On Up Bow Staccato and Pyrotechnical Goodness!

I had a really fun and interesting experience with a high school student this summer working on her up bow staccato in the Wieniawski d minor concerto. She was a student from abroad, and in her first lesson, I asked her what she most wanted to improve this summer, and without hesitation, the answer was up bow staccato. She had been working on the concerto for a couple of weeks and had successfully learned most of the difficult technique. Each time she had a run of staccato, however, she had to slow down the tempo in the preceding measures to accommodate. She told me she could just not get it fast enough.

When we started to work, I asked her about the different ways she approached the staccato in her practice and we started to look for places where she was less aware—the timing in her left hand, the excess internal rotation in her right shoulder, how she was tilting her sternum downward at a critical point in the bow stroke in order to create more pressure, but was actually inhibiting her ability to move the bow easily, how too much pronation was actually cutting off her power from bigger muscles to create friction with less effort. We spent about 20 minutes exploring various pieces of her individual puzzle that seemed to be missing, and already it started to come together.

I felt like the exploration of something so precise and complex and even seemingly impossible was also a real trigger for her expansion of the violin more easily into her self-image…maybe that’s going a bit far, but it was cool the amount of musicianship that also emerged as she explored these other elements of playing that seemed to get lost in the initial narrowing of focus around this challenge. She came back to me the next day excited to demonstrate her newly discovered and brilliant staccato, which was one of the fastest I have ever seen—in fact, we then had to work on speeding everything else up to match it!!! Now her biggest challenge is to learn how to slow it down enough to control the speed when she needs to.

This lesson started a renewed fascination with how and why these challenging pyrotechnics have developed not only better and better players, but how they have influenced our repertoire. I’m thinking about developing a series of Feldenkrais lessons focussing on the wild feats of string playing as a means for exploring our relationship with our instruments and the music we play, and how we can use these challenges to make other elements of our playing easier, freer and know ourselves better…creating long term wellness. I’m interested in creating variations for all levels.

I would love to hear about your biggest challenges, videos of staccato, ricochet, bariolage, fingered octaves, double stops, vibrato, whatever! This can include challenges presented by clients. All of our individual variations with these challenges are super fascinating to me. Other instruments welcome, too!

Pulling Out the Stops

For me, the relationship between practicing and performing in music is like the relationship between movement exploration and all of its integrated components and function in Feldenkrais…it can sometimes be a tricky thing to find, craft, uncover, streamline, etc.

As a musician, I have often found myself exploring this relationship both at the outset of a performance project trying to plan ahead for a successful performance to use my time as efficiently and effectively as possible, and in retrospect, trying to pull components of processed based practice and discovery together into something that will represent me well in a performance. As a Feldenkrais practitioner I’ve often asked myself what components I could extract from Awareness Through Movement sequences to help someone find a more effective way to balance weight over feet while holding an instrument, or finding more connection to the center in the use of the arms; and retrospectively, after exploring a pattern of movement in Functional Integration and then finding some new options for movement and ease without a particular goal in mind, helping that person find a relevant functional connection in life.

I have been exploring both of these relationships with my violin students quite a bit in the last year. I am very much in favor of ongoing process-based practice with no particular goal except learning in mind, but I believe along side this, as musicians, and as practitioners/teachers, we have to be constantly extracting from this learning and bringing elements in to concrete functional fruition. I do strongly believe that focusing on the process and allowing for maximum experiential learning yields the safest, most valuable learning, so it’s also important to me that the product does not exceed the process in it’s importance…there is a fine balance.

As it is end of the semester recital time and college jury season, the product, the function, the performance is more in focus, and so my thinking has centered more recently on the performance/function/product side of things. For some students, the bridge to performance is a much simpler structure — maybe a basic set of pilings set in calm waters to reinforce it. For others, it seems like a feat of modern engineering, reinforced with suspension and steel and earthquake and hurricane tested to make the connection strong enough.

I have never had a particularly strong performance anxiety pattern, but building that bridge from practice (which could be endlessly exploratory on multiple tangents) had to be carefully constructed, and my practice for performance had to take on a new kind of focus. The difficulty for me was in “forcing” myself to play through the piece without stopping. The temptation to stop and perfect, stop and explore, stop and think, stop and analyze, was so strong. I sometimes devised strategies to make myself stop stopping, making rules about playing a passage multiple times in a row with no stops and going back to the beginning of the repeating sequence if I did stop. I thought that I had to program my muscle memory like a computer and that mistakes and stops would build into the piece if I didn’t un-program that instinct. I had multiple variations of this game, keeping the phrase going in my head with the metronome and jumping in and out with my playing, playing at a super slow speed thinking of every detail, but never breaking the thread of thought until the end.

