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January 2015
A Tale of Two Teachers
at Sudbury Valley

by Hanna Greenberg






untitled

A Tale of Two “Teachers” at Sudbury Valley

Hanna Greenberg

 

            For years and years every Wednesday the upstairs piano room is taken over by Sharon Kane and her students. When I glance through the door’s window I see kids of all ages working with Sharon, but I have always wondered what is really going on in there. So I asked her to talk to me in a recorded interview, a proposition she accepted graciously.

            Sharon is the mother of Myla Green, who attended SVS all her schooling years, so I knew that she was in harmony with the school’s philosophy. But Lisa Dolliver is new to the school’s environment. She is a professional potter and teacher, and was engaged by the school to supervise and teach ceramics in our art room. Over the past year and a half she has electrified the art room with her expert technical knowledge and effervescent personality. I wondered how she was able to blend into SVS so well and so quickly. Was it just her obvious charisma, or was it more? She too agreed to my request to sit down for an interview.

            I also thought that both Sharon and Lisa, who teach kids and adults outside school, were in a unique position to compare our students to ones who attended traditional schools.

            After the two interviews were completed, I wondered whether a third interview with Lisa and Sharon talking to each other would be interesting. It was.

 

 

A Conversation with Sharon Kane

Interviewed by Hanna Greenberg

 

Note: Sharon, who has been teaching piano to adults and children for more than thirty years, has been teaching private piano lessons at Sudbury Valley for twenty-eight.

 

Hanna: One of the things that interests me, is that I notice that when you’re teaching the students here that you have people from the age of I don’t know 5, 6 to 18. Boys, girls, people who have been doing music forever and people who are older and decide to start. You have a variety of people. What do you find remarkable or different about teaching the kids at Sudbury Valley?

 

Sharon: The students here usually don’t have any fear. They’re not afraid of me because I’m bigger than them, they’re not afraid of me because I’m an adult, they’re not afraid of me because I get to boss them in the lesson. They’re just not afraid. I would say that’s the most remarkable thing.

            My students from outside Sudbury Valley that they were always trying to figure out what I wanted from them before I said it, always trying to get the right answer before I asked, and really wanted to please me in a way that I find interfered with them accessing their creativity and just feeling comfortable about their work. They were very concerned with not making me mad and doing the right thing. That doesn’t happen here. The students here have a much better sense of “well this is interesting and I like this so I’m going to keep doing this.” That’s how they come into the lesson. It’s a totally different mindset.

            I had piano lessons my whole life, first as a child, and then I ended up going to the Boston Conservatory. It was wonderful—just a complete immersion in music. But there was the feeling that there was the correct kind of music, and then there was all that other stuff. Correct music was classical music taught and played in a certain manner, and everything else was considered less than that. So jazz, rock ‘n roll, and all sorts of interesting ethnic music—that was just considered less.

            As a child I used to just improvise all the time. Then I had a teacher who said, “Don’t waste your time with that. You’re not very good at it anyway.” So I stopped, and I did all the proper things, and then I went to college and did all the proper things. Around the corner, at Berklee College of Music, people were taught to improvise, and that was really fostered. That was the right kind of music to them, the proper music, whereas at the Conservatory classical was the proper kind and improvisation was not. You have these two completely different mindsets.

            My piano teacher at the Conservatory was a wonderful teacher, and he told me, “Don’t worry. When you get out of school, then your education will really begin,” which was a fantastic thing to say. And it did, in a sense, because I revised my whole piano technique. I decided I wanted to reclaim my improvisational abilities, because they were buried. It took years to get to the point where I could access them again because all that “proper” kind of playing had eclipsed all of that.

            I decided that when I teach my students, I want them to have the opportunity to improvise. I ask every single student, “Do you want to improvise?” and most of them say yes, and then I explain what it is. I developed improvisation games for young people so that it wouldn’t seem like work. Most of the kids improvised pretty fluidly. It took a little bit of time to get them to access their improvisational creative pool, but once they did, it was really easy. I just worked with their natural talent and tried to help them develop it.

            Everyone had their own style of improvisation that they liked. That became my goal: how can I help each child improvise in their natural style? All the regular piano teachers would say, “How can people improvise if they don’t know theory? You have to teach them theory first.” I tried to teach them theory and they were completely bored.

 

Hanna: Theory is notes, reading notes?

 

Sharon: No, theory is the mathematics of music—it’s the building blocks of music. If you learn all the building blocks and the mathematics, you end up with a vocabulary from which to draw upon to improvise. That is why people said that you can’t teach a child to improvise if they don’t know theory. But I didn’t believe it, because I used to improvise as a child and I didn’t know theory. I didn’t know theory until I got to college. So I started working on ways of trying to help them hear the theory, and it worked. I’d say 95% of my students improvised at one time, and some of them just continued doing it through their whole lives. One girl who said she did not want to improvise went away to college, did a major in music, and came back and said, “Why didn’t you teach me improvisation? Now I wish I had it.” I said, “I asked you so many times!”

 

Hanna: Why do you need a teacher to learn how to improvise if it comes from themselves?

 

Sharon: That’s a really interesting question. In order to develop your improvisation you have to be able to listen to and understand bits of music that are not too terribly hard for you, that are just a couple of steps above your level, so that you can work with them and incorporate them until they become part of your vocabulary. If someone isn’t giving you these little bits, everything might seem a little bit overwhelming and unattainable. That’s how I work with the improvisation.

            In the lessons I start with very simple sounds and get them making and copying simple sounds with me. As soon as I start to hear what their style is, I start to change my style to match their style. Then I start giving them things that are a little bit harder, and they respond to them or copy them.

            I have an improvisation game that I call “Question & Answer”. I say, “Let’s play Question & Answer,” and then I show them how we’re going to do it. I play something, my question. And I say, “Well, this could be an answer:” [and demonstrate]. Then I give a totally different answer, and they are amused. They can play something that’s similar or really different. I say, “You can answer me with anything you please, anything is fine, anything is correct.” So we start. I play something. They play whatever they want. It’s good, it’s “correct”. I do another thing. They play something. As soon as I start to hear some kind of pattern or style coming out from them, I adjust to bring out more of it.

 

Hanna: So in the first lesson you really get some music out of them?

 

Sharon: Well, I would say that I get sound out of them. I get creative sound. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily music. It might not be recognizable as music by anybody else but to me it becomes a dialog between us, so that counts as music.

            With the smallest kids I start off with rhythm and sound. They don’t have too much fine motor coordination. I usually tell them to delay a year or two, but sometimes they’ve been tinkling on the piano around their parents, begging for lessons, so you just have to start with them. My first questions will just be playing clusters of notes in a rhythm and they’ll just usually repeat that rhythm right back. So we start with rhythm and sound. They love it. 

