Feb 282012
fossil inset in a stone wall

When people learn that I teach adults, I’m always taken aback when they say:

 “It must be so much more satisfying teaching adults than children because you know adults are taking lessons because they want to.

This is today’s first myth.

There is a prevalent misconception that teaching adults is easy. It’s just not true. Yes, adults want their lessons (so do my young students, for that matter) but wanting something doesn’t automatically provide motivation. I wanted to quit smoking for a long time before I actually did. Just because I wanted to stop didn’t mean it was a straight and narrow path toward that goal. It certainly didn’t happen right away. Loosing weight and exercising are two other examples many of us might have experienced. The complexity and consistency of motivation is very mysterious and it is a problematic part of everyone’s music lessons.

Motivation is not an age-related issue. At any age self-motivation is not the norm. I work with some well-motivated young people and adults. I also work with very poorly motivated students in both age groups.

Understanding and expecting the difficulty of motivation is important. It’s especially true for those adults who are surprised to find this lack of motivation in themselves. They are genuinely perplexed and feel quilty by this “childish behavior. A teacher adding to their guilt is not helpful. It only makes students feel more inadequate than they already do. Sympathizing can help but if it’s a chronic problem it must be addressed.

Another myth is:

Teaching is teaching, the age of the student is irrelevant.

I used to believe this until I discovered I really wasn’t doing it, even when teaching the same repertoire.

When we work with children, we get to build and form their immature, young minds. Children come to lessons as a fairly blank slate. Not only that, their constant changes and development heighten their mental and physical growth. I’m frequently amazed when the younger ones return from summer camp. Somehow they have gained new skills and understanding just by getting older, all without my wonderful instruction.

The issue for adults, on the other hand, is more one of changing minds. Adults come to their lessons with minds and bodies filled with patterns of movement, ideas, beliefs, fears, and prejudices. Some are quite common and some are very personal. These are among the myths I want to discuss today.

Changing someone’s mind is a very difficult task. Consider politics and religion. Perhaps they represent an extreme of changing minds but even in lesser issues the stubbornness we encounter when we try to convince our friends to change their minds is impressive. In fact, even trying to change our own mind can be a difficult task. This takes us back to smoking, losing weight and exercising.

It is at least as difficult to change the adult’s mind as it is to form the child’s. Myth is perhaps a grandiose way of describing these adult mindsets but trying to change them is enormously difficult and time consuming. The power and tenacity of these justifies the word myth. It feels like moving mountains for teachers and students alike.

Patience, kindness and understanding are just as important in teaching adults as they are in teaching young children. Sometimes teachers have to supply the patience, kindness and understanding for their adult students because they can’t find it for themselves. They can be amazingly harsh and critical of themselves. Teachers able to shift this attitude will help their adult students reach their greatest musical possibilities.

A contradictory set of myths can lie side by side in the same student. The first half is:

“I have no business even trying to make music, especially classical music, for I have no talent and I’m not musical.”

This impression often comes from the fact students don’t think they have a good voice or have trouble matching pitch. They don’t recognize that this is a problem with the muscles of the throat and not necessarily a musical problem at all.

When adults listen to music they can be so awestruck by the emotions inside them that the world of music seems magical and to find a place in that magical world seems beyond the realm of possibility.

When adults listen to their own pale efforts they know they lack the magic. Unfortunately, as they play, they are waiting to be swept away by the same feelings they have when they listen to their favorite recordings.

Many adults take lessons to create this listener’s feeling of awe as they play. They do not understand that the performer’s role is quite different than the listener’s. The performer leads and the listener follows. The performer must be attentive to what’s happening now and what follows. To do otherwise is to invite disaster.

I often have students watch great conductors with great orchestras to emphasize this point. These conductors can often be a full beat ahead of the orchestra. There’s no question they’re shaping where they’re going and not where they’ve been. The same is true with athletes who need to know where the ball is now and will be in the next moment so they can be there in time. It’s the same process for the instrumental soloist.

The second half of the contradictory myths is that adults feel playing an instrument is easy. After all, look at all the kids who can do it. If it’s easy, why should I have trouble, I’m an adult? So when trouble arrives, they feel stupid and inept. Sometimes they can become so discouraged they quit and when that happens, teachers sometimes feel it’s their fault and maybe they shouldn’t teach adults.

Rarely do students have a realistic understanding of how difficult it is to play an instrument well.
I’ve had students ask me, What’s the secret? They know they’re missing something. Implied in this question is, Why aren’t you telling me? Why are you keeping it from me? Are you patiently waiting for me to discover it on my own? Why don’t you just tell me and we’ll both save a lot of time?

Their implied anger at my withholding information rarely comes forth. Clearly, however, they think I have the power to transform their playing with a few words of wisdom.

This problem is related to our next myth: Adults are so in the head that they think the solutions to all problems are verbal, conceptual, and linear.

The greater their academic achievement, the truer this is; for that is the successful strategy in the usual education paradigm. It does, however, leave them inexperienced and unprepared to trust the learning that is physical and sensorial.

The adult mind is shaped by and for school. It is ready for the step-by-step logic to problem solving. When the problem is solved, the answer is found.