This semester, though, with my stoppers, the advanced engineering-earthquake-proof-performance practicers, I thought, why not do the Feldenkrais thing and PULL OUT THE STOPS and explore the heck out of why they happen from an experiential standpoint. So my stoppers created stopping journals for the piece they were preparing to perform. They could “practice” the piece as they liked, exploring, discovering, experiencing in bits, deconstructing, abstracting, but once every day they had to “perform” the piece with the intention to play all the way through, as in a performance. Doing this for someone or recording it would be a bonus. BUT they did the performance as a study in stops, hesitations, do-overs, etc., so they kept a stop journal on the stand. They could stop without guilt as the impulse arose, but during the stop they had to write down the thought or feeling or whatever instantly came to mind.

With each of these students, we tried it out in a lesson first and discussed the results at the end…there was no talking during the stops, only writing the measure number and briefly notating the thought. The results were at first very interesting because of their variety among students–with some, whom I thought the issue was a kind of perfectionism, it was merely losing ones place; with others, specific technical issues came to the forefront that were not so obvious before; for others the stops were sometimes to breathe or blink or  relax. With each of these students, however, the results were revelatory. In most cases the student was unaware of what was making her stop, and in many cases I was also unaware of the particular circumstances. On average, the stopping started to fade by about half in the second play through simply from taking the time to discover the reason for themselves…if you know what you are doing, you can do what you want!

In the coming weeks, the results became more interesting. In many cases, the practicing itself seemed to become more productive, and these students also came to lessons with more individual observations about the piece they were playing and about themselves. What was especially curious for me was that their practice has remained process oriented, but the performance became a part of the process rather than just a product…this was especially nice to see with a long-time student who has struggled for most of her life with performance anxiety who showed the beginnings of ease and poise in her stage presence.

I won’t say the stopping journal is a fix-all, but it has been a valuable learning tool for all of us. If you are a stopper, give it a try and let me know what you discover, if anything!




Equalizing the Nostrils and Bach

I am so fortunate to have the most open-minded, lovely students who are game to try just about anything in the name of learning. It’s fortunate that they are so willing to learn and experiment, but also fortunate that for me that they do these things without ever telling me I’m nuts (to my face, at least). It makes their lessons both fun and really full of learning and discovery for me.

One of my HS students was struggling today with memory in a movement of Bach. She was extremely nervous about an upcoming audition and was becoming more and more closed in her playing and expression than I had ever seen her…nerves are a bummer sometimes!

When she played, we both noticed that the parts where she had a clear idea of the inflection and phrasing were no problem for her. Contrastingly, the parts where she started to overthink the technique and just think about the notes, visually, aurally, kinesthetically, but not aware of their place in the context of the line and even in the conversational nature of the movement made her stutter and lose her place. When I asked her what other things she was able to observe when she was playing, she commented on how much she was moving her lips and tongue.

On a whim, I thought of extracting parts from this Feldenkrais lesson I had read a week ago, AY 5 Equalizing the Nostrils, which Feldenkrais recommended in the notes for people who become nervous and falter in public speaking. In part of the lesson, students are supposed to read a passage (from Genesis in his example) and then repeat it with lips closed, only moving the tongue and keeping the lips and jaw still and relaxed. Students are supposed to repeat the reading several times, each time with lips closed, and look for ways to use the tongue to make the reading more and more clear and to notice over time that the material becomes more and more understandable in sound in spite of the fact that the lips and jaw have remained still.

So I had my student try it with the Pledge of Allegiance (something I assumed she could recite from memory and short enough for the exercise); incidentally, she could only remember how to say the whole pledge with her hand on her heart. So she said the pledge normally, then repeated it three more times with her lips closed and jaw still. The results were fascinating—the first normal version was the monotone version of every kid in public school; the first lips closed version was a incoherent monotone mumble; the second closed lips version began to have shape; the third was nearly coherent and quite expressive and rather wildly patriotic! I was amazed beyond what I expected might happen. So I added a variation of keeping her tongue and jaw still and just enunciating with her lips, which was difficult, but actually, also quite expressive, and her final version of the pledge with all facilities available was like an experienced actress…she even used her hands to enhance the expression.

