6 minute read

The Protégé Effect

The Protégé Effect


The great Philosopher Seneca firmly believed that while we teach, we learn. The Protégé Effect is the idea that students who explain material to others experience a reinforcement of the same material they are communicating. Caitlyn Kamminga Assistant Professor of Double Bass at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, the Academy for the Performing Arts, shares her story of how peer-tutoring aided in the refinement of the habits, practices and performances of one of her students, and how he went on to excel, while mentoring others to achieve excellence.

I currently serve as the Assistant Professor of Double Bass at the UTT Academy for the Performing Arts (APA). However, some of the most meaningful teaching I do in Trinidad takes place at the Caribbean Network Arts & Education Foundation (CANOAE). A non-profit organization, CANAOE is attached to the Holistic Primary School in St. Anns, which is described by founder and director, Dr. Patricia DardaineRagguet, as “a private school with a public mission.” Since 2011 I have run an outreach music program there, designed to offer my undergraduates at the Academy teacher-training in situation and tutelage to financially challenged, deserving young musicians from the community. It’s a win-win situation all around.

Our first allotment of students at the Academy were musicians that were already teaching; working professionals from the Police Band, the Fire Band and the Prime Minister’s private performing ensemble, Divine Echoes. Many were self-taught, but had been playing for years and had come to the Academy for professional development rather than to really learn their craft. Most of them joined the two-year Artist Diploma program and many went on to pursue master’s degrees abroad. This meant that very quickly we lost our most experienced teachers. However, I had committed to the program with the vision that it would be a teacher-training program, not just an outreach program. Consequently, the next group of teachers we brought into the school were far less experienced and required extensive mentoring. At the time it felt like a set-back, but I see it now as a changing point in my approach to teaching.

About a year after I started this program a student of mine who had been struggling in his lessons, posted an advertisement for a new school of music. I admit I was a bit horrified that he was intending to unleash his bad habits upon some young unsuspecting musicians and frankly was at a loss as to how to respond. In the end I decided to invite him to come teach with me at CANOAE. Think of it this way, I said, “You’ll get paid to work on your technique!”

I started by approaching his lessons in a completely different way. Rather than just jumping in to fix a technical issue, I would ask him to assess himself in non-judgmental ways. Using the metaphor of a map I would ask, “how are you going to get to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are starting from?” I constantly reinforced technical concepts using positive repetition of probing questions. I also found sports metaphors worked really well, “Think of swinging a cricket bat, how can I clear the top of the wicket if I’m gripping too hard?” As my student focused on teaching others, he worked harder to understand the basic concepts of sound production, thereby producing a more beautiful sound himself.

Over the course of the term working at CANOAE, his confidence grew and his technique settled. We discovered together that it is one thing to learn something and a far deeper layer of learning to teach it.

In February, 2014 the world-renowned jazz bassist Rodney Whitaker brought the Michigan State University jazz faculty and about 40 students from his program to Trinidad, where we combined the UTT Big Band with the award winning MSU Jazz Orchestra for a week of smaller concerts in the community and then a large concert in the Lord Kitchener Auditorium. I was incredibly excited to host Rodney and his colleagues and was looking forward to my students having access to this super star. After the visit was over I spent some time reflecting on the experience with my students. What became clear to me was that whilst they were in awe of the great Rodney Whitaker, what had truly inspired them was working with the MSU students. These incredibly well-trained young men and women sat down and spoke on the level with my students about practicing, commitment, competition and how to stay focused. They played for each other, exchanged ideas and email addresses and stay in touch on social media.

Research shows that teaching others accelerates learning. For those of us in the academic world that are brave enough to incorporate peer teaching into our instruction, this will most likely confirm what you regularly witness. Put simply, students will put forth greater effort to learn for their peers and their own students than they will for themselves.

My struggling student opened his school that year. He curated an eclectic and interesting final recital and I was hugely proud of his accomplishments. He is now saving up his money to pursue a masters degree in popular and contemporary music in the UK, which is his next dream. One of his very first students just performed his final recital at the APA in June. I awarded him highest possible marks for his progress grade. He in turn is teaching the next generation of young bassists at CANOAE, some of whom will audition for the Academy in September.

Having offered my students the tools to teach and learn, I now find my greatest challenge is to refrain from jumping in and fixing it quickly- to allow them the space to experiment and find their own way. When I do allow it to happen, the atmosphere amongst these emotionally intelligent young musicians working and supporting one another is something beautiful to behold.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “While we teach, we learn.” Scientists call it the ‘protege effect’. For me it has changed everything in the way I think about teaching.

About the Author

Caitlyn Kamminga graduated cum laude, with both a BM and MM from the University of Southern California. In 1992 she joined the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra, where she held the position of Principal Double Bass until 1995. Subsequent positions include Associate Principal of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and founding member of the Hong Kong Chamber Players. In 2001 she accepted the position of Assistant Principal Double Bass in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. After six years in the BBC NOW, Kamminga moved to London, where she was largely employed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia and the London Mozart Players. Kamminga currently holds the position of Assistant Professor of Double Bass at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, the Academy for the Performing Arts. She spends her summers performing with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.