Monday, October 1, 2012

Are you training your competition?

 Over the weekend I taught an advanced pole tricks workshop. Since I'm mostly self-taught (not attached to any studio) and don't follow competitions and YouTube trends very closely, I end up coming up with some of my tricks and sequences on my own. (Someone else may come up with the same thing, of course. I don't claim bragging rights on any points of ownership or inventorship.) So I end up teaching a lot of what are de facto "signature moves."

So now anyone who took my workshop (or my classes, privates, or other workshops I've done), or anybody they subsequently teach, can run out and use my moves in a competition.

Great! Do it! That's what I'm here for.

The problem comes when your students end up working or competing in the same circuits you do.

Back in the good old olden days (not that long ago), the best teachers were basically retired from illustrious performing or competing careers. They would earn their living in their art for as long as they could, and then they would settle down and pass their wisdom on to the next generation of stars.

We tend to have a nostalgic view of this career path. "Isn't it great that people/the government was so supportive of the arts that these artists could make a living just performing?" "Isn't it great that there was so much employment that they didn't even have time to teach, they were so in demand as artists?"

The landscape has changed, for sure, but I think we are idealizing things. It has NEVER been easy to be an artist. Ask Mozart. There are other aspects to this arrangement that we forget to consider.

Artists also waited until they were retired to teach because they didn't want to share their secrets. They didn't want others in the field using their knowledge to depose them. They didn't want to create competition for themselves. After all, pretty young Sally Soprano has everything you don't: youth, beauty, energy, potential-and she'll work cheaper. Why risk her replacing you?

Well, the old system doesn't always suit the modern world. First of all, for a number of reasons, artists do usually need a day job, and often that means teaching. Secondly, the world changes so quickly these days that older, retired artists might have outdated information. And in some cases, the field is so young, or has so recently expanded, that we don't have a trove of seasoned pros to learn from. I mean, if you're learning clarinet, there are centuries of master clarinetists who have paved the way for you. If you're learning lyra? Circus arts aren't new, but just how many people do you think there were doing lyra 20 or 30 years ago, compared to today? Somebody has to teach all these budding aerialists, and that usually means working or aspiring professionals.

All this means that many of us are training our own competition, without having thought through the ramifications.

How do you deal with this bundle of logistics and awkwardness? Well, for some people like me, it's not a big issue. I don't really compete or perform professionally. I mean, if I want to enter a contest or a showcase, I will. But I'm not trying to break into the competition circuit, or earn my pro card. So if someone shows up with the same trick as me, it doesn't affect my life a whole lot.

Other people chose to keep their signature tricks, or at least their new tricks, to themselves. But new tricks are exactly what students most want to learn from us. So we're kind of hurting our business. Plus, we can really only keep so many moves polished & practiced at a time, so with advanced students who already know the basics (or think they do), we often end up teaching them whatever we've been polishing on our own time.

Some less evolved teachers might prevent their students from achieving their potential. They might discourage them from entering competitions, or imply that they're not good enough. Obviously you shouldn't study with someone like this. (It's important to be objective, though. If a trusted coach tells you you're not ready, you should listen, or at least get a second opinion.)

Teaching doesn't only create quality of competition. It creates quantity. You'll often hear old-timers complaining about newcomers on the market who don't have enough knowledge/experience and are ruining things for those who are already established. Here's a thoughtful piece by aerialist Laura Witwer (who I had I think one silks class with years ago at STREB, where she told me that glitter is what separates us from the animals, which is good advice) complaining about new aerialists drastically undercutting the pros and bringing fees down. This is a legitimate issue, but I also think you can't make a large part of your living training hordes of new aerialists, and then turn around and complain that there are hordes of new aerialists on the market and prices are dropping. If you are teaching your skills to many people, then it's your own fault that your skill set is no longer rare.

If you want to teach while you are still active as a performer, that's fine-that's actually what most of us do. But you should be aware of this dilemma going into the situation, so you can think ahead about how you want to handle it when it comes up. And if you're an outstanding teacher, it will come up. The best want to train with the best.

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