those laws of relationship, and the more extended our vision becomes, inspiring us to obedience and projection. Man does not have the power to repeal these laws. We only destroy ourselves in attempting to do so - - we cannot destroy the law. We only destroy ourselves in attempting to do so - - we cannot destroy the law. All significance and life verify the existence of governing law, and music is no exception. It behooves us all to climb on the shoulders of great men and learn from them the laws and the importance of obedience to laws.
When a great teacher speaks you can hear the echo of giants in his voice transmitting wisdom from many ages. He is not an authoritarian declaring self-innovated laws, but a channel through which truth can continue to new generations. The searcher for truth becomes a proclaimer of truth. Truth carries with is great responsibility - - it must be given away in order to deep it. We magnify it and ourselves as we share it with others.
It may appear to the young people here that I am talking more directly to your teachers. This is not the case. Specifically, everything I hope to say is directed toward you wonderful young people. I ask you pointedly: "Who is your finest teacher?" Several names may come to your mind, but I want you to focus on only one - - you! You are your finest teacher! You may pay hard-earned money to be able to take lessons from a highly reputable teacher, but 90% of what you learn depends upon you. The teacher supplies about 10% - - an important 10%, but only about 10%. He may give you a half your to an hour of instruction each week, but you must be the instructor the other many hours of the week. If your instruction is weak those hours, so will be your performance and your progress. The time spent with your teacher is provided for you only to find ways and means to better instruct yourself. May I refer to a scripture that admonishes us in this direction, and as you read this scripture follow Nephi's challenge to "liken it unto yourselves for profit and learning that you may have hope." (1 Nephi 18:23-24) This is the Lord's word to us as he instructs us in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 88 Verse78:
Teach Ye diligently and my grace shall attend you,
that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory,
in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel.
In all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God,
that are expedient for you to understand.
This scripture gives us the key as to "who is our teacher." "Teach ye . . . that you may be instructed," it challenges. You cannot learn, it says, unless you teach, and the best and most important person to commence teaching is yourself.
This scripture also points the direction of how we should teach. "Teach ye diligently", we are instructed, "And my grace shall attend you." The teacher's language is truly the language of the spirit, and if, through diligence, we may have the spirit of God in us, it is little to pay for such rare inspiration and direction. Diligence is a word with many over-tones that all have to be included for glorious fulfillment. To be diligent we must be obedient to wise counsel and truth, faithful in their execution, and consistent and enthusiastic in their repetition. At all times, diligence requires our complete involvement in an orderly pursuit of our goals. The reward of diligence, we are told, is knowledge, intelligence, victory and even glory.
Let us pursue further "how" we should teach ourselves and others. The Lord has made it quite clear that he has given us the "pattern in all things". His pattern of creation specifies that He "Created all things . . . spiritually before they were created naturally upon the face of the earth". (Moses 3:5). Perhaps this great creative process that the Lord speaks of goes far beyond our ability to understand, but there can be an important application in our lives. Let us substitute the word "naturally" for "physically". If we follow this pattern, before we create it physically, - - as on a keyboard with our hands or feet, - - or on paper with a pen or pencil - - we must create it "spiritually" first. How can this be done? Can we gather together in our minds all that we have been told, all that we have studied, all that we have learned through experience regarding certain principles? Can we gather all these things together and create an image (in our minds) in which we can see and hear the execution of those principles before we perform them physically? Can we relate, in our minds, this principle to that which has gone before and that which is to follow? If we can, we are in the process of "spiritual" creation. This is especially true if we have added relationship and vision - - but remember it has to be created within you before it is created physically. But there is still more! There is a spirit in man - - this I know and I am sure you know also. There is a spirit in great music. I have felt it and you have felt it. To reveal that spirit requires much more than execution; it requires understanding. Where do we get understanding?