Then we returned to her Bach. I wasn’t sure if their would be a direct connection to anything interesting, but it was worth a try. First we just decided to see how it felt to play again some of the sections which lacked clarity of phrasing. The results were stark, in my opinion…it was like the phrasing really jumped out at her, and when she would lapse into a technical mode, she became immediately aware. Very cool.

So we started to talk about how to transfer this kind of experimentation to the music, addressing the need to control the technique while continuing to creatively express and ways to clarify some of the places where this became much more difficult and muddled. We came up with ideas like bowing on an unused open string and shaping the phrase while fingering with the left hand on the correct notes—with the bow being the sound and the shape and the fingers covering the technique, but with this constraint of separation. We also looked at shaping the phrase with her voice, doing the articulation of the bow with her tongue behind closed lips, while fingering, bowing the phrase while singing the line, and she was excited to look at other variations on her own.

By the end, she was breathing better, playing with more expression, smiling, and full of the energy and creativity I am used to in this girl—and not only playing some beautiful Bach, but I think any presidential candidate could hire her to say the Pledge at their national convention with conviction and enthusiasm…she might even win them the election!

Learning and Frustration

One of my students has been struggling with left hand tension on the violin and some pain since we started working together a couple of years ago. She has improved tremendously as we have peeled back layers of trying too hard, pre-growth spurt playing habits that don’t fit her lanky frame, etc.

In the last weeks some connections and some key underlying difficulties have started to reveal themselves as superficial tension has diminished, and I was pretty excited to see these issues with more clarity. I had a suspicion that we reached something key that would make a real difference if she could work around these very strong patterns.

The difficulty, I sometimes forget, in spite of my own experience is that when you hit upon these strongest opposers of function, it is really frustrating to go head to head with them. While I was excited, she was quite irritated to be face to face with something that deeply eluded her so much. I kept trying hard to be upbeat and encouraging, excited by my own sense of the importance of these discoveries, and perhaps, my own sense of personal importance in this process.

Then she became the teacher…she decided to stick with it (in spite of my annoying enthusiasm) and said, “If we are going to go there, you are allowed to be happy about it, as long as I’m allowed to be frustrated.” I was so amazed and proud and silenced for a moment. Of course this is what she needed, and we agreed…we studied what was possible and what was still elusive, and she left feeling puzzled in a new way by something in herself that didn’t make sense. This girl went at it this week and she came back a different player–loose, free vibrato, ease in shifting, faster playing that was much more in tune. She let herself feel the frustration; she went there, she sat with the elusiveness until something amazing emerged.

It’s a valuable part of learning that my student helped me remember not only for my teaching, but for myself in encountering day to day frustrations in my own learning. It’s worth bringing a student to this place, when they are ready, not giving the answers (as we rarely have the full picture that they do), respecting the confusion and frustration and hanging with them there, but letting them do the learning for themselves.

Thumb Together with the Fingers

Thumb together with the fingers:

I’ve off and on been sort of intrigued by this idea in many Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons (ATMs), thinking about how for string players a number of problems emerge alongside too much tension in the thumb when it operates in opposition to the fingers. These problems also have a lot to do with less freedom in each shoulder, less mobility throughout the the whole arm, less connection to power from bigger muscles, more tendency to isolate movement at the periphery, and generally less of a feeling of connectedness. I thought about this device in ATM being used to keep the person from really gripping a foot or elbow, or under the knee, sort of taking the effort away from the hand, using the whole hand as a point of connection rather than an instigator in the movement, possibly connecting with more power from the shoulder/back, big muscles.

Yesterday when I was teaching, though, I had a student who was playing an orchestral excerpt with very, very, tiny, fast, delicate bow strokes…Verdi, La Forza del Destino Overture…and she was becoming so restricted in her shoulder that her articulation became uneven after several lines of playing, and the intricate string crossings became clumsy and eventually out of control. I noticed that her shoulder became more and more rotated internally as she pronated her forearm to try to take control. I asked her about her thumb on the bow–it was working harder and harder in opposition to the fingers.

On a whim, I suggested she try playing the bow stroke with her hand in a soft fist with her thumb on top of the bow rather than below, so it could not oppose her fingers, but had to connect to the rest of her arm, basically to completely undifferentiate at the periphery. It seems counter intuitive to string playing, to undifferentiate in the hand and fingers for a movement so fine and delicate, and the idea of a fist, albeit soft, possibly to clumsy. But that concept from ATM popped in my mind and I thought, what the heck…worth a try. So after looking at me like I was insane, she tried it (always a very good sport), and several things happened:
-Her shoulder immediately opened in front
-She began making complex and fine differentiations in and around her shoulder that connected perfectly to these small movements in the bow
-Her hand relaxed
-She was able to quickly find a better place to play in the bow where she felt more clearly how the friction and buoyancy of the bow interacted best at that speed
-It sounded super clear and clean for the first time
-She smiled!

