Jan 012014
ball with words from the article distorted on it

The mind of the fossil is not too old to learn anymore than the body is.

The minds of adults do work differently than children’s. Unfortunately, little thought has been given to these differences other than to say adults don’t learn as well as children. Certainly most teachers and students don’t understand these differences. While these differences may complicate the adults’ ability to learn to play the piano; they certainly don’t make it impossible.

In growing up, everyone tends to lose their close working relationship with the mind of the body and shift more into the mind of words with its emphasis on concepts and linear thinking. The shift to this kind of thinking is part of the maturation of the mind but in the previous chapter I also suggested cultural and physical reasons why this shift may occur.

It is important to realize that this maturation of the mind doesn’t necessarily mean we have to let go of the mind of the body. We can and must work with both. A major task of adulthood may well be to integrate both minds into a unity, working freely and effortlessly with various combinations.

Learning as a Verbal Process

I had an experience recently that made me acutely aware of the differences between my verbal mind and my physical mind. I was calling a friend to give directions to a workshop. As I dialed, I began to hunt for the directions that I knew were on top of the piano. Alas, so were many other pieces of paper. As her answering machine picked up my call, I was still frantically hunting, but to no avail. I started giving directions from memory as best I could, but I couldn’t remember the appropriate street names, got confused and sounded like a blithering idiot, all perfectly captured on tape.

While this was going on, I was distinctly aware of knowing exactly where this place was and knew exactly how to drive there. I could even picture the building in my mind. My body knew everything it needed to accomplish the task of getting there.

What I could not do was verbalize my physical knowledge. While I could do the task myself, I could not tell another how to do it. Which is more important, to be able to do the task or to be able to tell someone else how to do the task? Obviously, being able to do both is best.

Our culture is heavily invested in the second alternative. Being able to talk or write about the task, or anything else for that matter, is what’s most highly valued for us. It’s very important to realize that if I were in school and taking a test of my knowledge of the directions, I would have failed. The assumption, totally wrong, would be that I could not do what I could not describe. I rather suspect many a “learning disabled” child lives in this world.

The power of words is very great in our culture. Adult students live in the world of words. Their education was dependent on their skill with words, and the more advanced their degrees, the more verbally successful they had to be. The jobs our society values are ones requiring high verbal skills. Except in cases of physical brilliance, such as professional athletes, the mind of words gets paid significantly better than the mind of the body.

Even in the professional world of music the power of words is impressive. Critics, the writers about music, have a power the greatest performers don’t have. By their words, critics pass judgement on the great and not so great performers. Critics can make or break the careers of young performers. Such is the power of words in all the arts.

Not surprisingly, adult students come to teachers assuming success to be in the mind of words like it is everywhere else. In the act of playing the piano, the mind of words isn’t important at all unless one teaches, and then it’s crucial. We never go to a concert because of words. We go because of the beauty of the sound. That sound is produced by the physical action of the performer’s body. Music making results from the mind of the body, not the mind of words. It’s no more about words than driving a car is about words.

When we were young children we didn’t know how to put actions into words. We lived in the world of our bodies. As children, we thought with our bodies. We did not separate the mind from the body the way we do as adults.

I remember asking an intelligent third grade student of mine what route she took when she walked to her lesson. It was clearly something she hadn’t thought about even though she did it every week. She said, “Well, I go down my street and then I turn, and then I turn again, and then I get to your house.”

When I asked questions about which directions she turned, she didn’t know. She didn’t think it was terribly important but seemed slightly embarrassed, as if my question hinted that maybe she should know.

As adults, we are so preoccupied with the mind of words that we forget that we also work the mind of the body. It’s not that we’re too old to do this and it’s not that our physical minds have gone away, we just forget to pay attention. Further, it’s not that the shift to linear, verbal thinking is bad. Actually, the failure to make this shift as an adult carries a high cost in educational success and financial security.

The physical mind rules when it comes to our mobility whether it is walking or driving cars. Neither of these habitual tasks requires thought from the mind of word but it requires enormous involvement from the mind of the body, an involvement of which we are rarely conscious except when it fails. Just because we are not aware of the mind of the body doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly active.

To learn to play the piano we must learn to re-engage the mind of the body in a conscious way, paying attention to the sensations offered by the physical mind. It’s not that the conceptual mind is useless in this situation, it’s just that it has limits.

Limits of the Mind of Words

"The map is not the territory it represents. . ." Alfred KorzybskiThe mind of words is too slow because it can only talk about one thing at a time. Applying the brake in a car can be a dramatic example of the importance of this limitation. In trying to avoid a collision, we completely bypass the mind of words and shift to automatic reacting. We don’t say to ourselves, “Oh, that car’s going to hit me! — I have to stop NOW! — Where’s the brake? — Ah, there it is — Push — Yes! I did it right.”

Fortunately our physical mind takes over and slams on the brake. If we actually took the time to go through this mind of words, we’d either be dead or very slow drivers.

Fortunately the risk of death isn’t encountered in playing piano, though some adults work as though it were. They can’t play fast or automatically because they get stuck in this sequential mind of words with its linear progression of thoughts. They play as if following an endless list of instructions that are woefully incomplete and leave them feeling helpless and overwhelmed. They aren’t too old to learn to play fast; they just don’t understand or can’t find this shift into the mind of the body.