This brings us to a final consideration of a teacher's gift. It raises the question, "What shall I teach?" As I ask this question, be sure you add "What shall I teach myself and others?" The answer is still in the scripture I quoted earlier. May I quote it again"
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you
that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory,
in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the Gospel,
in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God,
that are expedient for you to understand.
Theory, principles, doctrine, law - - these are what we should learn. The broad application of them in our music has already occupied many years of our lives. But I want to extend that broad application to include our lives. Our lives must be in harmony with these same important concepts if we are truly to understand. A few years ago a young student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was performing miserably for his teacher. He stopped the student and said, "I'll bet I know how your room looks this morning - - your bed is unmade, your clothes are on the floor, and litter is everywhere."
"How did you know that?" the student asked sheepishly.
"Because your music sounds just like your room looks" was the firm reply. "Go home, make your bed, clean up your room, and then perhaps you will be able to clean up some of these muddy passages and cloudy interpretations."
Not long ago a wife of a Nebraska minister was fulfilling her duty by visiting the sick in a small rural perish. Frequently she visited an elderly woman who was bed-ridden. One day she confided to the elderly invalid her great desire to paint. She had studied art in college but had not been able to practice it since she married.
"Why don't you paint now?" asked the invalid.
"Oh, I can't," replied the young woman. "I have no time. My parish duties completely involve my time and strength."
"Of course you can paint! And I will show you how," came the quick reply.
The young woman smiled tolerantly. How could this sick old woman show her how to paint.
"Now if you are really sure you want to paint, and if you are willing to do as I direct, you shall have your opportunity to paint," the old lady continued. "Are you willing?"
Reluctantly the young woman said, "Yes, I would do anything to get to paint, but you don't understand all I have to do."
"O yes I do, and I am one of your problems - - but let's not waste any time. Let's get started right now." She thought a moment and then asked, "What do you dislike to do most in your home?"
Surprised, the young woman hesitated, then spoke out vehemently: "Dishes! I dislike doing dishes more than anything else!"
"All right, go home, and tonight think through exactly how you do dishes. Time your movements, trace your steps, tally the total time you take to make these movements and take those steps. Then sit down and figure out how you can improve your method and cut down on the time you take. Do this each day and come back next week and report the result."
The young woman revealed the result the next week - - time for washing dishes had been cut from an hour to ten minutes - - no frustration and a clean orderly kitchen were the result.
"Now what do you dislike to do most?" was the next question.
"I guess right now I dislike to cook most," was the reply."All right," exclaimed the elderly woman, "We'll take a month for this project. First, make up your menus for a week, study your buying methods and preparation methods. Often you can prepare most of your three meals while you are preparing your breakfast. Study it through."
At the end of the month an enthusiastic young woman came to the bedside of this elderly woman. "I can turn out any meal you want - - Swedish, Mexican, Austrian, English, in a third of the time I used to. I have three hours a day now that I did not have before."
The challenge continued and through the encouragement of this fine old woman the muddy passages in the life of this young woman were cleaned up, and she now had time to paint. Through this same encouragement and method she attacked the theory, principles, doctrine and law that governed her art, and she eliminated her basic weaknesses there. Today her works are being displayed in important art shows throughout America.
What we really believe and what we really are will form the core of our creation. Our lives should reflect the light and knowledge we possess as well as our music. A harmonious blending of sincerity in life and sincerity in music will enable us to advance and progress toward perfection and understanding - - but it must be done with all our hearts.
The Lord has told us that no gift is acceptable to him unless it is given with all our heart. He knows that the blessing comes, not just from the act, but the change within us that comes from the complete involvement in the act. This is the key to a great teacher - - this is the teacher's gift: he is a searcher for truth, a proclaimer of truth, an example of truth, and he gives it with all his heart for he truly cares.
You are choice people and you have great opportunity for development. You have a hallowed calling on a sacred instrument. These are your gifts. Appreciate them, exercise them in all faith and diligence. Remember, you can keep them only if you give them, and give them with all your hearts!