By Phillip Milano
For Jacksonville University’s Scott Watkins, all it took to know his first trip to China last year as a visiting foreign scholar was going to be different was to ask one of his piano students how he felt about his playing.
“He had a blank look on his face,” said Watkins, an assistant professor of music. “It was as if he had no idea what I was talking about.”
In China, the position of teacher is so revered that such casual conversation with students doesn’t happen much, Watkins said. The emphasis is on absorbing as much technical learning as possible passed down from the instructor.
“We’re pretty loose in the States, with a lot of dialogue between teacher and student,” he said. “It’s more about self-esteem and how do you feel about your performance, a lot of emotional content. I didn’t find that in China. Their culture won’t allow it.
“On the other hand, even though I did not notice that the talent level is much different, their students do win a lot of performance competitions, so something they’re doing is working.”
Watkins will have another chance to see what’s working -- and what’s different -- in China when he and his wife, JU strings assistant professor Marguerite Richardson, teach at Bei Fang University in Yinchuan beginning June 2. Richardson will give the world premiere of a new composition titled "Two Pieces for Violin and Piano: Mountain Song and Yang-Ge Dance." The couple will be in China with trip organizer and JU associate professor of composition Jianjun He, who is from Yinchuan, where he’s taught at Ningxia University.
On the plus side in the U.S., Watkins said, the interaction between student and teacher promotes dialogue and critical thinking. However, the more hierarchical approach in China does promote an intense focus on technique, interpretation, nuts and bolts … and seems to net awards.
“At the same time, their professors are very interested in our teaching methods, asking us why we talk to our students and are so friendly and open with them,” Watkins noted. “It is fascinating to them because ultimately, we all want the same thing: to help our students improve. We all still have the same challenges of getting them to practice more, be better readers of music, more knowledgeable of composers... It’s just different approaches that we use.”