For example the problem could occur when I teach someone a B major scale. I may talk about a number of things relevant to the scale. I may tell the student about the whole and half step structure of the major scale. I will mention that the scale has five sharps and may mention its place in the circle of fifths. I may write out the scale. I will certainly give the fingering. All of this is useful information that can be presented in a comfortable verbal fashion.

However, when I play the scale, I don’t think of any of this information. For me, the scale is a sensation that I feel in my fingers and arms and it has nothing to do with words. Even as I sit here at my computer I can imagine this sensation very clearly.

Adult students frequently feel that thinking the words will make playing the scale possible. While words are an important introductory step in the learning process, the knowledge of the words is not the goal. Knowing the kinesthetic sensation of playing the scale is the goal. What neither students nor teachers appreciate is that words are meant as a guide to finding this kinesthetic sensation within the mind of the student’s own body.

Teachers often have difficulty with this connection because their words are descriptions of their own kinesthetic sensations. These sensations come as a result of years of practice and can result because teachers learned to do these things as children before their actions even made the connection with the world of words. For teachers, the words are inseparable from the sensations. Adult students don’t understand they have to convert the teaching words back into the world of sensation. They hold onto the words as ideas, concepts and things to do.

As teachers, when we hear our adult students use our words, we automatically assume they are including our awareness of the physical sensations of the body. Beginning students certainly are not doing that and many others are not either. Because teachers can’t imagine the separateness of the words from the feeling of the body, we feel as confused and helpless as our students feel. Children, not yet comfortable in the mind of words, quickly go into their mind of the body. They don’t try to make the words work the way adults do because they can’t. They work more directly with the sensations. This can make it easier for piano teachers to work with children than adults.

Unless teachers help adult students know and find the words as sensations in their own physical bodies, they will never play piano rapidly, lightly, or automatically.

The Self Consciousness that Evaluates

Another word problem for adults is that they maintain an incessant interior dialogue. It is a huge verbal distraction from being present to the sensations of playing. This self-consciousness passes judgements, ruminates about the past, and fantasizes about the future. Its judgements about itself are negative for the most part but may also be positive. When we evaluate our playing at the same time we’re actually playing, it is disastrous for both learning and making music.

On the negative side, students’ self-judgements tend to be severe and unreasonable. Listening to adults comment as they play reveals a self-observing personality that embodies all the worst traits of their parents and teachers.
There’s an interesting difference between children and adults in their reactions to frustration while working on a tricky passage. Children say:

“It’s too hard!”
“I don’t want to do this.”
“Why are you making me do this? You’re mean.”
Adults say:
“Why can’t I get this? It’s not that hard.”
“This should be really easy. What’s wrong with me today?”
“Oh god, I’m so stupid sometimes.”

Children are angry at the task or the teacher; adults are angry with themselves. Somewhere adults have learned to turn their anger against themselves instead of being mad at the teacher or the music. (See “What I learned about Teaching Children from Teaching Adults.”)
Positive self-judgements are a problem too. Students are playing along, everything is going smoothly, and all of a sudden, crash, everything falls apart. We’ve all had the same experience. Sometimes it happens when our minds are far away and suddenly come back to the music and really like what’s happening.

Whether our self-conscious judgments are positive or negative is not the issue. The issue is that we are distracted from the act of playing by thinking about playing. Interestingly, children don’t normally evaluate their playing from this position of self-consciousness because it’s not fully developed yet. That’s why their learning and performing seem so uncomplicated. Their sense of self is different so their feeling of risk is different.

What’s confusing about judging as we play is that it feels like we’re concentrating on music. Actually our self-observation and judgements are just distractions. As we observe ourselves, we focus on the result of what just happened and we are no longer focused on what we’re actually doing. This means we are focused on that which we cannot change at the expense of what is happening now and will happen next. It is in the present-future time frame where we have control so our awareness needs to be focused in the sensations of the present.

Our playing unfolds in the dimension of time. At any point that we are not riding the wave of our own playing, we dilute the intent of the story of our playing. In the beginning of piano study this story is about our learning to play the instrument and understanding the musical notation. Later the story is about learning to play actual pieces. Ultimately the story is not about learning but is about the music itself and how it relates to us and we relate to it. In all these stories, our total presence to the sensations of the moment is crucial.


This is not a problem of words but is a problem of the adult mind that children don’t experience. Adults know a much larger world of music than children do. Children make comparisons between their playing and the kid next door. Adults make comparisons between their playing and the artistry of Murray Perahia or Artur Rubenstein. These guys play lots better than the kid next door, and the comparisons are devastating for adults. In this case, adults simply know too much for their own good. But, then again, it’s their love of music that makes them listen to recordings and go to concerts and it’s their love of music that makes them want to take lessons.

I remember a wonderful story told about Fritz Kreisler. After a concert a woman went up to him and gushed, “Oh, Mr. Kreisler, I’d give my life to play the violin the way you do!” Mr. Kreisler looked slightly stunned and replied, “Madam, I have.”

Adult students need to be reminded of this. They have not given their lives to music and to compare themselves with those who have is unfair. The amateur experience is different from the professional experience and comparisons to the professional performances are not helpful if adult students use them to evaluate their own musical worth. This may be a good time to look at the chapter called An Appreciation of Adult Amateurs.

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