Listening and Knowing?

A new student came in with pitch difficulties that seemed different from those I’ve encountered before. She could play in tune and match pitch beautifully when I played slowly along with her, or even when I sustained a pitch center while she played, but when I stopped playing, and she didn’t have a reference, her pitch quickly deteriorated. I asked her to sing groups of notes and phrases, thinking that she was lacking an internal reference for pitch and just playing mechanically when she didn’t have an external one. If this was the case, I could work with her on vocalizing and matching pitch this way, and she could build that foundation. But she sang each phase, even difficult intervals, perfectly. When I asked her to play slowly and just sing each note, or sing a pitch center for the phrase and hold each note on the violin until she knew it was in tune, she just looked at me questioningly for each note. When I asked her about it, she said, “I know when I’m singing in tune, and I know when I’m playing in tune when I’m playing with you, but I really can’t tell if I’m in tune when it’s just my singing and the violin, or my pitch inside my head and the violin.”

In Feldenkrais we say, “If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.” Well, most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing, so this is an even bigger challenge for the teacher than it is for the student. As I flounder around trying various experiments, my goal is to find multiple ways to allow my students through some sense or other, to experience what it is that they are doing; a lot of the time, if I’m lucky and we hit on some good new feedback in the midst of the floundering, they figure it out before I do, and usually much better than I do. If I THINK I have it figured out first, I’m usually off by a bit. All in the spirit of experimenting, I do my best to shift perspectives, in moving, in listening, in imagining, in exaggerating something they already do, in doing something off the wall crazy. On the traditional end, these experiments might be listening to oneself using a tuner, or with various intervals, or learning how to create a pitch with voice or whistle or picking out a familiar tune on the piano or the violin. If the student has a predominantly physical limitation, it might be having her play on one foot or the other to feel how she is balancing with her violin as she plays. It might be engaging her in different movement experiments to help clarify the source of resistance or tension in playing. It might be to exploring her movement in different planes along with the music to see how a particular approach with the bow might be in conflict with the phrasing one is trying to create. And then they get crazier from there…

So, my first all too knowing question was, “how do I help this young lady hear what she is doing so that she is capable of making the adjustments she needs when she practices, so that she develops her own sense of pitch and accuracy?” Wait, didn’t I just say I’m better off when I don’t think I know? It’s in the ballpark, but I think it’s not quite on track. So my slightly more refined question is, “What can she learn about herself from the things she already knows how to do well from the inside out?”

I’m a big fan of inside out, because I think it’s about degrees of knowing…you know some things for yourself because they are tested by your experience, you can make distinctions, you can build on what you already have just through new experience. I’m also a big fan of inside out because I recognize that I don’t have all of the answers (even though I sometime pretend I do) and that the answers are more complex inside a person than I could possibly hope to understand…so teaching from the inside out supports my not knowing, and I feel pretty okay with it, and then I can give up the whole ridiculous pretending I know something attitude!

One of my most vivid lessons in inside out knowledge, or lack thereof, was when I took my one and only Arabic violin lesson. In this lesson I learned that there were notes in another form of music, which I found very beautiful, for which I had no internal reference in my playing. When my very patient teacher tried to teach me to play the not-quite-quarter tones of the Arabic maqams, I had no idea if I was even remotely close to the pitch on some notes, and I physically could not make my fingers go even in the vicinity of these notes. I’ve played thousands, millions of notes out of tune in my life, but I could not sit in the middle of something that my ear said ways out of tune and try to find my way to the “in tune” pitch. I could not even match pitch with the teacher who was playing WITH me and desperately trying to help me hear. I did not KNOW what I was doing, nor did I understand what I didn’t know; the patterns for processing this information were just not there. In time, I realized it could be, though, as even by the end of the lesson, there was the occasional version of the scale that I could play slightly more in tune, or at least I could sit in the “out of tune” spot in the middle of a half step and not physically pull myself away. Some part of me accepted that another note could exist somewhere in that vicinity, even though to my brilliant teacher, I was still probably no where close to it.

This was a very good lesson for me in listening and in knowing. It may present in all of our learning throughout life. The recognition of not knowing is one of the keys to opportunity. Before that lesson, it never occurred to me that pitch existed in music on a level that I could truly not yet process it. I’m sure I was aware to some degree, abstractly, of this concept, but the act of trying to summon some capacity that was absent in my learning experience, even as a musician for many years was eye opening. I think it changed, in one hour, the way I listen to music. So my question continues to refine itself, “What opportunities can arise every instance of discovery of not knowing?” I think of my student’s admission of really not knowing if she was in tune, and I realize her honesty and inside out realization of not knowing is the foundation for the best learning she can do.

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