It didn’t surprise me a bit when I began to see several pictures of dogs on my NIU saxophone professor’s Facebook page. Stephen Duke was an amazing teacher, and like most amazing teachers one doesn’t realize how amazing they were until much later. Steve often made references to dogs in his teaching. He would make the analogy that playing lead alto in a section was like being a Border Collie. Always watching the flock and ready to nip at someone’s heels if necessary. Looking back it seems to me that he taught that way too.
Our lessons were not incredibly structured by routine. Of course there were assignments and juries and the like, but often the entire lesson would be taken up playing the first six or seven notes of a Ferling etude. Six. Or. Seven. NOTES. Steve would always question…can there be more sostenuto? Can your articulation be more natural? Can your timbre be more even? It was rare that he would tell me:
a) What I was doing was wrong.
b) Specifically HOW to correct something.
He would question. Question intent, question choices, question everything. He was “nipping at my heels.” He wouldn’t force a change but one would always happen. I think that by asking these questions in a non judgmental way, he was allowing me to find my way to where I needed to be. To work closely with someone like this every week between the ages of 17 and 21 was a very galvanizing experience. Steve was a guiding teacher, not a directive one. Do not misunderstand, he had incredibly high standards. I remember a quartet performance that we played for a “woodwind convocation” that didn’t go well. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t how we had been playing. He had us back in his studio and he made his disappointment clear. Again, not in a disparaging way, but in a way that led us to understand what was acceptable for a professional. I have never forgotten that. I believe that any success I have had as an artist and craftsman, I owe to these values being instilled.
What does this have to do with LEADERSHIP???
More and more in the past several years my job as a Navy Musician has been about leadership. It is a natural progression in the military that with success and longevity come more opportunities for leadership. As I continue to find myself in situations where I am coaching, directing, mentoring, and sometimes disciplining, other musicians I find that I often need a compass. Without even realizing it, Steve has become that compass for me.
I find that a group succeeds when it is allowed to develop in its own way within “left and right limits.” I learned that from Steve. Establish what the edges are and explore freely within that area. Did you find something that you were interested in? A phrase? A certain interval? Take it to the Nth degree. Find everything you can in that cell. One of the hardest things about guiding people is to balance their interest, excitement, and joy with the direction and end state that an organization needs to move towards. Steve was hyper-aware of when something “turned one of us on.” He would grab that nugget and use it as an entire semester’s syllabus. So it is with leadership. I find that the more I pay attention and really connect with others in my organization, I find things that really resonate with them. A great day is when we can find a way to connect those things to a task or job that needs to get done. Which brings me to…
I’ve found that people are more successful when they understand what the end is, but aren’t confined with how to get to that end. I learned that from Steve too. Just as the key to developing a beautiful sound is first have a concept of what that sound is and then to “get out of your own way” and let that sound happen. The key to a successful group, band, team, whatever is to have a clearly defined and articulated goal that everyone understands and to get out of the way. Let the musicians, artists, Sailors succeed.
I’ve found that the more I try to specifically control the way something is done, the less effective it is. I also learned that from Steve. By being in the musical moment and reacting to what is happening vs. what we feel SHOULD be happening we allow the music – improvised or written – to grow and expand far beyond anything that we could have consciously manipulated. So it is with those we coach, mentor, lead. When the goal is defined well, “letting” becomes very important. We have to accept that others may not do it the way we would; we also have to trust that they see the same end goal that we do and are just as committed to getting there. We also have to be able to let go of our micro-view enough to be able to see the way things ARE unfolding and engage at that level vs. filtering everything we observe through a filter of what we think things SHOULD (I have come to hate that word) be.
Leading, teaching, coaching, mentoring…these are incredibly important roles. All too often they are looked at as a “secondary” role. Teaching to supplement performance income etc. Probably the most important thing I learned from Steve is that your student…or person you’re mentoring, or the people you lead…will tell you exactly what they need to be successful. You as the teacher or leader have to learn to listen.