A violin student named Hannah was learning shifting, and she was very discouraged. She felt like she just couldn't do it. Not having a private teacher, she went to her school orchestra teacher, and they practiced doing some slides with one finger. Things started to feel easier. In fact, suddenly she felt like she could do shifts.
What changed? Here's what Hannah told her teacher: "You taught me easier ways to play, and I think I was using the hard way."
That's a quote that stuck with Rebecca Roesler, who now teaches at Brigham Young University in Idaho. Roesler shared this story with colleagues at the American String Teachers Association Conference last spring in Orlando, Fla., in a lecture called "This is your Brain on Practice."
"I am convinced that every student can be successful, regardless of their challenges, background or access to private lessons, as long as the task is designed for their success," Roesler said. "If it's too hard, it's too hard! Don't lose sight of who all of this is for." In order to embrace their own learning, a student must feel like what they are doing is not too hard to do, and like they are an important part of their own learning process.
So why would something feel "too hard" for a student? The science of the brain can help explain. The brain has great capacity - but it also has limitations. Piling on too many tasks at once can result in frustration.
A teacher can start by thinking about the fundamental skills a student needs to develop, in order to play the violin, for example: holding the violin, holding the bow, hearing notes, rhythm, note-reading, finger patterns and dexterity.
In each step along the way, the student must develop "habit strength to the point of automaticity, before layering additional tasks," Roesler said.
What does that mean?
First of all, despite the fact that we humans *think* we are good at "multi-tasking," in reality, we can only truly pay attention to one thing at a time. Roesler showed us several selective attention videos in which focusing on one detail causes most people to miss call kinds of other things that are going on in the environment.
The thing that allows us to "layer tasks" - that illusion of multi-tasking - is called "automaticity." Automaticity is achieved by practicing and repeating a specific behavior so many times that it becomes "automatic." The learned behavior literally requires fewer brain cells, and thus requires less attention.
"Automaticity is how we manage our world," Roesler said. For example, a toddler must expend a great deal of attention to walk across the room, but over time walking becomes a strong habit, to the point of "automaticity." With automaticity, it becomes possible to walk, while also focusing on and doing other things.
The only problem with "automaticity" is that if a task is an automated habit, it is harder to bring it back into consciousness. For example, if holding the violin has become a habit, practiced to the point of automaticity, then it is hard for a student to change how he or she holds the violin.
"Students have to have habits in order to do what they do," Roesler said, "but they also need to have the ability to change those habits."
So in developing a student's habit strength: first the student must be able to remember and correctly execute the skill, then the student must be able to maintain that skill while doing another task.
Knowing this, then it's possible to understand why students can wind up with a bad set-up on the violin, or can have trouble moving on to more advanced work. Roesler offered three explanations:
But before getting to judgmental, remember this: teachers are up against some serious challenges, when it comes to teaching a bowed stringed instrument. First of all, the movements required for playing are not "every-day" movements that feel familiar. Students have to learn to hold things in a way that they don't routinely hold other things (like a spoon, a shovel, a doorknob) and they have to develop specialized muscle sets that generally are not developed in any other activities besides playing. Playing also is not symmetrical - it requires that the right and left hands do entirely different tasks. Thus, it requires "bi-manual independence" - each hand doing its own thing.
It is hard to focus on all that at once - and as illustrated above, you can't focus on all of it at the same time.
However, knowing both the challenges of the task and the limitations of the brain can help teachers design do-able exercises and goals for students, both beginners and those needing remediation.
Roesler recommended some helpful guidelines to help teachers set up a do-able plan.
First, come up with an intelligent sequence for learning skills, and monitor each task vigilantly, giving immediate feedback to the student. The correct motions and habits must be reinforced with correct repetition.
When practicing, a student will have more success with not just repetition, but with correct repetition. (This advice reminds me of the old saying: Practice doesn't make perfect, practice only makes permanent... Perfect practice makes perfect!)
Tasks have to be broken down into do-able units - if it's "too hard," chances are it needs to be broken down into something more doable.
"Don't forget to experiment," she said. "Exploration is one of the ways we learn, through trial and error." Allow students to have this, so the task can become their own.
And in all this building of physical skills, don't forget to attend to the sound, to allow the student that external focus that comes from hearing and shaping the sound they are producing.
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