 

Hanna: You see incremental improvement over a week’s time?

 

Sharon: Usually. There’s also something that happens. Learning happens even when they’re not playing or actively practicing. I think we know that learning happens in that manner anyway. I certainly have some kids who, for whatever reason, don’t practice much or maybe they never practice improvisation, but I can hear them getting better every week because things are getting organized in their mind. They continue to improve.

 

Hanna: I’ve heard that children have to start early in order to get proficiency, and you’re saying too early is not good.

 

Sharon: At Sudbury Valley I encourage the parents to have the kids wait until they’re at least seven or eight. If they say, “You know, this child must have lessons,” and they’re six or so, I’ll say, “Okay, but I’m not giving them any homework, I’m not going to start structuring.” At Sudbury Valley that’s fine. Outside of Sudbury Valley it’s not fine, because those parents want their kids to have homework every day, and they want them to be practicing every day, and they’ll sit and work with them every day. They want to see achievement, they want to see progress. My experience is if they start at six or seven and they have to be structured and have all these goals, then when they’re nine or ten, they’re sick of it, they’re bored. And they didn’t accomplish that much, because when you’re six you have limits to how much you can learn; your fingers can’t move that fast. What somebody would do between the age of six and eight, in two years, they could do in half a year when they were nine. So if the parents are willing to let me do improvisation games with them for that time and just develop that part, which they’re not going to struggle with, then I would say okay. But I stopped taking them outside under the age of seven or eight, and I would even say to delay until nine. Here, I’ll take them at seven, sometimes six, as long as parents understand.

 

Hanna: You’ve worked with a lot of kids. Do you feel that they become musicians—not that they’re going to perform but that they play music, or that what they learn will stay with them for their whole lives?

 

Sharon: If they have the ability to do that, they definitely do. A lot of them stick with the improvisation.

            Part of what a music teacher is supposed to do is to bring a greater awareness to the student’s listening ability. So I teach what my teacher taught me, which is from the Russian school: music is supposed to sound like language, and there’s a lot of shaded nuance and volume and phrasing. So you’re always trying to get them to play it so it sounds more like language, so it’s alive. As these kids get older, I work more with them that way, and they notice more often when other people play music that’s flat and has no volume changes, and they don’t get emotionally connected to it.

 

Hanna: Do they like classical music or is it always improvisational?

 

Sharon: I try and do basically half the lesson with some kind of pre-written music and then half the lesson, or a little less than half, with improvisation. Some technical training too if they’re interested. I do those three things. It’s not just classical music. We’ll do popular music, we’ll do some jazz and some blues as well. Whatever they want.

 

Hanna: I talked to some of your students and I think the reason they enjoy your lessons is because they feel you respect them a lot and that you respect differences.

 

Sharon: I know that everybody learns differently and I think that my job as piano teacher is to figure out how they learn and try and work with that, not give them a prescribed agenda of what we’re going to do in what timing. I’m constantly adjusting what I think they need to do as they change, as they grow. They must feel that, they must really feel that.

 

Hanna: How many do you have in a day? Are you exhausted afterwards?

 

Sharon: I have nine now. It’s an energizing activity to do this kind of teaching. It’s very rewarding, it’s creative for me. The children are happy, their happy energy comes through to me. I’m being fed also. I might be a little tired, but I’m not exhausted.

            I have to work harder in a different way with students outside of SVS. I have to work harder to draw them out, to access their creativity, to try and re-route that try-and-figure-out-what-the-teacher-wants-and-give-it-to-her thing, to try not to get into that conversation. So I work harder. I don’t have to work that hard teaching kids here. I’m much more flowing, I work in an energetically fluid way.

 

Hanna: Do these kids talk about music they listen to? Do they say, “I want to play like this person”?

 

Sharon: Some of them do, not all of them. They might say, “I want to play like this popular singer,” or “I want to play Beethoven”—the really famous Beethoven Fur Elise. And I basically say, “Well, you can’t play that until you’re ten or twelve, because in every piano teaching recital I’ve been to, there’s somebody that makes complete hash out of that poor song. And I just refuse to let anybody to play it until they actually have some kind of facility for phrasing.

 

Hanna: A certain student I know has just starting to work with you. He doesn’t know how to read notes. But he wants to play Beethoven. It’s all by ear?

 

Sharon: Well, some of it he can play by ear and he learned from the internet. But he’s got a lot of mistakes—like important, bad ones. The notes are wrong. The harmonies are wrong. And he’s not aware of it. So I suggested that, rather than me try and correct everything for him, we just start reading notes. And then, hopefully, we can come back to that some other time and learn some other Beethoven. I started him off in baby books. An older beginner can usually move through the baby books pretty fast and learn pretty quickly. The challenge is that an older beginner might have a very advanced auditory understanding of music and find it depressing to use baby books. It’s not rewarding, it’s not exciting. The challenge for the older beginner is to just play those baby things and then stick with it.

 

Hanna: Do you have exercises for the fingers, like athletic exercises?

 

Sharon: I do. I don’t force them to do it. I try and start them as soon as I think they’re ready. In the traditional track of teaching music, you have to have your scales and your finger exercises and all this other stuff. If you give 20, 30, 40 minutes of this kind of stuff to a young child, and they get the technique and they’re just playing along, then their mind is wandering: what am I going to do after my lesson, what am I having for dinner, what’s in my lunch bag? They’re not really with the music. So I devised these exercises that I keep changing. I give it to them in one key and once they master that, we take the same exercise and put it in another key, which is a whole different configuration of notes. And they say, “This is really hard.” I say, “Yes, it is.” But they get it. So I’m basically teaching them auditory theory and finger technique at the same time. And they don’t get bored, their mind cannot wander.

            It’s a hard exercise, so I don’t do it right away. Some piano teachers would say that if you don’t get that finger technique in right away, they’re never going to get it. I don’t agree. What I find with the kids here, because they are not doing busy work, they have more space in their heads for me to give them a complex exercise. And they can access their creative pool much faster than kids from the outside. Sometimes almost instantaneously.

 

Hanna: Some of them don’t know how to read or write.

 

Sharon: It doesn’t matter. Why would that matter? I learned to read notes before I could read words.

 

Hanna: Do you find that if something is hard, they’re more into it than if it’s easy?

 

Sharon: It’s very important to give them something that they’re ready for. I think that I’ve kind of figured that out pretty well. I’m always shifting in every lesson: what are they ready for? What’s next? Certainly, if I gave something that was too hard, they would get frustrated or bored and say, “I don’t want to do it, it’s too hard.”

