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Collaboration in the ACHT Studio by Janice LaMarre

The following post is by Janice LaMarre.

The ACHT Studio, comprised of the students of Heidi Castleman, Misha Amory, Hsin-Yun Huang, and Steven Tenenbom, at the Juilliard School, is a unique entity at a unique school because of its high level of collaboration between teachers and students. Sharing teachers, studio classes, information, and funding allows students to thrive in a nurturing environment. Heidi Castleman explains below how the shared studio began:

To thrive humans require both closeness and autonomy. Traditionally, the studio teacher is isolated from his/her peer group; in the mid-1980’s I turned to team teaching because it afforded me the possibility of contradicting that isolation. In 1994 when Dr. Polisi invited me to join the Juilliard viola faculty, he asked me to identify a colleague with whom I would like to share students. Immediately, I proposed Misha Amory; in that first year we shared 9 students. With Hsin-Yun Huang and Steven Tenenbom joining us, the studio has gradually grown to include an average of 30 students. Happily, it is a home to which alumni continue to return and contribute.

 

1. Collaboration’s rewards: Collaboration leaves everyone with a feeling of “win-win” through opening a myriad of possibilities.

Misha Amory explains this concept as his favorite aspect of the studio:

 I have had occasional experiences sharing students outside the ACHT studio. While there have been successes, it is impossible for the teaching collaboration to feel “close” in the same way that ACHT offers. This difference is due in part to the superb organizational effort on the part of Heidi Castleman and Yi-Fang Huang, who over the years have refined a studio structure resting on weekly studio classes, several formal studio recitals, a Google site enabling shared lesson notes, this blog, and a host of data-gathering efforts at the beginning of each school year. Add to that the fact that the four of us teachers are close friends and value the opportunity to discuss our many students with each other, and you can easily understand why the team-teaching in this studio has such a good basis for success.

To answer your question, I would say that my favorite aspect of collaboration within our studio is knowing that the other teacher has your back: he or she sees the same picture of a student that you do, and is helping to chart the same course to help the student progress. It is not merely two teachers who are consultants, checking in on the student from time to time, a feeling that can take hold in a more casual collaboration. Better yet, when you are stumped about how to help a student on a given problem, there is an excellent chance that your colleague will see something that you don’t, and will jump to help solve it.

 

2. Collaboration has to start at the top. Studio culture is not set by words, but by the actions of the teacher. That means treating everyone with respect, and providing regular constructive feedback. Trust is required for every successful collaboration.

Yi-Fang Huang finds Heidi’s approach to be the most unique part of the studio:

If you ask Heidi Castleman what makes the ACHT studio unique, she will probably credit everyone around her rather than drawing attention to herself, even though the idea of team teaching was first started by her. She believes that the team teaching approach benefits the student by making available the wisdom and experience of multiple teachers. She also believes that, if well-coordinated, the cooperative efforts of the teachers and the interactions of students and faculty in weekly studio activities, create a supportive musical community for the students.

Just like all the great organizations have great leaders who always act, think, and communicate from inside out by first asking themselves why they do what they do, the ACHT Studio is unique because we have a great leader who inspires all of us- Heidi Castleman. She has a precise vision of what she believes. She fosters a safe environment for students to grow by her love and wisdom. She is a selfless and devoted educator. She is confident in what she does and yet it comes with incredible humility. Heidi is the force that drives all of us to be better. I feel very privileged to be part of the team.

 

Molly Carr explains this aspect of the ACHT studio collaboration succinctly:

 The greatest part of the collaboration is that it all springs from Heidi’s brain. Because she’s such an amazing person, everyone who is involved is so happy to get things done and be involved. It’s all for her, and it’s for a good cause, and there’s no conflict because she’s the fairy godmother above it all.

 

3. The biggest barriers to collaboration are not technical – but instead, are cultural and organizational in nature. Everyone benefits most when teachers focus on building a studio culture and developing processes through communication and shared goals, rather than allowing internal competition and bureaucracy to thrive.