We went back to holding the bow the normal way, and I asked her to see if she could find a way to use her thumb together with her fingers to organize similarly so that she kept the connection through her whole arm. She found it! Obviously, the differentiation at the periphery has it’s role, too, which is why we have fingers and thumbs, but this constraint opened up a whole new freedom of movement, power, and FINE CONTROL through bigger muscles.

After she played a beautifully clean and musical excerpt, she looked at me with great puzzlement…”Why does that work?”, she said. I said, “I have no idea!” So it came full circle:)

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.


It’s that time of year again in Texas when the All State etudes have been released for the auditions next fall. These etudes are usually quite challenging, several levels above what the average student might be able to learn in a few weeks, so they are released each year in May so that students can study them over the summer. Although the situation is not ideal for all students, the big positive is that it helps students at the appropriate level of study approach a long-term process of learning of something difficult. It’s kind of like training for a long race like a triathlon or marathon — you embark upon something that will take consistency, problem solving, planning, pacing and patience over the long haul if you are going to succeed. It can be a useful process, because it is truly a “process” and the product does not or cannot emerge immediately, if the repertoire doesn’t exceed the long-term capability of the student.

Two weeks ago one of my very talented ninth graders, who has been playing for four years, brought in these etudes, Rode #5, and Dont #17, to his lesson. I wrote in fingerings for the parts where I thought it would be unclear to him; I showed him how I might use the metronome to work on the rhythms, the kinds of subdivisions I would use; I bracketed the most difficult parts and showed him the patterns that were the same as patterns he already knew, and we played some of these patterns; I set up a suggested sequence for practicing so that he could start to put some pieces together, to build a foundation for learning these etudes. I told him to go home with these tools and see what he was able to come up with in working at a slow tempo on a short section of each.

Last week he came back to his lesson having practiced none of it. So I said, “What’s up? Did you have too much else on your plate, not enough practice time?”.  Nope. “I don’t know how to play any of it.” I asked him if there were any notes or sequences that he didn’t know that I hadn’t outlined for him or rhythmic subdivisions we didn’t cover. “No. I just don’t know how to play it.”

This is a kid who learned the first movement of Vivaldi “Summer” on his own from a recording in one week over spring break because he thought it was cool. This is also a kid who learned the whole Novacek Perpetual Motion in professional tempo in a month for his solo contest, figuring out how to navigate the complicated bow patterns on his own, worked on musical ideas, ironed out difficult intonation and left hand difficulties, all within a short period of time. He practices Flesch scales in all of the double stops, learns Mazas etudes week to week on his own, he passes off Sevcik bowing exercises with new patterns in record time, rises to the challenge of learning new solos for his excellent school orchestra. He is a fast learner. Nothing in these etudes is really new to him or beyond him, and yet I felt him take a step back to where he was last year at the beginning of this same process where, for the first time, he seemed very daunted by the slower, long-haul mentality, and the difficulty of it all, and reacted similarly by refusing to even try to learn this music on his own.

This year, as last year, I told him that I never require ANYONE to do these etudes or to try out for All State, so if he wanted to continue as we have been and skip this  it was completely his choice. He said, no, he wanted to try out for All State and although he didn’t like these etudes, he wanted to learn them. So I told him that this was a process he had to take part in, that I could not spoon feed these etudes to him, not only because he was more than capable of doing his own learning (illustrating the many things he had accomplished through his own learning this past year), but also because these were too large and long to spoon feed every detail, and that my job was to help him navigate some of the difficulties he came across in his own practice and to help him pace so that he would be prepared by next fall. I said that I knew it was a new way of working to study something long-term, but that there were great rewards in this kind of process and that being less focused on the goal of playing the created different opportunities for growth in his playing from the ones he experienced with rapid short-term success. I said that if we were going to do this, I expected him to at least attempt to approach this on his own…not practicing it at all was not an option, and I would not work on it the following week if he had not put in some time himself.