            I pay attention to them. I listen to them because I really do believe they know. If somebody needs to learn something, when they need to learn it—when they feel like not knowing it is holding them back—then they’ll learn it. I’m not sure that every person will need to read notes. I do offer ever so often.

            I believe that this is more in sync with an organic form of learning, the way we actually learn. There are some things that we learn by drilling over and over, like learning to walk, but there are some things that are not as measurable. So by trusting their pace I feel like they are telling me what their organic learning style is and I trust them. There’s one girl here who didn’t practice for two years. I didn’t really understand and would ask, “Are you sure you want your parents to be paying for lessons where you . . .”, but she’d say, “Yes, it’s okay.” I even talked to her parents and they said, “If she wants to take lessons, it’s okay.” She’s become a fantastic improvisor, she’s become a lyricist, she’s writing all sorts of interesting music all the time. I tried not to criticize her, because it went on for a really long time, but we did what she wanted to do. She wanted to learn technique, she wanted to learn sight reading. So she’d come into the lesson and she’d put 100% of her effort into that thirty minutes every week and then totally forget about it for the rest of the week. She obviously made progress.

            I want to talk about another child, because I had a very interesting experience teaching him. When he first came to study with me four years ago, he could already play by ear. He couldn’t read, but he could already play a lot of a particular rock group’s songs. He didn’t play it note for note; he played a lot of chords, with pretty advanced usage of the chords. He was just having a wonderful time doing what he did, and he was very good at it. He would come and say, “I gotta play this for you now.” He’d sit down and he’d play a song and it was very good—maybe a little too loud, but it was good. He wouldn’t take any direction from me for a whole year. There was no opening in the lesson to give direction. And then sometimes when I would give direction, he would get upset as if I had criticized him. So I could see that he was going to be a little bit challenging because I hadn’t had anybody like him before.

            I called his mother and we talked it over, and we made a plan about how I wanted to still wait for the opening and say, “It’s okay for me to give you direction. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.” So it was a little bit more complex to teach him. Later his mother said to me, “I don’t think that he understands the concept of a piano teacher, what she is supposed to do.” Then, when I found an opening I said, “Do you know what my job is?” He said, “To listen to me.” And I said, “No, my job is to show you the things that you don’t already know so that you can become a better player.” He thought about that for a while and then he started to let me make some suggestions for, like, five seconds. He wouldn’t change right away but the next lesson he would start to actually incorporate some of the things that I was saying. Just to get him to take direction took about a year.

            He was still just playing various songs of different groups, and playing everything by rote—learning on the internet. He was playing chords and chords and chords. Finally I said, “Well, what about improvisation?” And he said, “No, no, no, no, no!” So I started bugging him about it—every week: “Are you ready for improvisation? Do you want to try?” Finally he said, “Well, what is it anyway?”

            After months, we started doing some improvisation games. That was a little too simplistic for him. He would come in and lie on the piano bench and then maybe sit up and just play something and stop. I’d say, “What was that?” He’d say, “I don’t know.” Okay, he’s improvising now, this is really good. I would analyze it. I would say, “Well that sounds like this,” or, “It reminds me of . . .”—just to try and stay on what he did so he wouldn’t run to the next thing. Then he started to do this more and more. He would come in, he would start improvising right away and then he’d lie down on the bench. I would just sit and wait. I wouldn’t talk, and I wouldn’t say, “What do you want to do now?” I would just sit and wait. Something inside told me that this is really important, let him lie there on the bench, and just wait.

            This is what I think was happening. When a person is trying to learn something new, there is a certain amount of stress that happens in the brain, and it’s a little tiring. Think of your children. When my daughter was starting to read and she’d learn a new word, she’d often get really angry because there was some stress happening. So I think that there was stress involved—coming in, sitting down, doing the improvisation—and he had to rest from it.

            I think there were a few lessons where he laid on that bench for twenty minutes. I thought, if the Piano Teachers Association could see what I was doing now, they would say I’m robbing this child, I”m taking his parents’ money and just letting him lie on the bench. But I knew something was happening. Every day that he’d come in and improvise it was more advanced, it was more sophisticated, it was longer, he’d have stuff to say about it. That time laying on the bench was important. It helped him shift from playing music that he already knew and had learned in a certain way to making up his own music. The shift was happening in that quiet time on the bench.

            I don’t think he thought that he wasted his time. I think that he just thought, “Well, whatever happens in lessons is just fine.” I don’t think he ever felt strange about it. He’s improvising a lot more now, in a very modern style. He’ll start combining chords that you don’t hear unless you’re listening to the most modern music and chord combinations. And he’s thinking and analyzing, and speaking almost mathematically about them. I mean we’re talking about a very serious brain here.

            Then there is another boy. He’s what I call “in the zone” all the time, which is when a person, or an artist, gets to that creative place where they feel like everything is effortless and they have full access. Most of us have to work a little bit to get there. He doesn’t have to. He comes into the lesson, he sits down, he’s there. He’s playing completely, connected, heart-felt, spiritual music right away. He’ll improvise and then I will talk about it afterwards. I’ll analyze it, so at least it brings some mental understanding, not all auditory and all creative, of what he’s doing. The more I analyze it for him, the more he can begin to analyze his own work. But sometimes he’ll be sort of moving into a certain area and then move to a different area, and we’ll look at each other and we’ll both start laughing—like there’s a musical joke. There are no words. There’s like a musical joke that we both get. I love that.

            Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing very much. But that’s not really true anymore. I have helped him with theory when he had questions. I waited for the openings. Like I’d say, “Okay, what key are you playing in?” We’d discuss the key and I’d give him some exercise in the key. He didn’t do too many exercises, but he did enough so that he understood the feel of the key, what the notes are. And then in his improvisation he’d start modulating to another key. I look at my notes: G Major, G Major, G Major. Oh, we’re in D Major for four weeks, A Major for 4 or 5 weeks. So I see how he’s moving through the keys, and try to give him information about what he’s doing, mathematically and theory-wise. I also talk about the emotional quality, and whether the music conjures up any visual images for me. Now he talks about it too: that’s like taking a walk in the woods and this big storm comes and there’s a bunch of soldiers over there. You know, he’s a boy! He’s the kind of person who could write music for movies: “We need something that has this kind of a space-y quality over here with an undercurrent of something.” He could be that person.

            The students who are not as musical have the drive to learn what they have to in order to do what they want. So they practice more. They’ll actually put in more time. They’ll usually do more technique. They’ll make up for it in other ways. And they’re happy with what they’re doing, so I’m happy with it. It’s not boring to me. I’m providing a space for these students to develop what they want to learn and help them to build the confidence to learn it.