Indeed, Yi-Fang Huang says she enjoys working in the studio largely due to its overwhelmingly positive culture and impressive level of organization, for within the studio…

– All teachers and students are respectful towards each other.
– Teachers are passionate about music and supportive of each other.
– Teachers share similar values and always have students’ best interests in mind.
– All four of the teachers are like the best students who never stop learning.
– Other than weekly lesson and studio class, there are also play-through classes, scale classes, Bach classes, eurhythmics classes, and guest masterclasses and lectures.

 

4. Collaboration cannot be deployed, but embraced. Teachers must be willing participants who model collaborative behavior – even so far as embracing new technology tools – not just taskmasters. All team members must be committed.

In the ACHT studio, all students are requested to read and respond quickly to emails in order to keep up with the studio’s frequently changing google calendar. Changes in this lesson calendar are largely the responsibility of the students; when one student agrees to take another’s lesson time due to a conflict, the whole process is completed before the teacher is ultimately notified, thus creating goodwill and allowing teachers to focus on more important tasks than regulating the schedule. The teachers also occasionally cover for each other in cases of a conflicting performance or travel plans.

 

5. Good ideas come from anywhere, so the more voices the better.

Heidi Castleman is proudest of “the multiplicity of fine minds (faculty, teaching assistants, and students) thinking about how each student can realize his/her potential the best.” For this reason, students are given important leadership roles in the studio and are also often called upon to actively comment in studio classes. Furthermore, unexpected guests (often even from outside of the music world) are invited to give presentations/lectures at various studio classes throughout the year in order to shed light on performing in new ways.

Steven Tenenbom explains his enthusiasm for the shared studio, in an informal interview, as follows:

The collaboration aspect of our studio is great! I even prefer to share students over teaching on my own. For the right student, I think two teachers can be a wonderful experience, especially in our studio where there is strong teamwork. If a teacher were adamant that a piece must be played in a certain way, that would make cooperation more difficult. The way we four teachers work together within the Juilliard viola program is fantastic. Our common thread is Heidi, and even if she is away, it seems as though she’s still here and the studio runs smoothly. The fact that Heidi is really our central pillar makes it really great. It’s also interesting when we collaborate not with Heidi, but with the other students. That’s nice for other reasons: it’s interesting how different brains work together.

 

6. Collaboration enhances personal communication skills. As team members interact and play to their strengths, they learn to be authentic and genuine, which increases their effectiveness as well as their skills. They reach agreement faster and communicate more.

As Molly Carr explains:

The fact that almost everyone in the studio has more than one teacher is truly unique. In most schools there is conflict between teachers, if the student studies with two teachers. It may be a question of ego, but there is none of this in the ACHT studio – the teachers are all careful to communicate with eachother and keep up-to-date through weekly lesson notes on each student.

7. You get out of collaboration what you put in. Another of Heidi Castleman’s favorite aspects of the collaboration is that “everyone gives and receives quality attention.”

 

8. Collaboration success means changing both roles and rewards. This means creating processes that allow more perspectives, but making it clear who has decision-making rights. It’s essential to provide incentives to change-ingrained behavior.

 

9. More interaction opens opportunities to create more artistic value. Within the Classical music world, opportunities exist that are often missed unless everyone is listening and communicating.

Students come to Juilliard from around the globe. Their unique perspective may shed light on how to play a certain style of music more authentically, tailor concert programs to different audiences, or unearth new topics for musicological research. By welcoming their voice, the diversity of the studio is enhanced. Top teachers including Robert Vernon, Thomas Riebl, Barbara Westphal, and others are invited for master classes and to work together.

 

10. The studio gets out more than it puts into collaboration. Students are the most obvious beneficiaries of this method, but teachers gain deep satisfaction and help from this work.

Collaboration accelerates innovation, improves agility, increases adaptability, and cuts costs all at once. But building a collaborative culture is not an easy transformation for the traditional fiercely independent teacher. How can each of us incorporate these elements into our own studios?


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