Zach Tolan,

My Story

My story isn't usual... I'm Zach Tolan, or "Mr. Zach" to my students. When I started teaching, I was so young (15) that parents and I didn't know what their kids should call me... "Mr. Tolan" didn't seem right, and just "Zach" seemed too informal, so we settled on "Mr. Zach" and it's been that way ever since. 

I'd won 1st place in our high school talent show fiddling "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." It's a big hit and a good choice for a small farm town.

I'd been classically taught by the associate concertmaster of our Grand Rapids Symphony, who refused to teach fiddle, but when the newspaper journalist suggested listing my phone number along with my picture in front of the school assembly, she assured me people would call wanting lessons for their kids.

She was right! Soon I had about 10 private students - enough to quit my McDonalds burger assembly job. One parent who worked for the school suggested I contact the Elementary principal and go class-to-class, playing songs and putting instruments in kid's hands to promote a new after-school orchestra. Since our district didn't have a strings program, he loved the idea and put me in touch with the Superintendent to get approval for the project. A few weeks later, about 15 kids and me launched our district's first community orchestra! 

I kept the program going for my last 2 years of high school and my first year of college, when the long commute forced me to shift my focus to students closer to school. At the time, I intended on studying theology, but wanted a secular undergraduate degree to study in a way I considered better rounded than if my education was totally from one point of view. So I majored in Philosophy, emphasis on Ancient Greek, took classes on any other topic that interested me, and increased the total number of students I'd teach each week to pay for it. 

I'd teach a set of lessons before and after class every day of the week, about 30-40 individual lessons each week for most of the time I was in college. Teaching was something I was doing so much of that I started wanting to know more about the practice of teaching (pedagogy), so I requested overrides into classes in the school of education, which the university granted on a professor by professor basis.

It was when I was taking classes in education that I realized what truly interested me wasn't teaching, but rather, a deep curiosity about the process of learning. That's when the spark I had for teaching erupted into a blaze of enthusiasm for learning. So rather than study pedagogy, I concentrated on understanding the neuroscience of learning - a change that made all the difference.

The biggest opportunities, and the ones I was most fascinated with, were stories of child prodigies like Mozart. How the heck do the songs he performed, and composed, at the age he performed and composed them, have any basis in reality?! What's more, I could see examples of real-life child prodigies with my own eyes on YouTube. It dramatically shifted how I thought of human potential (something I recommend for all teachers), and is probably why I chose "maximizing human potential" as the topic for my capstone paper.

How could such young minds and fingers perform at such "adult" levels? I centered my practice on that question, and kept perpetually at it for literally tens of thousands of lessons (and counting...). My conclusions sum up to first understanding the real capabilities of young learners - both that they have very high potential, and knowing the types and degrees of potential possible at their age and stage of development. Then, the work that continues without end is mapping possible learning paths and matching them to potential learners, as fun and stress-free as possible. (That's where pedagogy meets neuroscience, ergonomics, and fun! When it comes to learning, nothing else "lights-up" a brain like fun!)

You can see other pages of my site for examples my student's progress. Some record and share their progress very openly, which I am grateful for.

My live classes are each generally a testing ground for improving existing curriculum and testing new curriculum and course ideas. Most of these began as virtual courses I made for students at Hamilton and Niles Community Schools.

Although some young students ages 5-7 work in their first year at intermediate or early-advanced repertoire/ABRSM "Diploma Level" repertoire, (usually 5-8 years of study. Think Moonlight Sonata or Fur Elise.) I believe there is still much progress to be made in universally improving the experience of musical fun and engagement for the youngest learners, e.g. Preschoolers, Kindergarteners, and 1st-2nd graders. That's why the great majority of my focus is still on making the best possible program for the youngest possible students. And, like learning to walk and talk, early active engagement is what wires the brain for life-long fluency, which is why if you haven't gotten started yet, you should get started!

Playful wishes,
Mr. Zach :)


Name: Zach Tolan
Email: [email protected]
Address: 1051 Park St SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504
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Last updated: Nov 14, 2021