            This reminds me of a girl who said something to me right in the beginning, maybe the third month of her lessons. She was not yet eight years old and I was careful not to try and structure too much. So I’d say, “Let’s try this,” and she’d try and she’d say, “No, I don’t think so,” and we’d try something else. Then we’d start to make up things. She’d come in and say, “I’d like to do this today.” So we did that. One day she just said, “Sharon, you are the best piano teacher in the world because you give me time. You give me time to do what I want to do, you give me time to think about my answers.” That’s the other thing. I’ll say, “What do you want to do” and I’ll wait, in silence, until they come up with it, because I think that’s a better situation for them if it comes from them rather than if it comes from me.

 

Hanna: Do you think silence is part of music?

 

Sharon: Yes, of course it is.

 

Hanna: But you don’t say, for instance, “I think you would like so and so’s music, have you ever heard of it?”

 

Sharon: I don’t do that. But what I will do is, I’ll say, “Have you ever heard this?” And I’ll sit down and play it. It’s not going to work if I just say words, they’ve got to hear it. Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, that’s interesting!” When we’re doing our improvision games I will often play things they’ve never heard of, just to give them sprinklings of what else is out there and to see what they respond to.

            It’s more about styles, different styles. As soon as I possibly can I’ll start doing a blues improvisation game because that’s something that’s more accessible than jazz or classical. So I’ll get that in right away to see if they like it. Usually they’ll start dancing on the bench, or else they’re not at all into it and not interested.

            So I think I do a lot of things. I’m a conduit to help them connect to their creative pool, their inner sense of direction, help them build their confidence and their competence. I also let them know that there’s a tremendous musical world out there for them to communicate with and learn from as they become ready.

 

 

A Conversation with Lisa Dolliver

Interviewed by Hanna Greenberg

 

Hanna: Since the fall of 2010 you have been coming to school two mornings a week to teach kids ceramics, so this is your second year?

 

Lisa: It is.

 

Hanna: Lisa, you teach all over the Boston area. How many years have you been doing ceramics?

 

Lisa: Probably about 28 years.

 

Hanna: Okay and how many years have you been teaching?

 

Lisa: Twenty-five years.

 

Hanna: What is it that is interesting to you about coming and teaching here?

 

Lisa: I’ve never felt such a strong rapport with all the students. Ever. A lot of it has to do with the fact that they get to choose and spend as much time with me as they wish. When I’m teaching a class outside of here I see the students normally for an hour, an hour and a half, once a week for eight weeks or so. The kids here can get all of that time in just one week. So their advancement is insane to me. It is so quick.

            For example: spiral-wedging is a Japanese style of wedging clay that requires a rhythm, getting all the molecules in the clay aligned so it’s easier to throw when you put it on the wheel—removing air and making the clay very consistent. It is a very difficult skill. I already have an eleven year old who can do that here, which is shocking to me; I have only had three other students who can do that. She has put in a ton of time with ceramics since I’ve been here and her growth and progress is amazing to me.

 

Hanna: So, what you’re saying is that, first, if they want to do something, they have a lot of time to do it. And second, you said that because they choose to do it, they’re totally motivated.

 

Lisa: Exactly, exactly.

 

Hanna: Do you see kids who are interested but sometimes come and sometimes don’t come, they’re kind of moody about it?

 

Lisa: Of course. I’m moody myself, and that’s to be expected. Some days you feel like doing something, some days you don’t. I think I’m pretty good at letting them know there’s a time constraint with ceramics—if you wait too long you can’t finish the piece. I just tell them it’s up to you: if you would like your piece to just be tossed and not be able to be finished, we can do that, or if you can come in the next two days to finish it, that would be great. I would say 99.9% of the time they come back.

 

Hanna: So even though they’re very independent children, they are open to your suggestions.

 

Lisa: Very much so. They want to do it, they want to have an achievement, they want to bring this piece home. Ceramics is very interesting to me because at the end of the process you have something tangible to take home, to show people, to say, “Ta-da! I’ve done this,”—something you can use, something you get to see for the rest of your life. If you wish. If you don’t break it!

 

Hanna: Do you have some children who do something, leave you, and then come back?

 

Lisa: Yes. Some people try it out. The wheel is a fascinating thing for most kids to see. They love the way that it spins, kind of like driving a car with a pedal. It’s fun, so that’s always an attraction. It depends on the kids. It’s a very hard skill. For someone who knows how to do it, it looks very simple. It looks very straightforward and intuitive. But it’s not. There are some very serious skills involved with throwing good pots on the wheel, and my teacher, who was a Japanese Master, had told me it is normally about ten years until you can really throw on the wheel anything that you want. Here at Sudbury Valley, after less than two years, I’m already seeing kids make progress that I see in very few adults who have studied with me for several years. So I think they’ll be able to cut that time in half just for the plain fact that they’re able to do it here. They can do what they want.

 

Hanna: You know a lot of kids, because you have worked with kids for a long time. Demographically, they’re the same kids everywhere. But most of the kids here don’t go to classes usually. They learn to read when they feel like it. Some of them know math, some don’t. They don’t have a required curriculum. And you talk to them a lot. Do you find that they are similar to the kids who go to the public schools in the area?

 

Lisa: Yes and no. The kids here are so different to me. I would say that some of the kids here are much more intelligent. Some of the kids here are more sensitive. They are varied, like kids anywhere. But a difference that strikes me quite strongly is that there seems to be very little competition and very little exclusivity in cliques. Older kids are taking care of little ones here. They all seem more family-oriented and calmer and less competitive because they’re competing with themselves essentially and not with anyone else here. I love the camaraderie between all the kids here. That is striking to me and very different.

 

Hanna: You never have to tell them to pay attention or be quiet?

 

Lisa: Oh, no, I do. Here and there. Certain ones, of course. Certain kids interrupt or do whatever. Everybody has their own personality, of course. But, in general, there’s much more patience, I think. And the kids here seem to be very responsible. Of course, they don’t want to get written up, but they’re just great. They’re very personally responsible for their space and the things that they do here, in making sure it’s clean. They all seem to take really good care of their school.

 

Hanna: Do you think they’ll do well out there in the world?

 

Lisa: Before coming to this school I had met my neighbor, who went to this school, and his wife, who went here also. When I met him, I asked him where he went to school and what he did. He raved about Sudbury Valley School. And I could see there was a real difference in him from any other man I had met. I felt like he had the innocence of a Christ-child. The sweetness, the kindness.

 

Hanna: Can you explain that to this Jewish woman?

