Nathan Thomas

march 2006

Lessons Learned

At all levels of education, student assessment seems to be growing as an issue.  Those of us in the college game thought we might not have to worry as much about assessment or in the same ways as our public schools, but that is changing.   

So it happened recently that this author was at a meeting that included discussion of outcome assessments for our graduates.  The question was, "How would we know what our students have learned?" and "Are we doing our job as teachers?"

As I thought about it, it seemed to me that as someone educated in the arts, most of the lessons that I use today would have left an empty page if I'd been asked questions in an assessment right after college.  Good teaching, I think, is like a time bomb. Some of the most important stuff goes off long after the encounter.   

So, this month, a few lessons.  I've been the beneficiary of a number of great teachers.  And there's no way my thin description can match their power in the classroom and in the years since.

One of my great theatre teachers was my first teacher, Lee Hicks. In my first college acting class, we worked on the one-act "The Typists."  I was the only male student in the class.  My first day of working on the play, he had me enter about 36 times. It was frustrating at the time. And I think I only realized later the wisdom of what he was asking me to do.  He wanted me to start a logical chain of action with my entrance.  I was a self-aggrandizing young pup.  Why didn't he marvel at the greatness of my talent? It was an effective lesson in many ways.

The other thing that Hicks did was a rehearsal technique I appreciate to this day.  William (Bill) Salyers spoke about this in his interview with me for this publication  q.v. (Note:  To add full disclosure, Salyers and I spent some of our undergraduate years together.)  Hicks would acknowledge what the actor had done, and then ask the actor to do something else.  What a miraculous concept!  Most high school and community theatre shows is about finding one good idea for a scene.  If you're lucky, you get one good idea.  The idea that you might have one good idea, but still need to be able to try something else.  Revolutionary!  But it taught me that there might be many ways to do anything.  And I strive to teach my students the same thing.

Also as an undergraduate, my piano teacher was Edith DiBartolo.  She taught me two very important things.  The first thing she taught me was to listen. Before I came to her studio, I don't know how much I heard what I played.  And if I accompanied someone else (a singer or instrumentalist), I had difficulty listening to the other musician.  She taught me how to really listen.  I wish I could repeat some of the lessons here for the readers.  But it was a process (given my hard head) took quite a while.  But it's something for which I'm extremely grateful. 

Likewise, Ms DiBartolo taught me to start a performance by knowing what I wanted that performance to be.  I had played a piece of music for her.  Ms. DiBartolo asked me, "What did you think of that?"  I replied that the performance wasn't what I wanted.  "Why not?" she asked.  I couldn't answer her.  She said to think of what I wanted the performance to be and create that. An incredibly simple lesson, but one that has given breath to much of what I've done in the years since.

Another great music teacher was Robert Dillon.  Dr. Dillon was a great man with a huge face and sad eyes that twinkled when he was happy or laughing.  He was a music theory teacher.  One day we were looking at piano sonata by Mozart.  He asked us to determine the function of a particular chord. We studied and focused as best we could. But we couldn't come up with a "right" answer.  The reason is that the chord wasn't a part of regular music theory practice.  So why did Mozart put it there?  Dr Dillon watched amused as we searched for an answer. We couldn't.  "Because it sounds good," Dr. Dillon said.  "Mozart didn't right music for easy music theory analysis." This may be the most important lesson about art I've ever learned.  Yes, there are technical concerns in mounting a show or making a performance of music. But the pleasure of the art should never be forgotten or diminished.   

I could go on and on about lessons in pedagogy I've gotten from master teachers like Anne Farber and Lisa Parker.  Lessons in Russian Theatre by artists like Burnet Hobgood, Arkady Katz, and Jan Skotnicki.  The hours of patient instruction by a variety of voice teachers.  And the wonderful things I've learned by working with a variety of great directors from the late Molly Risso to Bob Hughes to Arkady Katz. And, for people who know me, this list is incomplete due to my not wanting to flood an article solely with names.

Despite that, the basic lessons I learned in college are the fundamental lessons learning to play from Hicks, learning to listen from Ms. DiBartolo, and learning to remember that music can be written to sound good from Dr. Dillon.  Simple lessons, but amazingly useful and effective.


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About This Article


©2006 Nathan Thomas
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College.

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives




march 2006

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