This type of problem solving in playing an instrument is just the beginning. The real solution is in the execution; the real solution is by doing, by action. This is about education of the body, the muscles, the proprioceptive nerve system, the sense of touch and the sense of sound. Adults have not had experience in these arenas for years.

Our culture does not really value this kind of learning. In fact, we don’t even call it education. We call it training. It is lower on the scale of values. It’s what athletes do. This attitude does not help our adult students appreciate the need for this kind of learning.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about physical knowledge; perhaps sensorial knowledge is better. Teachers have the feel of musical pulse. We have the feel of our instrument. I have the feel of the piano keys within me. I can easily imagine the feeling of the downward key resistance and the gentle pressure upwards as it returns to its resting position. I know what it feels like to play the opening measures of many of my favorite pieces. I have the feel of groups of notes under my fingers. I feel a scale not as seven different notes but one flowing unit.

Where do I hold this knowledge, in my head? No, it’s everywhere. I can’t pinpoint this knowledge to any specific spot. My chest, my arms, my fingers, my head, my stomach, my right foot; no, it’s all over. School never prepared me for that global, physical sense of knowing. And our adult students don’t have a clue. This is why it seems like magic.

A problem for those of us who teach is that we hardly know we have this knowledge. It is so much a part of us it’s like walking or talking. We take it for granted. When we talk about such feelings we assume the students will try to feel the same thing we do, but adult students don’t know where they are supposed to find those feelings. They think the teaching stops with the words. They don’t even know the feelings are the point.

If I tell a student to relax her shoulders, she will reiterate over and over that she must remember to keep her shoulders loose. A better approach is to ask the student what she feels like when she relaxes her shoulders. When she knows that feeling, ask her to play of few measures and see if she can hold on to that feeling of loose shoulders. In that way the words become real, they become a sensation. It’s the sensation she must remember not the words.

Another myth comes into play at this point. It’s the belief that teachers have all the answers (in words, of course), and all students have to do is get these wordy answers. We teachers rather like this myth because it makes us feel important. I was struck many years ago when I heard Fernando Laires make that point in an address:

On the one hand, there are certain fashions of the day that we must be careful about. One is that we glorify teaching too much. And by that I mean we are forcing young people to remain students too long. We do it in our schools and in our job markets by demanding the highest degrees, which require people to stay in school until they are thirty or so. Well, imagine if Mozart or Schubert had stayed in school until they were thirty. Something is not right. But we get so used to our ways that we end up believing that we have the best in the world.

The point is that we must really believe that people can learn and grow on their own… Too often I find that we do not seem to believe that. We think instead that everything they are going to learn will have to be imparted to them while they’re still in school (or with a teacher). from keynote address to the National Conference of Piano Pedagogy, October 21-24, 1992, Schaumburg, Illinois

Neither teachers, but more importantly students, believe that the secrets lie within themselves. The art of teaching is to convince students otherwise and get them to look inside and know themselves. The secrets come from practice, experience, trusting feelings and sensations. When that happens they can hold, and ultimately project, these secrets from within.

So how do teachers get these overly verbal students to shift into their own bodies? The example of loose shoulders is a beginning approach. We need to repeatedly ask countless questions about what things feel like:

Are your shoulders tense?
Is your 5th finger sticking up in the air?
What is happening with your wrist?
Is the forearm relaxed?
Are you breathing?
Are your back and/or neck tense?
Are your toes tense?
Is your jaw loose?
Are you sitting up straight?
Do you feel your 4th finger as easily as your 2nd?

These are among the feelings about our own self. The next question is how does our own self feel the music? Let’s start with the feeling of rhythm.

If I explain that 6/8 time means there are six beats in a measure and the 8th note gets one beat, that is correct and my adults will understand me, better and quicker than young children. However, 6/8 is much more complicated and much more fun than that. It can feel all kinds of different ways. It can be one beat to the measure at a fast tempo:

One twothreefourfivesix, One twothreefourfivesix.

These words are a pale imitation of the feel of clapping or playing. We could do the more traditional approach of 3+3:

Onetwothree four fivesix, One twothree four fivesix.

We can throw it into 3/4 and say:

One two three four five six, One two three four five six.

We could go more contemporary and go for 4+2:

One twothreefour five six, One twothreefour five six

Or visa versa, 2+4:

One two three fourfivesix, One two three fourfivesix

Or even, 1+3+2:

One Two threefour five six, One Two threefour five six.

But the point is that the feeling is much more varied than the words and if you have trouble following my point, the words won’t help a lot. You’ll have to get the feeling by clapping or counting giving the appropriate accents. Ultimately it’s a flow of sound that cannot be verbally conveyed.
(Other demonstrations were given but involved a piano so they are not included here.)

I have a friend who’s daughter taught a swimming class of adults for the first time. Telling her mother about the experience, she said:
Wow, these adults are scared to death and totally in their heads

She nailed the biggest issues of teaching adults in one sentence. My apologies for taking so many.

  One Response to “Overcoming the Power of Old Myths: Public and Private”

  1. It’s so true. Anyone can mindlessly letisn to a lesson but when you get the questions, that is where the learning takes place.A lot of the text of the Babylonian Talmud is in the context of asking questions and then providing answers just terse enough that the reader can then probe further. It’s best, of course, when done with a partner or group for that reason. Each person can bring up other questions and the learning continues.

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