 

Lisa: Sure. I can try. I’ve also noticed it very profoundly in many, many of the kids here. There is an innocence—maybe it’s because they don’t get bullied here, they don’t get pushed around, they don’t get divided into who’s smarter and who’s not. There’s some sort of natural affinity with just being who they are and having that accepted. There are so many different types of kids here but they all seem to accept one another—the good, the bad, the ugly, whatever it is. So as far as venturing out into the world, my neighbor has done a great job. He knew what he loved doing—landscaping and design. He got married and they ended up moving up to northern Maine, and she gets to ride her horses while he gets to do his landscaping and construction business. They’re just adorable, innocent and lovely. And I learned a lot. I learned that I wished I had come to this school. It would have been wonderful for me. I was not allowed to take ceramics in high school.

            I was going to a liberal arts college and, on that track, I was not even allowed to use the wheel, or do art. I wanted to very badly. I would have loved it at SVS.

 

Hanna: Have you noticed that kids teach each other?

 

Lisa: Big time teach each other. Everybody goes up to one of the kids I work with a lot, especially all the littler kids, and ask, “What are you drawing, how did you do that, and can you show me?”

 

Hanna: And she does?

 

Lisa: Oh, gosh, yes. I hired her last summer to teach my week long class in Wayland. She was eleven, at the time. I tried not to put her in a situation where she was feeling too threatened by this because there were twenty kids, and I had three assistants. But by the end of the class she was doing absolutely beautifully—went over to someone on the wheel and just sat with them and showed them how to do this, how to do that. I noticed that when she came back here in the Fall she was much more confident about teaching others and showing others different things, and that kind of spreads to all the other kids, the older kids.

 

Hanna: So what would you say to parents? How would you tell them what it is that their child will get here in this school?

 

Lisa: You will get to discover who you are. You will not be locked into some little paradigm, some little box somewhere where you need to take an MCAS test and study the whole entire year. You have the ability as a kid here to find what you love, what you want to do, and what you want to make of yourself and what your inherent talents are. As a teacher here you are also able to be free with what you show and experience with the kids. You’re not locked into any sort of procedure.

 

Hanna: And you believe that that prepares you for the world?

 

Lisa: Who is prepared for the world? I don’t think anybody is prepared for the world!

 

Hanna: Well, the idea is that you get good grades, you get into a good college. You know the theme.

 

Lisa: I do. Well, I’ve led kind of a different life than many people. I left college after one semester even though I had a full scholarship and I was great in school. I toured the country in a rock band for the next five years—that’s what I wanted to do, what I wanted to focus on. Here at this school if you gain the skills that you need at a much younger age than I was able to, you can go out and make your mark on the world, with confidence. You know and you put time into your interest, time that isn’t broken up into one hour a week or one hour every third day or something.

            A friend of mine once said, while we were watching our kids playing when they were little, that play is the work of children. And it is. Play is how you grow and discover what you’re about. Just the smile it brings to my face to leave this campus and have kids screaming, “Lisa, ’bye Lisa, ’bye Lisa, see you next week, see you next week!” I don’t see them, I just hear them—and I look up, and they’re in trees! It’s wonderful! It makes me really happy. I’m just adorned with so much love and affection from all the kids. It warms my heart.

 

Hanna: This is what I like about the school – the teenagers, cool teenagers, are not afraid to be nice to adults. Or warm and helpful.

 

Lisa: Not in the least. Or to the little kids. I mean you see these seventeen, eighteen year old boys in a group, sitting, chatting, and the little four year old girls come over and say, “Hold my stuffed animals while I do this.” And they’ll do it.

 

Hanna: Don’t you think it prepares them for parenthood?

 

Lisa: Big time prepares them. That is the other thing that I find absolutely wonderful about this school. You are prepared, you know how to deal with the little kids, with people older than you, with people younger than you, whatever. And you learn how to be kind and treat them like they’re part of this family too. They’ll definitely be much, much better parents than many.

 

Hanna: Why are you doing this? Are you teaching them art, or are you teaching them something bigger than that for their lives?

 

Lisa: The thing that I love so much about teaching is understanding each individual student—what they need, what you want to get out of them, and what they want to get out of it. Honing your style of teaching to whoever they are. I want them to be able to do something that comes out of them. I don’t want to dictate what they should be doing.

            I also want to give them the skills they need. Like someone was making a piece and twisted this wild top thing, and at first my impetus was to say, “Let me straighten that out for you.” Then I looked at it and instead, I asked her, “Are you liking this?” She said, “Oh, I love this!” So I’m like, okay. It’s her vision, not my vision. As a teacher that’s all I want to do is bring out their vision.

 

Hanna: So you really fit the philosophy of the school extremely well . . .

 

Lisa: I feel like I do. Very much so. I have never, in my entire life, felt more at home in a place—with the students, with the staff, with the affection and just camaraderie between everyone. Everyone is so helpful.

 

Hanna: Let’s say a kid comes and works with you, but they’re not artists. What is it that they get out of doing it, in your opinion?

 

Lisa: Clay is an awesome medium for so many people because it’s really responsive. You can pinch it, grab it, move it, twist it, hammer it, stab it—all of these things. It’s a very tactile sort of thing so it doesn’t matter. I can’t define “art”. I can’t define who is “an artist” and who isn’t. That’s not up to me. I think art for everybody is a very personal thing. I have one kid who makes these little things that to me look like lumps. She’s not good at it, not great at what she wants to do, but she’s loving it. Back every single day. What I do is just make sure she attaches the pieces correctly so they don’t fall off, make sure they’re hollow, they’re not super-heavy, they’re not going to blow up. That’s my job. Not to dictate to her what to do, or if it’s good or if it’s bad or if it’s art or if it’s not. It’s not my call. She loves it.

            Everyone has talent, everyone has some purpose. And here you’re able to discover it.

 

Hanna: Do you find the new kids intimidated by the quality of the work being done here?

 

Lisa: By the other ceramic people? I would say in general, no. I explain to them it’s a process and these kids have been doing this for a while, you’re going to get more and more familiar and make better and better things. Focus a little, try a little harder, decide what you want to do. I’ll sit down and say, “Draw what you want to make for me.” It’s a really good way to communicate to me what’s in their heads so that I can help them do it. After teaching for a thousand years and having one of the best teachers in the universe—for 13 years I studied with him, I never wanted to leave him—I have so many different techniques that I’ve learned, and ways of doing things, so that if they make me a drawing, I can probably think of four to five different ways to produce it. Depending on their age, I will choose the easiest one or the middle one or the hardest one, depending on what they want to do. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. I have to explain to kids, until it’s out of that second firing and everything’s glazed and finished and in your hands, you don’t have it, it’s not real, so don’t get upset. I had one student, as an adult, in my other classes who cried when something didn’t work out the way she wanted or she accidentally dented a rim, or she didn’t like the glaze. She would cry. And here, even with six year old kids, if something breaks in the kiln, they go, “Oh well!” And they come in again and make another plate. Once, the second try broke again. I said, “Guess what happened to this one?” She said, “It broke. Oh, okay, well let’s make another one.” It’s accepting that failure is a way of learning. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

            They can deal with it just fine. Much better than, I would say, other kids who have been whipped a little into shape in public school to be very frustrated because it’s a very competitive atmosphere. They’re the ones that seem to get more upset when something doesn’t work out than the kids here. Kids here seem to accept it and move on and make the next one.

