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Your teacher can profoundly impact your progress (and you are your own best teacher)

Michael Fox

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Published: March 3, 2015 at 1:40 AM [UTC]

When I was taking violin lessons in college, I had a few stressful weeks trying to perfect a particularly awkward shift and finger pattern high on the E-string. That note required a lot of practice time trying to get it in tune – practicing one measure of an etude again and again until it started to feel somewhat comfortable. Yet, even when I felt close in my own practice times, I would go to my lesson full of nervousness, profoundly missing the shift and getting discouraged at my lack of progress.

Around the same time, some friends of mine invited me to be a part of a one-gig band that would blend avant-garde classical composition with thrash metal. In other words, we would perform one 20-minute “song” filled with as much discordant and loud noise as possible. Since there really wasn’t any pressure to play any real “notes” in the traditional sense, the 20 musicians on stage for this experiment could basically try anything in a radically judgment-free space. My thought was that probably more fun to be on stage then in the audience, but in fact we filled the room with friends, who listened attentively and screamed and applauded wildly. It was one of the more safe and musically affirming environments I’ve ever experienced, and at some point, I decided to try to incorporate that high note giving me so much trouble. And I nailed it. Ironically, the one time that being in-tune didn’t matter was one of first times I felt able to play the note in tune.

Hearing from other music makers and friends has taught me that I’m not alone in this, in being profoundly influenced by the encouragement or discouragement of those around me. Your playing can improve significantly simply by relaxing and building up your confidence level. But yet, often our level of comfort is profoundly impacted by the behavior of others around us, a quality I often attribute to illusive “vibes” that I don’t understand, yet am profoundly impacted by.

Psychologist Robert Rosenthal made some fascinating experiments looking at how our expectations can shape someone else’s performance. He told a teacher in a classroom that he had administered a special test showing that certain students were on the brink of becoming exceptionally intelligent. The catch was that in fact, there was no such test – he had simply drawn names out of a hat and falsely claimed they were exceptionally gifted. Shockingly, the students falsely marked as brilliant started to perform significantly better then their peers. This was a very surprising and strange result, which Rosenthal attributed to the ways a teacher’s expectations shaped their interactions. When a teacher assumed students were capable of more, he or she would engage with them in a such a way that supported better learning. In subtle, subconscious ways, what we believe about someone’s ability influences how we interact with them. This in turn can send an unseen but powerful signal that can powerfully influence our students’ or colleagues’ abilities.

That is why, as a teacher, I always seek to be confident in anyone’s ability. In spite of the many challenges of playing the violin, I believe it is a skill that everyone can develop – and so I always strive to hold on to the belief that every student has the potential to become a great violinist. The student can sometimes be hard on themselves, but it was hard for me too, at first, and it is only by keeping at it that things begin to get easier.

Even more powerful then what a teacher can do, are the thoughts we carry in our own head – in truth, you are your own best teacher. A truly great musician strives to play every note in a “zone” of mindfulness, confidence, and honest evaluation, but the inner voice of self-doubt, distraction, or “going through the motions” can get in the way. I only meet with students for an hour every week, at most, but you are with yourself – your own body and your own thoughts all the time. So the best way to for me to nurture your musical development is to help you encourage and teach yourself.

There are two false ways of hearing yourself that can get in the way of this careful, attention to our playing. They represent extremes, two false mental approaches to music making, both of which can distort our ability to truly hear ourselves. They are:

A) Underestimating your awesomeness – scrutinizing every imperfection and flaw, every squeak or anything that doesn’t measure up to our vision of perfection, in a stressful mental state that can easily leave you feeling discouraged and hopeless. Getting to a “good” violin sound often takes a really long time, with multiple steps along the way. If you think only about the end result, you won’t see the small improvements your making along the way.

B) Overestimating your awesomeness – Not recognizing pitfalls and problems with the music, ignoring ways the rhythm or pitch may be less then precise, or things that can be added to a piece to make it more interesting or with more emotional weight. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but a musician who is truly empowered to play freely is always striving to play with intentionality – so that technique facilitates playing what’s really in your head.

Some of us are more included to struggle with one, some of us less likely to see what is good, others less likely to see where growth needs to happen. I have had students who, every time we go through a piece, end by making a horrible face of disgust, even when their playing is improving. I have had other students who seem deeply proud of whatever they play, and seem impatient or confused when I point out issues with their pitch, rhythm, or the shape of their hand that still needs attention.

In either case, the answer is to listen deeply to what’s inside your own mind, the voice in my head that invariably speaks up after playing. I seek to ask myself “Am I gravitating towards noticing the positive or the negative aspects of this performance?” and then try to focus on whichever voice I am neglecting. I recommend occasionally making recordings of yourself, and then listening carefully to make sure your pitches and rhythms are really as correct as they seem in your head.

Sometimes I struggle with getting too wrapped in my playing – taking things so seriously and so personally that I “need” to be perfect. Admitting I made a mistake can sometimes bruise my ego – and this can be a really dangerous block, because it makes me oblivious to the ways I still need to improve. I find it really helpful to “prepare” mentally, as well as bodily, by closing my eyes and breathing slowly before each time I play, telling myself that any imperfect notes are not an indictment on my worth as a human being, but merely a challenge I am more than capable of meeting.

From Karen Collins
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 4:15 AM
Great post, thank you.

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