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Life after graduate school: The importance of a mentor

Editor's note: 

Clavier Companion is committed to bringing you the best writing from teachers and artists who are established leaders in our field. The perspective of our future leaders remains important as well, and we want to provide emerging professionals with an opportunity to express their ideas and opinions. Development will appear in alternate issues and feature the ideas and reflections of a teacher or artist who is just beginning a professional career. The inclusion of these ideas will provide an important outlet for the leaders of tomorrow, and this perspective can help us all stay fresh, energized, and prepared for our own futures.

You did it. You graduated! For the past six to seven years of your life you dedicated your time to studying, earning good grades, and establishing professional and personal relationships to last a lifetime. You practiced countless hours, probably took hundreds of tests in one form or another, learned your craft, and had a lot of fun. Now you are ready to move forward with your life. Your goal over these years in school has been to become "better." You studied to be a better pianist, a better student, a better musician, better at theory, and, hopefully, a better teacher. You graduated; now the fun begins! You can put everything you learned in the classroom into practice. Your effective teaching will draw in the "right" kind of students (talented and hard-working), and your love of music theory will be felt and appreciated by each and every one of your students. You will be a leader in your field!

The problems of reality 

The above scenario would be great, but reality is quick to step in and say "Not so fast!" The past few years you have spent your professional career thinking, evaluating, and "practicing" for real life. You can hypothesize, reflect, theorize, and live life in the academic bubble all you want, but it is a bit more challenging than you thought. There are no textbook explanations for how you will make a living. You need to teach on an instrument like you used to practice on at the university, but nobody taught you how to acquire the money to purchase it. None of your classes covered how to handle the parent who hasn't paid, though each week contains a promise to bring the checkbook next time. And, what do you practice now that you are no longer preparing for a jury or recital? You are eager to apply everything you learned in school, but you are quickly learning that real life presents some surprising challenges.

For those of us who went into the private, independent teaching sector, there are many complex financial and human problems that, rest assured, will arise. The best thing you can do for yourself after graduation is to find and establish a relationship with a person to whom you look up to and respect. It's easy to have a mentor while you're in school because of accessibility, so have several! It may be more important, however, to have a mentor after you leave the comforts of college. Whether this is a mentor from an actual mentoring program or simply someone who in your mind holds the winning pieces, make it a priority to make and keep a connection to someone you look up to and respect; someone who lives a life you aspire to.

As noted in The Harvard Business Review, "Ever since the Greek poet Homer's "faithful and wise" Mentor first advised Odysseus, or Merlyn the young King Arthur, wise men have counseled, taught, coached, and sponsored the young. There have been mentors and protégés in philosophy, the arts and letters, the military, and even in professional sports."1  Mentoring speeds advancement in leadership and helps to fill gaps that you don't read about in your textbooks and musical scores.

Your mentor provides a built-in knowledge and experience base that you (and I) are still working to acquire. At this point in my life, I need something different from what I needed in school. It is healthy to learn and take what you can while still keeping your eyes and mind open for another mentor to come into your life. Someone who brings yet another perspective or area of expertise.

Finding a mentor

So where can you find these mentors? A mentor is not someone who necessarily wears an "I AM A MENTOR" t-shirt to the mall, nor is it someone with whom you always have a formal agreement. You are in search of and need someone to nurture and inspire you professionally as well as personally. Let us look at a couple of the obvious places: music teacher associations, perhaps an experienced teacher from your local association, or someone whom you met at NCKP or MTNA. You may be inspired by an author you met at a book club meeting, or possibly by a neighbor who has been successful at her chosen profession. It could be someone from a church group or an extended family member. What about your parents, or maybe even a grandparent? A mentor can be someone who has a completely different profession, but can still provide insight and information to inspire and provoke a "do better" attitude.

I can personally think of many outstanding mentors I have had in my life, none of whom signed a contract. With each of them not only did I observe problem-solving skills, mannerisms, fashion, and language, but I also asked questions about life, family, and personal habits. I remember my high school band director, Dennis Tischhauser, who transformed my self-image and in turn gave me hope for being "better." He saw me as an accomplished learner. He introduced me to my high school youth symphony conductor, Phil Scales. This man gave up his Saturdays August through May, and his family vacation in June for the greater good of hundreds of high school students who have been profoundly changed by the opportunities he provided.

If it were not for these first two mentors, I would not be writing this article today, and I most certainly would not have gone to college as a music major. I remember my first collegiate piano professor, Dr. Rick Andrews, who planted the notion of graduate school in my head. I am the only person on both sides of my immediate family who has a completed college degree, let alone a graduate diploma. Upon transferring from Augustana College to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Dr. Donald Patterson was the transformative teacher who taught me to love music and embrace my abilities. Because of my two collegiate piano instructors, I moved to Dallas in order to be trained by Mr. Alfred Mouledous. Every one of these mentors profoundly influenced me as a musician, but, more importantly, also as a person. Are these people still my mentors? Not actively, but they have a presence in my life and I have their contact information should I need it!

A multitude of mentors 

After college, the most important people in my life have been primarily financial and education mentors (I figured I had the music thing under control by now, or at least manageable) and experienced private teachers with an array of expertise. Through diverse activities and wonderful parents I interact with each week, I have a well-rounded set of mentors. Some of them may not even realize they are my mentors! I keep these people on speed dial and make a point to regularly speak about the 'mundane' (which should never be underestimated) day-to-day life experiences as well as the important situations and ideas that have given me strong emotional reactions. It is these people whose advice, knowledge, and friendship I seek and value. What I give them in return is a sense of hope and adventure, a way to stay sharp and actively engaging, and, most importantly, a friendship that they know will endure any business decision or endeavor that we discuss.

We all have students who ask an inordinate amount of questions (musical or otherwise), but they are not without purpose. I imagine in these lessons you also ask thoughtful, thought-provoking questions to challenge your students. These students are looking to you as one of their life mentors. Eric Booth dedicates chapter 14 of his book, The Music Teaching Artist's Bible to mentoring. "Good mentoring is more about asking great questions than telling great stories."2 A role model, a mentor, a teacher of life, call us what you will—we are influential in so many ways! We are teaching our students about attention to details, creative expression, and self-assessment, among other things. It would be naive to think that our students only come to learn about notes, rhythms, and new pieces. It would also be a disservice to not give them an emotional connection and safe place to think outside the box. So much of the fun stick-to-it-ness and learning that takes place in lessons is because our students love us first and foremost as members of their inner circle, as a (potential) life mentor. We as piano teachers deliver the human element that makes wonderful, memorable experiences we hope they can transfer into their math class, tae-kwon-do lessons, and quiet time with family for years to come.

Who in your life are you influenced by, and how? I would like to challenge each of you to identify the mentors in your lives and reflect on why these people have had a profound influence. Once you do that, reach out and (if possible) thank them for being in your life. For those of you freshly out of school, be sure you find a person who influences your learning and spend time with them. What makes them tick? How did they become successful? Finding a mentor can prove to be challenging, because the mentor has to want to be a part of your life. You can always read texts, articles, magazines, books, or dissertations and identify with a person that way, which of course provides many benefits, but lacks the human contact. The best mentors are the best listeners, those who ask the best questions. As Eric Booth says, "Mentoring is the performing art that creates the future of our art, one deep relationship at a time."3

1Roche, Gerald R. (1979). Much ado about mentors. The Harvard Business Review. ado-about-mentors/ar/1. Retrieved 2/1/2010.
2Booth, Eric. (2009). The music teaching artist's bible: Becoming a virtuoso educator. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 118.
3Ibid., p. 121.

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