 

Hanna: Do you find students talking to each other about their work?

 

Lisa: I love how kids, when they’ve made something here that they’re proud of, tell everybody in the school and everybody in the school comes down and sees. If they don’t, I will! I’m very proud of the students here. I’m amazed at how much they’ve accomplished.

 

Hanna: Do you have kids who want to do it by themselves, who are not open to suggestion?

 

Lisa: Definitely. I let them do whatever they want. If they don’t want to be helped at all, that’s fine with me. But there are certain things I won’t put in the kiln. If it’s a solid piece of clay and it’s going to blow up in the kiln, that’s not going in. So if you don’t want to learn, that’s fine, but I like to work with them the first time on the wheel. I like to be their left hand. Let them be the right hand. I want them to get the feel of exactly what it feels like and the best way of doing that is for me to kind of guide while they’re pushing against my hand, to get the feel. I don’t like them to fail initially so I am very good at saving whatever they have made to give them something tangible that they can focus on. But as they keep doing it, I leave them more and more alone and let them figure it out for themselves.

 

Hanna: Anything else you want to tell me?

 

Lisa: As I said earlier, I have never been happier in a place in my life. And I feel like I fit here so well. It’s the kids. It’s the staff. And I like how relaxed everyone is. I like that the kids get to do what they want and they’re happy. They’re all happy. They can’t wait to come to school. They’re upset if they have vacation week. This is unheard of in public school.

 

Hanna: I want you to tell me why it’s a “school”.

 

Lisa: It’s definitely a school—a school where you get to learn at your own pace. You get to learn what you’re interested in. You have access to tons of things that you want to do here, if you want to do any of them. All the books in the libraries, all the staff members and their knowledge—different languages that are spoken. The computer stuff. And you have students that are really great at it helping ones that aren’t. People knitting. Whatever they want to do. Cooking. It’s definitely a school. A school of life.

 

 

A Conversation with Sharon Kane and Lisa Dolliver

Interviewed by Hanna Greenberg

 

Hanna: I thought it would be interesting for Lisa Dolliver, who teaches ceramics at the school, and Sharon Kane, who teaches piano—both outside specialists teaching specialized subjects, to compare notes about how it is to come from the outside, not being staff members, and have very direct and close interactions with students here.

 

Lisa: I was just telling Sharon that I teach in a place where there is another ceramics teacher who has every child in the class do the same exact project with kind of a cookie cutter thing. Actually using cookie cutters sometimes or press molding plates, so they’re all identical. All the pieces the kids make are identical. They’re glazed with exactly the same colors, the same way. I asked, “Why do you have everyone do exactly the same thing?” She said that she didn’t think kids were capable of making their own decisions or choices or coming up with anything creative on their own and needed to be told what to do. It absolutely shocked me. I also thought it was interesting that a lot of the parents who come in don’t see a difference between that situation, where every single project comes out identical to every other, and you couldn’t even tell which child did it, and my class there, where I’ll give them a project like “Let’s make a piggy bank or an animal bank or a monster bank or whatever you want to make.” Just show them the technique and let them take off. And they are extraordinarily different creations—every single one of them.

 

Hanna: Improvisation.

 

Sharon: Yes. This is similar to what we talked about in our first interview about how, when I work with kids, I take time to figure out what their style is when we improvise so that I can support them in their style to keep growing. Every child’s style is completely different. But I want to pick up on what Lisa said about the very rigid and extremely limited expectation that the other pottery teacher has for those students. It reminds me of an adult student I have. He started as a beginner and he heard one of my student recitals. He heard the kids improvise and he said, “I want you to teach me to do that.” I said, “I don’t teach that to adults, because they’re kind of hard to teach.” He persuaded me to teach him. It took a while, but I was able to teach him improvisation, and he’s a fine improvisor now. There were also certain classical pieces that he wanted to play, which I thought were too hard for him, and said, “I really think you’re wasting your time, I don’t think you’re going to get there.” He said, “Well, I’m going to try anyway.” He’s a Sudbury Valley parent, who completely understands; he says, “I’m going to do it anyway,” and sure enough, he did it. It took him a while, but he did it.

            I learned that my limits and my expectation, or lack of expectation, was holding him back—even though he paid no attention to me, it was potentially holding him back. So I had to adjust my limits. I’m very good at accessing where a person is and what they’re ready for. But for him, he totally made me blow apart the limits and say to myself, “No, I won’t put any limits on anybody, because I don’t know what they’re capable of. I don’t know how far they can go. So let me not limit them.”

 

Lisa: That’s a very good point. Just the other day, I had a student here who just turned seven, and they know that at seven I’ll let them use the wheel a little bit. I probably won’t certify them at that age, but when there is a seven year old who I think can handle it, I feel I need to at least try, and see how it goes. This person’s birthday was the day before, so she had just turned seven and she’s very small, and it’s a big piece of equipment. I’m right there with her but my thought was, “You’re too small to do this.” But I let her, and sat there and watched her. First, it was too big a piece of clay and I cut it down—something she could more easily handle. Just the excitement about some of the different techniques that I showed her led her to pick it up right away. So I was surprised; I’m glad I let her do it. It’s not going to be a great work of art—yet. She’s not going to be able to master a lot of the skills right now, but who am I to hold her back if it’s something she really wants to do?

 

Sharon: I’ve noticed something with those seven year olds. Sometimes I have piano students who start at seven. I ask them to delay, but some of them just have to try it. So we give it a try. I notice that when I do my improvisation games, sometimes they’re actually more fluid at that young age. We’ll work on improvisation, because they’re not ready to learn to read or structure themselves, and they’ll come up with this extraordinary ability to improvise. They match what I’m doing and make up things with great jazzy rhythms and then, for whatever reason, they need to stop. They’re not ready to get into a structured thing. Then maybe they’ll come back six, twelve, eighteen months later, and they’re ready to do a lot of things. But when we get back to that improvisation, it’s sometimes not quite as fluid as it was. I think there’s something about that seven, eight year old very expansive mind with not much excess busy work. There’s something that’s not taking up space in their psyche that enables them to really stretch out kind of effortlessly; in some ways a little later there’s a lot more information and they’ve grown and they’re trying to fit in, or whatever it is that they’re working on; and I think sometimes it’s a little bit harder. So when you say that that seven year old was able to start mastering things that surprised you, I’m not surprised, I’ve seen this often in the music at that age.

