The elephant and the ant: ‘Learned helplessness’

May 16, 2017, 6:40 AM · The following was originally going to be the last page of my book The Violin Lesson, but in the end I decided to delete it – partly because of the never-ending quest to try to lower the page-count, partly on the grounds that it went too far away from what the book was meant to be about, and partly because I always try to avoid anything that may be too "weird and wonderful." But I have regretted leaving it out ever since. It is, after all, something I frequently tell students, which is precisely what the book was meant to contain. So although at some point in the future it may be put back in "The Violin Lesson" in a revised edition, I thought it might be good to place it here as a blog meanwhile.

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The great American business and motivational speaker Brian Tracy, among other "life-coaches" and teachers of accelerated learning, often raise the same interesting question: how do the owners of huge Indian elephants manage to get them to stand still so meekly, when the huge creatures are held only by a length of weak rope tied to a thin stick stuck carelessly into the ground?

With one swish of their trunk they could knock their owner flying; with one tug they could pull the stick out of the ground. Why do they simply stand there instead?

The traditional practice among elephant trainers in Asia is to chain the untrained baby elephant by its leg to a tree. However hard it fights to escape, it cannot break free from the heavy chain. Eventually the elephant gives up and accepts that there is nothing it can do.

Later the chain is replaced by a heavy rope. The elephant kicks and pulls and tries to get away a few times, and then gives up. The rope is replaced with a heavy cord and after a few half-hearted tugs the elephant again gives up. The cord is replaced with a symbolic ribbon and the elephant will wait patiently for the owner to untie the ribbon before she attempts to move.

This is called "learned helplessness." The elephant has learned to be helpless.


Amazingly, even ants can suffer from "learned helplessness." In "The Gulag Archipelago," the Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn described watching a fellow prisoner torturing an ant while they were in a prison camp in the Gulag.

The prisoner, called Zek, found the ant in the bottom of his empty teacup. The ant was trying to crawl out, and when it reached the top Zek gently knocked it back down to the bottom. The ant tried to crawl out again, and again when it reached the top Zek pushed it down. The ant climbed up the side of the cup 182 times, and 182 times Zek pushed him back down. Then the ant gave up. It never tried again to climb up the side of the cup. It simply sat at the bottom, occasionally wandering around, but never again trying to escape. Zek could even go away for a while and come back to find the ant still there. It had given up any attempt to be free.

Q: How does "learned helplessness" apply to violin playing?

Telling a student about "learned helplessness" can be the beginning of an entirely new chapter in the development of their violin playing.

When you are a beginner there has to be a first time for everything – the first time you play in a high position, or trill with the fourth finger, or play a run of fast staccato, or begin to use vibrato, or do what seems to be a very long shift up or down the string, and so on – and negative images often go back to these first experiences.

For example, imagine a nine year-old who is not yet an advanced player. She sees somebody else’s music open on the music stand. It is full of double stops. Out of interest she has a go at playing some. The double stops seem impossibly difficult: her hand feels tense; she cannot tell which note is out of tune; shifting to another double stop is difficult because the hand is gripping the neck of the violin like a clamp – and this is only the first double stop of a group of them. She quickly returns, gratefully, to the simple notes of the easier piece that she is actually playing at the time.

Sometime later her teacher gives her her first piece that contains double stops. What is her first thought when she sees them there? Naturally she remembers how bad they felt last time (i.e. she has a mental image of confusion, tension and difficulty), and sure enough they feel the same this time. Already she will be saying to herself: "I knew it was going to happen and it did."

An association between double stops and tension is now firmly cemented in the child’s mind. Ten years later the same player, now playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto, may still be filling her mind with the same images of tension and difficulty every time she approaches a passage of double stops, and never be able to play them easily and confidently.

What you have to remember is that whatever has happened in the past, you are now a different person with immense experience and learning on which to draw.

True Story: Amy

I often remember a student called Amy, who I began to teach when she was a post-graduate at music college. In her first lesson she played the first couple of pages of the Bruch Scottish Fantasy. She played the first page, and half of the second page, well and with conviction.

She had prepared carefully, but when she came to the double stops her standard suddenly slipped by 75% and she no longer sounded like a promising violinist at all. This seemed strange. To have played all the rest of it so well required real ability and understanding; how could this ability suddenly be absent, or have such a large hole in it? To have played all of it well, or all of it less well, would make sense, but this was too out of proportion.

It seemed likely that she had some negative associations with double stops. I told her about how they train elephants, told her the story of the ant, and asked if she had had any particularly nasty experiences of playing double stops when she was a young child.

Sure enough, she had indeed been given some difficult double stop pieces when she was very young, and had had painful experiences in trying to play them in local competitions and so on.

Having understood the idea of "learned helplessness" – and having reflected on the fact that she was no longer a child, and had had a lot of experience, practice and practical help over the intervening years – when she tried the double stop passages again she was astonished at how much easier they now felt. It was indeed as though imaginary chains had been removed and she now felt free.

The reason for the instantaneous improvement is simple: before she realised that she was indeed a "big elephant" now, she was barely directing her fingers at all when playing the double stops. She had unknowingly been too busy spending her precious thinking-time or directing-time on picturing how difficult the double stops were, and how she could not play them easily. Afterwards, she now had time to actually see the double stops clearly in her mind’s eye, and to tell her fingers what to do.

Most students make a similar, sudden leap of progress once they understand the logical phenomenon of learned helplessness. You can see the same improvement as in Amy’s double stops, in any challenging area of playing the violin, over and over again.


May 17, 2017 at 06:39 PM · Double stops is a good example. So is sautille.

PS Love love love your books.

May 17, 2017 at 07:59 PM · I'd like to learn in more detail what a violinist should think about in order to overcome the learned helplessness. A specific incident of playing well? Teachers, lessons, etc.?

May 17, 2017 at 08:04 PM · Mr. Fischer, your teaching is fabulous. Every time I read your teaching I am reminded of why I love violin so much. The violin community will be forever in debt to you for all your teaching. Thank you.

May 17, 2017 at 08:05 PM · That was very interesting, Simon. A small quibble that isn't clear in your paraphrase: The word "zek" wouldn't have been the prisoner's name, but rather "zek" was the slang shorthand for prisoner - As literally as I can formulate, "locked-up (person)".

May 18, 2017 at 05:32 AM · The greatest violin writer ever.

May 19, 2017 at 08:10 AM · Great!

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