Slow Learning for Fast Students

“If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.”

Moshe Feldenkrais

This past week one of my quickest, brightest middle school violin students came to her lesson after a week of standardized testing, still reeling from the stress and pressure of the experience. As always, she was exceptionally prepared for her lesson, in spite of my expectation with many of my students that there might be some reprioritization around the tests. We went through her practice material and I asked her how she was doing with a new etude on shifting in a difficult key. She began telling me right away about how she had actually moved on and learned the next TWO etudes in the book and could play them in tempo with the metronome. I said that I would love to hear her play those, but was very curious about the etude I had actually assigned. She admitted that she had not been able to learn the whole thing and that she felt ashamed that she could not play it even after two weeks.

After some coaxing and assurance that I was fine to use her lesson to help her figure out what might be going on, she finally agreed to play it for me in a slower tempo. We found that there were two measures in the middle of the etude that she could not play continuously through without either making a mistake with the bow or with the left hand finger pattern. She told me that she had isolated the measures, practiced very slowly, separated out the various elements, but each time she played them, she made similar mistakes. As she attempted to repeat these measures, her frustration mounted, and, on the verge of tears, she said, “I know exactly what the bowing is, and I know what the intervals need to be between the notes, and I know how to do each of these things. I SHOULD be able to play this, but the only thing I can think is that I am not concentrating hard enough. Since I wasn’t able to learn this, I thought that I should learn two new etudes to make up for it.”

Everything in this statement made me think about why it is so important for fast students to spend more time learning slowly just to learn, rather than to achieve something. It made me realize how little opportunity there really was for these students to know something about themselves though their learning.

I asked her if it was really true that if we knew how something should work or knew what it was we were supposed to do that we should just be able to do it. She said she didn’t know, but that it seemed like most of the time if she knew what she was supposed to do and how she was supposed to go about doing it, then she could usually achieve the expected result. She said she had tried breaking the problem down into the steps that usually worked when she practiced, but it still didn’t come together in the end.

Then I gave her an example. I asked her to show me that she could draw a triangle with her right hand. She did. I asked her then to draw a circle with her left hand. She did. Then I said I wanted her to draw a triangle with one hand while she drew a circle with the other hand. She tried several times and each time either the triangle morphed into a circle or the circle began to have corners. I mentioned that she did know how to do the task with each hand individually, so it wasn’t simply a matter of separating the tasks. She agreed. I asked her if she concentrated harder on what she was trying to do with each hand if that would make her able to do it. She said she was concentrating very hard, but it still didn’t work, so she didn’t think so.

After she spent some time with this puzzle, I asked her what she needed to learn if she really wanted to be able to draw a triangle and a circle at the same time. She immediately began to reframe the problem based on what she was actually doing—she noticed that her circles had corners, and discovered, in particular, that one side of the circle was more prone to having corners, and could observe some details about the shifting of attention between hands. So I said that the learning lay in discovering how YOU do what you are doing, not in what your are being asked to do. As she observed herself, she became calmer and the shapes became clearer.

We brought this idea back to the measures where she struggled, and I asked her to play the first measure and observe where she felt inclined to change the bowing. She discovered that she always wanted to change the bow on a different beat because of a pattern she had played in another similar etude, and that this was compounded by her shift in attention to execute a new finger pattern at the end of that measure. Gradually she was able to name several things she had observed about herself that were new to her, and by taking the time shift her concentration from the desired outcome to what it was she was actually doing, she sorted through the problem and could play both measures without difficulty.

When you teach the violin, you often end up teaching the kinds of students who excel in academics and are particularly achievement-oriented. They are in the math club and health sciences organizations, they write award-winning poetry, they build robots and their idea of fun is to do weekend-long hacking tournaments. They take every Advanced Placement class offered regardless of their interest in the subject and they pride themselves on the number of all-nighters they have pulled in the last month.

Because these students thrive on achievement they are, however, some of the most vulnerable students I teach when it comes to performance anxiety and fear of failure. Although they appreciate challenges and enjoy learning, they also become quite skilled at evading challenges that require a longer process to overcome. When they encounter a difficulty, they often bypass it in a search of the next success, like one might be trained to do in taking a standardized test to maximize the score within a particular time limit. When they accumulate enough successes in this way, they begin to favor speed of learning over the much slower process of exploring their biggest difficulties. Over time, then, anxiety increases as this important slow learning and the chance they have to truly come to know themselves and trust in their ability to be their own best teachers is sacrificed for success and achievement.

The particular student whose story I share has been among the fastest to progress on the violin of anyone I have ever taught. She began late as a 6th grade beginner and has now been playing for a year and a half. She loves the violin and practices 1-3 hours a day and just devours almost every bit of repertoire and technique I give her. She ALWAYS comes prepared for lessons and often begins working ahead in some of her technique books just to be able to come to her lessons with questions about how to continue practice new material. She knows ALL of her major and minor 3-octave scales, performs concerto movements at the Suzuki Book 4 level from memory with much of the fluidity and control of an advanced student who might have studied for several years. She is thoughtful, quick, bright, and creative. Yet, at the age of 13, she has the kind of performance anxiety that literally makes her sick.

In working with her over the last nine months, it has been a great puzzle to learn how to help her slow down, to find a difficulty, to stick with it, and to become comfortable with knowing herself through that difficulty. But when she learns slowly the result is almost always a calmer, happier girl who makes music with authenticity and confidence.

Finding these difficulties in students who are extremely successful can be challenging, but as I often remind my students, these are the places where you want to reside in your practice and become comfortable studying and questioning and even sometimes struggling a little bit, not just looking for an easy way out. This journey through learning to know ourselves is what gives us the foundation for all future learning and what allows us to grow towards our human potential far beyond our short term successes and accumulated achievements.

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