 

Lisa: It was mostly about the actual physical strength you need to use a wheel—how you need to manipulate the clay and how your hands need to be. Not every child at that age is ready. But I understand what you’re saying. When I’m teaching adults, they seem to fall into much more rigid patterns than children, who believe they can do anything. When you believe you can do anything, strangely, you can. So I try very hard not to limit any child wherever I’m teaching, whatever I’m doing.

 

Sharon: Because they’re comfortable, they’re safe. I think that’s why it’s easy to start teaching improvisation with my kids right in the beginning when they don’t have that many of those structures. It’s very free flowing. It’s easy. That young mind is just so fluid—it’s less structured.

 

Lisa: And less self-critical, I think, too, which is a big detriment in adults.

 

Sharon: Right.

 

Hanna: Don’t you find the kids here to be perfectionists? They critique themselves very strongly.

 

Sharon: It doesn’t really stand out to me. I know some of my students are hyper-critical and I try and work with them to break that a little bit, but generally I don’t think that they are. I haven’t noticed that. Maybe I’m just not setting up a situation where they have an opportunity to be hyper-critical. I don’t know.

 

Lisa: I think it just depends on the kid. Certain kids are, certain kids aren’t.

 

Hanna: The atmosphere in your room, Sharon, is different. You have a private lesson, you have one kid at a time. They’re not looking at other people, except maybe afterwards. But in your room, Lisa, it could become quite competitive, in the sense that they cannot help seeing somebody else doing better work. So another kid can say, “Oh, I can’t do that.”

 

Lisa: One student walked in and made a dragon the first day he ever touched clay. One day, he sat down and taught another kid how to do it. I let them just go at it, and it was fabulous. He did a great job teaching—very patient, very wonderful. I just oversaw.

 

Hanna: Was he giving the other kid technical advice?

 

Lisa: Oh gosh, yes. He knows what he’s doing. He knows to put two pinch pots together to make a hollow body and then he knows to make the wings and he knows to make the head, open the mouth, then make the teeth. He had it all down. I thought, “He’s the expert, I’m not.” He did a great job.

 

Hanna: Do you ever have a kid who irritates you, gets on your nerves, does not listen, and you wished you didn’t have to deal with him? From listening to you, everybody’s perfect, everybody’s a genius.

 

Sharon: Yes, I’ve had a few. They don’t last that long, because the energy of connecting between us isn’t there. So they don’t usually stay very long. Some of them never practiced and seemed to be there because their parents wanted them to be, and some of them didn’t really have the mentality to focus on what I needed them to focus on. There was one kid who was a wonderful pianist who always had a runny nose. He would always wipe his nose with his hand and I would always make him go wash his hands. So sometimes he’d have to go wash his hands five or six times in the course of thirty minutes. That was maybe one of my most difficult students. He stayed with it, and I stayed with it. He was a wonderful pianist. He was a deeply musical person, so it wasn’t that bad.

 

Hanna: What about you, Lisa?

 

Lisa: There are definitely some children that are more challenging. You cannot expect that you connect really well with every single kid. I make a concerted effort to do that. I try to look at my own blocks when I’m dealing with a kid who I find difficult; I try to exert extra patience so that I can get through it. Being constantly interrupted by somebody, or having somebody who is not paying any attention whatsoever to anything that’s being taught to them or shown them, is a little frustrating to me sometimes. The wheel is not a toy and my primary concern is safety. Even on the clay tables sometimes kids will pick up a needle tool and want to just stab, stab, stab, or pound, pound, pound. There is other work on the table being jarred around or the needle tool scares the living daylights out of me. That sort of thing is frustrating to me. But, in general, I just take the tools away and I tell them no, and I just try to work through it as best as I can.

 

Hanna: Do they argue with you?

 

Lisa: Sometimes. “Why can so-and-so have this and I can’t?” I say, “Because they’re using it correctly and with respect and you are not. When you can do that, then you may use it.” I don’t want anyone hurt. Safety is critical to me.

 

Hanna: That’s mostly kids of what age you’re talking about?

 

Lisa: It depends. In general, I would say younger kids. But if there is a lot of inner frustration in the kid itself, it tends to come out in the clay, because clay is such a physical thing.

 

Hanna: It’s so interesting that you’re both doing art, but they are such different media.

 

Lisa: Well, music and ceramics, to me, go hand-in-hand. I had been a professional musician for years and I find rhythm is so incredibly important with ceramics. That background has helped me immensely. Everyone who comes to me with some sort of a musical background does so much better.

 

Sharon: I have another thing to say about frustration. There’s one situation that happens when I start with someone who’s kind of young. We work in a very unstructured way and then I get to the point where I feel they’re ready to move on but they are not ready to move on. I start suggesting some things that I think are next for them and then they’re very resistant. They just kind of want to do baby things—they still want to stay in that kind of comfort zone. In a way I believe that I don’t know better—that if they’re not going on, they must not be ready. But the frustrating thing is not knowing what it is that they need. Sometimes they’ll pick up that I’m frustrated and so they’ll start banging on the piano or playing things that annoy me, or just be a little bit obstinate. One kid went home and said, “I drove Sharon crazy today.” The mother called me up and asked, “Is everything okay?” I explained what was happening. I said, “I don’t know what she needs next, but I feel like it’s time to move on.”

            The tack that I take is, just wait. I stop suggesting. I make a couple of suggestions in the beginning—“No, I don’t want to.” “It’s okay; what do you want to do?” “I don’t know.” And I just wait, I just sit and wait. It might take a few lessons until they say, “I started working on this at home. Can you help me?” that they actually get some direction. I think this is directly similar to the Sudbury Valley philosophy. Dan used to say, “I’m not going to spoon-feed these kids, I’m not going to keep giving them more information in the hopes that they latch onto something—I’m going to wait until they come in and they say, ‘I know what I need.’” I think this is exactly the same situation. It’s much more efficient for me to stop talking and stop trying to spoon-feed them and just give them more and more space to figure out okay, what indeed is next for them? Because I can’t figure it out. They’ll tell me much sooner. And then when I meet them there, we’re off and running onto the next situation.

 

Lisa: I like that.

 

Hanna: You don’t have that?

 

Lisa: I don’t. Well, I guess I do. Some kids don’t really know what they want to do. Some kids want you to save all their pieces, and go home and say, “I made this great piece.” I don’t like anyone to fail, but I want them to feel how it’s done correctly. So I’ll often be their other hand and work with them. Sometimes they want to be very dependent upon that and just have great works all the time, but they have to get to the point of independence. Ceramics is different because you really need to feel how it feels when it’s right.

