The Depths of the Unknown, a Post for Teachers

Well, that sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

The Depths of the Unknown is a tenet of my teaching philosophy.  It means that we teachers need to reach the understanding of what, exactly, is not known by the student; that which is preventing futher progress as a player.

I have discovered that most young students practice exactly what they are told and little more. Perhaps young students, (below age 20), are afraid to explore. This would cause them to need ‘Permission’ from teachers and themselves to experiment and explore the instrument and its possibilities. Be sure to give all your students permission to explore their instrument as well as the assigned development work.

Older students, especially those old enough to be parents of the younger students have a strong tendency to have no idea how to learn a new skill; especially a new physical skill. The primary issue of this group is that most of their ‘learning’ is simply a different application of the hard skills already possessed.

For example, if an adult decides to learn the Microsoft Office Suite of applications, they are really just applying skills already posessed in a different format. Adults usually have some writing, math, formulaic, and design skill just from having to function in everyday life. So, in this case, there is no ‘new’ skill being learned, just a new use of current skills.

Learning to play an instrument requires physical repetition and mental development that usually hasn’t happened in a couple decades or more for most adult students. We often need to encourage adult students to be patient with themselves and to understand that learning a musical instrument is often completely different than most of their daily ‘learning’.

I often realize, (When will I get it through MY thick head?), that a student is not progressing because I have not discovered their Depth of the Unknown after weeks, sometimes months of working with them. The problem almost always rests in the time spent with the instrument at the student’s home. I can forgive myself for missing these issues because I am not able see students practice at home each week. The only clue I have to go on is that the student is obviously not progressing and I am half of the equation. It is important to frequently ask questions about a student’s thoughts, feelings, practice habits, etcetera at each session. This is how we (eventually) discover the Depth of the Unknown for each student.

This process often takes a while because most people don’t know what I need to know about these aspects of themselves and I just haven’t come upon the right question to receive the needed answer.

However, once the problem is discovered, the solution usually just a few steps away. There is a very simple formula to playing music, and that is: Play the right notes in the right order at the right time.

Funny enough, most people are very sensitive to timing and tempo, especially tempo. What I hear from nearly every student when I ask them how their playing of a section of a tune compares to mine is: “I’m not playing fast enough.” Rarely am I told: “Well, I played the first note three times because it didn’t sound like I wanted it to sound. I skipped the fifth and seventh notes. I played everything with only a downstroke. I cut off every note the moment I played it in my rush to the next, not realizing that unless there is a rest, each note I play should BECOME the next without a gap of silence.”, etcetera.

In the reading of language, we use a technique called ‘Clumping’. When clumping, we are accepting the visual of three or four words at a time, then grasping the next three or four words while processing the first ‘clump’. When we learn to read, and subsequently when we learn to play specific music, clumping is not possible to do accurately. If you have heard a child learning to read, you probably noticed that they work through it one word at a time.

Most beginning students of an instrument have already been reading for years. This will cause them to attempt to use their clumping skill when learning an instrument, but they do not have the technical facility nor experience as a music reader or player to do this effectively, and as such, will play phrases full of mistakes. For this reason, as does a child learning to read, the beginning student of a musical instrument must work through a piece one note at a time.

I encourage students to break songs into many phrases which can then be repeated to a certain level of proficiency before moving to the next. It is easier to be patient enough to work through a short phrase one note at a time rather than an entire tune or A, B, or C section of a song. This technique seems to give a frequent sense of accomplishment quickly followed by another opportunity to repeat the process.

Simply put, the student must look at the note, play the note, and then be cognizant that what was seen and then played match each other before moving to the next note. While slow, plodding, meticulous, tedious, mind-numbing, or whichever adjective you prefer, it is a guaranteed, fast-track way to develop a clear understanding of the music at hand.

If hours are spent allowing mistakes to occur, there will be subsequent hours spent untying the mind and fingers to produce the right notes, in the right order, at the right time. This time can be saved and put to better use if we adopt the attitude of: “Let’s aim to be right the first time.”.

Believe me, this will transform your students’ progress; possibly your own as well.

-Justin

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