5 things I learned from Dr. Biddlecombe

Posted by Ben Tieslau - 01 March, 2016

How-to-tie-a-bow-tieBy Ben Tieslau, Middle School Choral Director

Before I started teaching at Randolph, I was a grad student, and before I was a grad student, I was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University studying music education. During my junior year of undergrad, the director of the program, and the person largely responsible for overseeing my progression through the program, had suddenly and unexpectedly resigned his position. I first met Dr. Biddlecombe when he came to interview. Even then, I remember being impressed by his calm but confident demeanor when working with the ensemble during his teaching audition. But I had no idea how large a role Dr. Biddlecombe would play in my life.

Dr. Tucker Biddlecombe, Director of Choral Activities at Vanderbilt University, was one of the first people who encouraged me to learn to tie bow ties instead of wearing clip-ons. He was the first person to impress upon me the importance of “wearing the uniform,” (that is to say, the importance of having a consistent, professional appearance in front of students). Even my use of the word “terribly” as a positive adjective (as in, that was terribly good!) can be traced back to my time with him.

Dr. Biddlecombe has had an incalculable impact on my development as a teacher and an adult, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with him as he brings his touring choir to the Thurber Arts Center this Friday night.  In preparation for this concert, I wanted to reflect on five important lessons Dr. Biddlecombe taught me during my time at Vanderbilt:

1)    If you’re going to play the part of teacher, you need to look the part as well.

Appearance is a very superficial thing, but it says a lot about who you are and what you intend to do. Any time Dr. Biddlecombe had me teach in front of a group, he insisted that I look presentable. As a college student used to rolling out of bed and throwing on whatever athletic shorts and t shirt I could find. However, the more I dressed up, the more confident I felt about my teaching. I am a different person when I “wear the uniform.”

2)    Never say in 30 words something you could communicate with eight.

In the music world, we work in repetitions. Each repetition, or short run of a piece of repertoire, is then followed by some form of feedback. Anyone who has read an email I’ve written or spoken with me in person knows that I have a tendency to be verbose. However, when feedback to a group of students (particularly in the Middle School, where I teach) exceeds eight-10 words, two things happen:  Students stop listening and the class loses momentum. Learning to be concise in my use of language has helped me to speed up the pace of my rehearsals and increase retention. I use this tactic with students as well – requiring a student to use a limited number of words to answer a question forces that student to focus his or her answer on the important details, and cuts down on rambling responses that take up class time and can cause a class to lose focus.

3)    There is no substitute for experience.

Any good teacher knows this. You can plan lessons for years, but until someone puts you in front of a group of students and lets you work, you won’t really know if you have what it takes. The greatest gift Dr. Biddlecombe gave me was the sheer amount of time he allowed (forced) me to spend in front of various groups, practicing my teaching. He always seemed to give me tasks just above my ability level, really letting me struggle before bailing me out. These experiences were hugely important in preparing me for my student teaching placements and my first position here at Randolph.

4)    Be intentional with your positive feedback.

All good teachers provide feedback to students on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the majority of feedback given, particularly in a music class, is negative: “Altos are missing pitches on page 6,” “Don’t sing so sharp, Sopranos,” or “The rhythm of measure 18 is not correct,” are all specific pieces of negative feedback. Positive feedback tends to be very nonspecific:  “Good job” or “Yes!” Providing specific positive feedback reinforces what students are doing well.  “The crescendo in measure 18 was superb!” or “Basses are doing a great job with their octave leap!” are much more effective examples of specific positive feedback.

5)    Self-tied bowties look WAY cooler than clip-on bowties.

Nothing looks cooler than pulling on one end of your bowtie and letting the untied ends flop down across your collar. This is particularly effective when others have their clip on ties loosely hanging around their neck.  It’s an old school skill, but one I’m glad I took the time to master.

Nowadays, I count Tucker Biddlecombe as a friend and mentor. I am undoubtedly a better teacher, singer, musician, and person for having known and worked with him. I consider myself lucky to have had him come into my life when he did – he gave me purpose and direction when I had none. I was thrilled when he contacted me about bringing Vanderbilt’s touring choir to Huntsville, and even more thrilled when he invited my Middle School ensembles to sing with Vanderbilt in the concert. I would like to personally invite all of you to our joint performance this Friday, March 4 in the Thurber Arts Center, at 7 p.m.  Cookie reception to follow.

Topics: art, Arts, bowties, choir, choir concert, college, Huntsville, mentors, professional development, teachers, the art of teaching, training, Vanderbilt University

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