 

Hanna: The other day I saw a six year old make a big plate. Did she make it herself?

 

Lisa: It was my idea. We used a press mold. So she actually did it. I was trying to get her to texture it, but she didn’t want to. So I let that go. I’m a little nervous about it in the kiln when it’s press-molded, it tends to warp and turn oval. She had decided that she wanted this bowl for her mother and she wanted a foot on it. She had the whole thing in her mind. For the foot I had her put it on a big coil, roll a big snake, put it on the bottom, fine, whatever, and attach it. She attached it and we scored it. Just to refine it, I said, “Let’s put it on the wheel.” Even though she’s six, she put the piece on the wheel and I just had her, with the sponges, try to even it out a little bit, and I cut it level so it would stand. I also helped her fix the rim on the top. But she put all the pieces together and she’s going to decorate it. It’s really going to be hers. And it’s porcelain.

 

Sharon: I’m sure she watched you do all those techniques. So, even though she didn’t do them herself, she learned by watching.

 

Lisa: Well, just to even off the rim and stuff like that—things that are hard for her, being so young and little. For some things you need strength and control that she wasn’t totally ready for, but she made the bowl, definitely.

 

Hanna: You are both very good at your arts on your own, and you are also, I think, very good teachers and you come here to this school where you have these independent, stubborn children, and I’m wondering—on one hand we say don’t do it unless it’s from inside you and it fits your soul, and on the other hand you do sometimes need a teacher. So what is the role of the teacher? The kid wants to do it, and they insist on it, yet they need you. What do they need you for? Why can’t they just do it?

 

Lisa: That’s a tough question, actually. When I first came to school last year, I looked at the work that was there. I opened the kiln and I saw shards of broken pottery all over the place. I saw that the work that was being produced, or had been left there, wasn’t technically well done. Whoever had fired it obviously blew up a ton of pieces in the kiln. So, why do you need a teacher? To give you the correct techniques to do whatever it is you want to do. To be able to fire them correctly so they come out the way they need to come out. Just to pass on skills. Reinventing the wheel every single time, for every single child, is a very difficult thing to do, I would think. I know that through my teachers in my life—my music teachers, my ceramic teachers—you advance that much more quickly. Everyone has said to me since I’ve been here, they’ve never seen better work in ceramics coming out of the kids, than they do right now. That is what I’m here for—so that can happen.

 

Sharon: The way I would answer that question is that no human learns in a vacuum. Every baby that’s born learns—from touch, sound, visual cues—every day, tons of information. That’s how we learn. I think that’s how we learn everything. That’s how we learn ceramics, that’s how we learn music. There’s only so far you can go by yourself and then you need someone who has more experience to hold the space for you and feed you information as you’re ready so that you can kind of try it and use it and incorporate it and then expand your knowledge base and technical base.

 

Lisa: Watching my teacher throw a pot—it was like a dance, it was just beautiful. It was so fluid and quick. I struggled in the beginning. Now, I love the fact that I can make anything I want to on the wheel with the same dance. It took time, but I am so inspired by it. I have my wheel in my shop and I work there. People come in off the street all the time and they’re fascinated by how this looks. It looks so fluid and so easy.

 

Hanna: So you would summarize it as inspiration? Why do you play for them, Sharon? I know you do. I hear you.

 

Sharon: To let them know what’s possible. To let them know how far they can go.

 

Lisa: And for me, to show them different ideas—just different forms.

 

Hanna: Do they copy you then?

 

Lisa: I wouldn’t call it exactly copying. To a certain extent, I guess. Knowing that I can throw a big piece of clay and make tiny little pots, one after the other. They just watch and watch and then they’ll sit down and do the same thing—or try. That’s why I do it.

 

Hanna: What’s the difference between being skilled and artistic? You need the skill to produce the art but some people can do the skill and not the art.

 

Sharon: I think that a person can be very artistic and not have the skill. And a trained ear will hear that they don’t have the skill. If they can get the skills their art will ultimately be at a higher level. Some people don’t have the talent, but they can utilize the skills and get pretty far. If they’re happy with their work, I think that’s the most important thing. I think a technically strong artist’s work—whether it’s music or art or writing or dance or whatever—is going to have the power to get people to connect to it, really strongly. That, I think, is the test of art: do people go, “(Gasp!), it was like time stopped!” That’s when you know that it’s a piece of art that has grabbed somebody. The technically skillful person who doesn’t have a lot of artistic talent, their art may not grab anybody else, besides themselves, but so what? If they love doing it, that’s all that matters.

 

Hanna: For you, that’s satisfying as a teacher—as long as they want to do it, and they want to put their energy into it, it’s good enough for you.

 

Lisa: I agree, very strongly, with what you say. Sometimes, just thinking back at my own life, I’ve been aware of a lot of natural musical dance theater talent. But if you don’t work at it, and you don’t practice, and you don’t master the skills, you can only go so far. That’s a beautiful gift to be given, but if you don’t have somebody guiding you and helping you through that, you can only get so far. Again, if you master all the technical skills—like in ceramics—and it looks very flat or it doesn’t grab anybody, you can still feel accomplished. I have one adult student who, for three years, has been making the same exact glaze design that is just hideous, in my opinion. It’s just so stale. She keeps making them and she’s very proud, she’s very happy with it. So that, in and of itself, has to be enough.

 

Sharon: And who’s to say that the skill that the person—without so much talent—masters isn’t going to be utilized in some other area of their life later on. There’s no way we could know what will be the place where they are talented, that will be the place that they excel? So you think about the skills that you need to master to make a pot, or you need to be able to play the piano. There’s this whole layering of the brain: you’re learning technique and then you layer another technique over it and another, and they’ve proven that this kind of piano study is very good for brain development. It’s very good for computer programmers. It’s very good for all mathematicians. So who knows whether the highly skilled person may become a totally gifted computer programmer? My goal is to try and get a sense of where the person’s natural abilities are and what it is that they want to accomplish, and help to furnish a road map to help them get there.

 

Lisa: I have a couple of goals. I guess I think clay is a natural medium for expression for anyone, no matter who it is. So, for them to get outside what is inside through the clay, is one goal. Another is that once they’ve worked with clay they’ll never be able to go past a pottery place and not have some affinity for it. They’re going to like handmade things just because they’ve done it, and they know. So my goal is to spread that across the universe as much as possible.

 

Hanna: One last question. Sharon said in her interview that she’s not even that tired when she goes home. I’m tired just looking into her room, watching her all day! What about you, Lisa?

 

Lisa: I’m exhausted when I go home! I deal with a lot of kids at once—sometimes twenty to thirty kids at once. I’m running, running, running, and I’m trying to engage everyone, and that’s exhausting.

 

 

 

 

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