Chris Mitchell strikes a chord with his students. Photo: Adam Scotti

Chris Mitchell strikes a chord with his students. Photo: Adam Scotti

Dal instructor shares the student experience

One instructor in Dalhousie’s music department knows exactly what his students are going through

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Chris Mitchell's office is exactly what you'd expect of a jazz teacher at Dalhousie University - posters of Miles Davis and Chet Baker cover the walls. But there is one thing not hanging up: an undergraduate degree. That's because he doesn't have one.

"I was hired based on the resumé I've created over that past 25 years, which is equivalent, as the university saw it (to having an undergraduate degree)," he says.

But this will all change in 2015 when he graduates from Dalhousie's music department with an undergraduate degree in classical flute. This means he’s now being taught by his coworkers whilst sitting alongside his students.

The rare arrangement of being both teacher and undergraduate student in the same department is not lost on Mitchell, who is a sectional instructor.

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Chris Mitchell talks about performance. Video by: Adam Scotti
Chris Mitchell talks about performance. Video by: Adam Scotti

He says it has "never really seemed awkward" and this may be partially because Mitchell has a laid-back and casual demeanour. But that doesn't mean he hasn't learned a few lessons.

"Being in class with some of my students is an extremely humbling experience in that you're really putting yourself out there," he says.

Mitchell also has to navigate tactfully around his instructors, who are also his peers.

"The first year was the most challenging, because we were sort of figuring out what the (personal and professional) dynamic was, but for the most part it's very comfortable," he says.

Mitchell wasn't required to enrol in an academic program. In fact, jazz instructors have typically not held music degrees because formal jazz programs themselves have been rare. But studying classical flute at the undergrad level is something Mitchell genuinely wanted to do.

"I have an affinity for classical music and the desire to broaden my horizons musically," says Mitchell, adding he felt compelled to get a degree since he was teaching at such an advanced level.

Long time coming

When Mitchell was interviewed for his instructor position at Dalhousie in 2003, he intended to eventually enrol in the department. While this was a new situation for the hiring committee, the current department chair Jennifer Bain thought it was a wonderful idea.

"Everybody was very happy about it. I wouldn't say that it was a problem situation at all. Everybody thought 'OK, we've got someone here who wants to do this, let's encourage that and have our students see one of their professors in class, working on this material too.'"

Bain agrees having one instructor taught by another could present the appearance of a conflict of interest but the department has sidestepped any suspicions by relying on open communication and academic integrity principles.

And they just pretend Mitchell is like any other student.

"We just treat it in a professional way. We're all adults - the students, too."

Bain also thinks Mitchell is a role model for the department.

"I think it's really inspiring for students to see one of their professors who's a professional musician...take on that big endeavour," she says.

And it's working.

Allie Fiola is a third-year student in music and psychology at Dalhousie and has been both a student of Mitchell's and a student with him. She doesn't hesitate when asked about Mitchell's situation. She sees it as absolutely natural and attributes most of that to Mitchell himself.

"He's on the same level as the students. He has that type of personality where he can relate to anyone of any age," she says.

Onward and upward

Mitchell doesn't plan to end his education once his undergrad is completed. He plans on getting a master's degree and vaguely talks about having a plan.

For now, he's staying focused on ensuring he doesn't "fail any of the courses, because that would be a little awkward," he says while laughing

But he promises his GPA is hitting all the high notes.

Comments on this story are now closed

Wicked video!

Posted by Sarah | Jan 17, 2012

Wonderful article. In addition to being a dedicated student and (I am sure) a wonderful teacher, Mr. Mitchell is also a top notch father-in-law! Love you Chris! Also, Miles, great job, love you too. G.

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