Taking the “Wrong” Way Around

Did you ever have the experience as a student of being told that you needed to “unlearn” a technique? Were you ever told that you needed to start over and rebuild because your prior education had been lacking in some way? If so, how did it shape your relationship to learning?

A new student came for her first lesson this week. When I asked her to play something, she proceeded with the caveat that she knew she had to pretty much start over on the violin because she had learned so many things “the wrong way”. Over the course of the lesson, I learned that her beloved teacher of the last three years – a guitarist, not a violinist – had moved out of town during the pandemic. In her search for a new teacher, almost all of the trial lessons she attended involved teachers telling her how far behind she was, that her technique was “all wrong”, that she needed to start over again from the beginning and “rebuild”.

Throughout the first half of our lesson, she kept her eyes on me for approval, faltering at any change in my facial expression. When she struggled to mimic a “correct” bow hold, her bow bobbled on the string; when she refocussed on “correcting” her left hand-frame, she struggled, unsuccessfully, to make fine adjustments in pitch. When I asked her to comment on what she was hearing and feeling, she seemed to be searching for the answer I wanted to hear.

A turning point came when I asked her to tell me more about the kind of partnership she had with her guitar teacher in figuring out the violin – what they had learned together, what she had to figure out on her own. She told me that she had thought he had been a wonderful teacher, but now she realized she had only been building a list of “bad” habits to undo since he didn’t know the “correct” way to play the violin. I asked her to show me some of what she had been doing with her old teacher, even if it meant demonstrating something that was incorrect. She immediately relaxed and both her pitch and tone changed noticeably. She turned her attention to what she was doing, and I was able to ask her to make small changes and compare some of the differences she felt and heard. Giving her back the power to trust in her own learning made her open to new options.

How many ways are there to hold a bow? To finger a scale? To execute a beautiful vibrato? To shape a phrase? To tune a melodic line? We know there are hundreds, or thousands, or perhaps as many different ways as there are individual artists. In spite of this knowledge, musicians continue to train in lineages and schools of technique, the tenants of which are often treated like scripture. Most of us can think of situations where dogma has limited us, making us less adaptable when difficulty arises. Even when we are not initially impaired by a directive to forget what we know and to re-learn to play the “right” way, we are taught that learning has limits and exclusions.

Feldenkrais’s movement lessons have taught me that ANY learning expands our networking so that we will always have choice when we encounter new challenges. Not all information is equally valuable in every situation, but the more experiences we can acquire and reflect on with awareness, the more chance we have of having exactly what we need in the long-run when the right challenge arises.

I use these two learning-environment scenarios to help students, teachers, and arts professionals think about the impact of just a few words of dogma and the disadvantages of corrective teaching:

In the first scenario, you have just moved into an apartment in a new city. You are eager to get to know your way around and all that it has to offer. You try a different route to work each day – you take the bus one day, you choose a subway stop a couple of blocks away, you take a cab, or you walk different parts of the route. You explore different neighborhoods when you go out to eat, and you go to the market several blocks away for mundane items just to see what other options are available to you. You allow yourself to “get lost” and find your way back many times. Pretty soon you have a solid map of the city inside your head, so that when your regular subway line is shut down, you know the next fastest way home from work. When you need a specialty item that your regular market doesn’t carry, you know that you can reroute to a nearby neighborhood to pick it up. When you have a couple of hours of free time to enjoy yourself between appointments, you know a museum and a good coffee shop in the vicinity to make the most efficient and pleasurable use of your time. As you try new things, literally explore new avenues, you gain freedom and confidence.

In the second scenario, you move into this same apartment and you take the bus to work on the first day, and your boss tells you that no one in your office takes public transportation, and that from that point on you can take the car service provided by your company. When your neighbor sees you climbing the stairs with bags from your corner market, she tells you that you should just order from a delivery service, because none of the local shops will have everything you need in one trip. And why bother to visit these farther afield neighborhoods when you can get whatever you want brought to you by Uber Eats? A month later your car service goes on strike, and you have to struggle to use public transport to get home. You are halfway through cooking dinner and you realize that you are out of an important ingredient; you don’t know the there is a store at the end of the street that carries it that you would have passed on any walk to and from the subway. You arrive at the wrong time to a doctor’s appointment outside of your neighborhood, and you have to wait for two hours in the waiting room because you don’t know much of the city outside of work and home. Your limited experience has made you isolated and dependent.

Our approach can as easily build confidence and self-awareness in students as it can reduce their learning to isolation and dependency. Which learning environment do you want your students to inhabit?

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