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Positive Piano Teaching May 12, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Childhood, Music, Teaching.
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“How can you stay so positive?

Last year I wrote a post entitled “Nix the Negativity, Please” and I thought the above would make an excellent springboard for a discussion of the opposite – being positive🙂

Last Wednesday, I was talking with the mother of two of my students. Let’s call her Katy, and her two boys Joel and Travis. Joel is the oldest of the two boys; though highly talented at math and other logic-based subjects, he finds kinesthetic activities – like tapping or moving to a beat – far more difficult. Travis, on the other hand, is the epitome of the “right-brained” child: dance, gymnastics, art all come to him with great ease.

We’d just had the lesson, in which both boys had made good progress and passed several of their songs. Katy and I were chatting in the car on the way to the bus afterwards, and all at once she burst out with, “I don’t understand it! How can you stay so positive?”

“Well, I really love teaching…” I ventured tentatively.

“No,” she elaborated on her theme. “It’s more than that. If it were me teaching them, there’s no way I could truthfully say ‘That’s great, you’ve made so much progress on this piece.’ Of course when I help the boys practice I try not to be critical, it’s my job as a parent to be encouraging. But listening to them from the other room, I could hear so many things wrong with their playing – and all I could think was “That really sucked, how could you mess up there again, why can’t you get it?””

Part of what fueled it, of course, had been a week of frustrating practice with Joel. I’d assigned him a simple metronome exercise, and asked Katy to help: tap along with him, one beat per metronome tick, then fade out and let him take over. Then two beats per metronome tick, alternating right and left hand (just like playing the bongos).

It had driven her crazy, or nearly so. “I just don’t understand how he can’t get it. He tries to tap along, but he’s *waiting* for the tick and taps after it, too late. I don’t think he’s getting any better. Travis finds it easy, of course.”

“Actually, Joel was much better at it this week – at least with me,” I assured her. But she remained skeptical. “It’s great that you can be so positive about it. But I really wonder if he’ll ever learn it.”

*******

A week later, I was back at Katy’s house for the boys’ next piano lesson (in which they both did quite well, passing most of their pieces and showing a lot of improvement on the others.) In the car after the lesson the subject of Joel came up. “I have to say,” ventured Katy, “he does seem to be getting better at the rhythm thing. He found the metronome exercise a lot easier this week.” (Her expression told me she’d found it much easier as well. ;))

“That’s great!” I responded. “And then,” she went on, “we were sitting in the car, driving, and there was pop music playing with a heavy bass beat. And all of a sudden I saw him moving to the beat – and tapping along! ‘My teacher said I needed to practice this,’ he told me.” (I was astounded to hear this – even I hadn’t expected him to practice in his “free time”, and in such a creative way!)

And I realized I had my answer…this is why I stay positive. Not because I’m self-deceptively optimistic or naive or walking through life with stubbornly rose-colored glasses, but simply because I’ve discovered two general truths about learning:

1. It is pretty much possible for anyone to learn any skill, no matter how “bad” they seem to be at it at first.

2. Intelligent, persistent practice generally pays off much faster than anyone imagines it will.

Our society, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, puts far too much emphasis on the myth of “talent.” Note that I’m not denying there’s such a thing as – let’s call it – “aptitude”. Obviously everyone finds some things easy and other things not so easy; that’s universal. But the idea of “talent” – that you’re endowed with a particular genetic heritage which makes you good at some things and bad at others, and will determine everything from your hobbies and interests to your career path – is absolutely a myth.

It’s amazing how much resistance to this idea I’ve gotten from fellow musicians in particular. (There was a piano forum in which I stated, very seriously, that anyone could achieve concert-level performance ability with enough persistence and a good teacher. I was thoroughly laughed at, but I still stand by that comment.) Perhaps it’s because we have a bit too much invested in this idea of talent? That we, as musicians, were showered from On High with an ineffable, special, divine talent which mere drudgery alone will never match? That if (horrible thought!) anyone could match our achievements under the right circumstances, maybe we’re not such amazing, “gifted” people after all.

Well, of course, we are…just because we’re human.😀 But not because of our so-called talents. Because we are all incredibly adaptive, creative beings who can learn to do pretty much anything we’re interested in, and who can’t be pinned down by labels like “klutz” or “tone-deaf” or “unmusical.” (Or, for that matter, “dyslexic” or “hyperactive” or “slow” or “autistic” or “unimaginative”…or any more of the Negativity-labelled pigeonholes adults will often try to stick children into.)

…And really, what more reason does one need to be positive?🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Comments»

1. Montecelery - May 12, 2011

YAY POSITIVITY! We are human – we adapt. I like that! I think it would take a VERY long time for me to achieve concert quality. I’d probably be well into a retirement. But I don’t know. I trust I could do it. Of course, I’d have to want to. There was a very interesting story on Radiolab (NPR show) about secrets of success and “god-given talent” recently –
http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2010/jul/26/secrets-of-success
One of the messages I loved was that a lot of people who are uber-successful in their field of choice aren’t necessarily more talented from birth – but they have a passion and love for their field which drives them to practice and rehearse and learn incessantly. Which can create “talent”. But talent with emotion. And joy. ‘Cause, really, who wants to continue doing something that much, if you hate it?

2. contrapuntalplatypus - May 12, 2011

I think I mentioned the “10 Thousand Hour” theory in an earlier post or comment – various studies have shown that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of intelligent, focused practice on something to become an expert at it. This is totally regardless of initial aptitude; both the people who found the skill hard at first, and those who found it easy, all took the same amount of time to achieve “expert” level. This may seem counterintuitive, but the evidence backs it up – and in a way it makes sense that to understand something on a “deep” level, one needs to explore it for a long time, while a superficial facility will only get you so far.

Another extremely interesting book is “The Brain that Changes Itself.” Neuroscientists used to have the idea that the brain – after the various stages of childhood development – was more or less rigid and inflexible. Cognitive function (like speech or movement) lost due to an injury or stroke was thought to be gone for good. Increasing evidence shows, though, that the brain is highly plastic at *all* stages of life – that if one area of the brain is destroyed, other areas can compensate and regain the missing function! It’s truly amazing how adaptable we are, both as a species and individually.


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