Frankly, I was pretty frustrated with him, because I am, in general, pretty adamantly against spoon feeding in any part of my teaching. I felt like the whole lesson was a bit of a battle of wills, and I was not going to give in and help him figure out how to do something he was more than capable of discovering himself. One of my favorite ideas from my Feldenkrais training was to try in every situation not to rob a student of an opportunity to learn by showing or telling them how to do it…create the conditions for learning, but don’t do it for them, because you never really know what it is that they might learn beyond what you think you can teach them. So I assumed my most strong-willed I-will-not-rob-you-of-a-learning-opportunity stance I could muster!

Still something didn’t feel right about that lesson, and I was kind of bothered by it for the rest of the week. Why did he go back to not wanting to practice, refusing to try, believing that he didn’t know how to do this when I knew he was more than capable of learning most of this on his own with a little guidance?

Contractures–in a parallel dimension I have been learning a lot about contractures. There are many kinds of contractures that result from a host of different neurological and physiological conditions, but they happen basically when muscle remains in a contracted state for a long period of time or sometimes permanently. According to my PT and some reading I have done, a contracture is different from a contraction in that the muscle remains shortened for so long it maintains its state without any signals from the brain; so, for example, if you measured the neurological activity of a muscle in this state, the EMG reading would be similar to a decontracted muscle. In many cases, physiological contractures can form as protective mechanisms.

In my own situation, connected with dystonia, we are finding that some of the deep flexors in my neck remain in a state of contracture. These muscles somehow seem to have taken on a role in stabilizing and even immobilizing parts of my spine, for whatever reason. To keep my head upright and my body functioning, however, my extensor muscles in my back and some of the rotators in my neck and along my spine have to contract pretty hard when I am upright. My nervous system is constantly organizing and reorganizing to try to compensate for the shortened neck flexors and this has become quite painful to maintain. The problem is that when these extensor contractions are released, and even if I can physically find away to let go of these contractions, my structure just collapses forward and I enter a very painful and sometimes scary process of searching for a new way to stabilize. So, for me some of the contractions I experience seem to be a way that my body and brain are searching for protection or ways to compensate. I have learned this the hard way over hundreds of times of releasing contracted protective muscle and destabilizing, even in very small ways which yielded strong reactions.

One of the things that has been emerging in my PT work and concurrently in my own self-learning is a respect for the protection/compensation. In my experience with dystonia, this is not easy to find, because there seems to be a hyperplasticity involved that makes changes quite magnified in my experience. So for me, balance is key…the art of helping gain some new movement that frees a tiny bit of my spine while helping to maintain and support some of the abnormal protection.

How I’m working on this in myself is another 10 entries. However, in thinking about this a lot recently, I am coming to recognize that we all have some kind of protection and compensation that needs to be treated with respect. Even when we think there should be a better way, this learning is good for this student, etc., sometimes acknowledging the possibility of a need for support is important, especially when a strong defense arises, even when we don’t know exactly why we have to do it. Above our need to move and our need to learn and our need to succeed, I think we all have ways that we must negotiate to keep ourselves safe.

In the case of my student, who is always successful with big challenges to technique, very smart, very quick, very eager to do the work himself, I realized that it might not be just laziness or dislike for the music that made him all of a sudden shut down. There might be a need to protect something, too. I still don’t know what exactly this might be, and it’s not so necessary to actually know; maybe the idea of learning something long-term where the product doesn’t emerge immediately is to much to handle, unfamiliar, not reliable; but it occurred to me that whether or not I ever really know, it’s possible that giving just a sense of that security or protection by giving in on the learning from the inside out stance might have a stabilizing effect.

So this week he came into his lesson saying he tried, but he just didn’t get it. I decided to try giving in a little, taking him step by step through some of what I sensed he already understood, to see what might happen. So I asked him what part seemed to be the most difficult to understand and what I could show him and walk him through to help him. He said the rhythm…that he didn’t know how to practice with the metronome at a slow tempo, but that because it was too hard, he could only play slowly, and he didn’t know how to work slowly and have it still make sense.

So I said to imagine those giant sheet cakes at the grocery store that they divide into smaller cakes. He has four people in his family, and a quarter size sheet cake is probably the most they can eat for dessert at one meal. He agreed. I said that if they shared that cake equally in his family, each person would have a quarter of the smaller cake. Although the quarter of the smaller cake is really one-sixteenth of the whole sheet cake made by the store, it only really matters to his family that they each have an equal quarter of the cake. He said he understood. I said that this is how subdivision works in music, at every level you are working with the size of cake you can manage to build the rhythm and build your skill and comfort with the size you can manage. If his family eats a quarter of a sheet cake each week, dividing it into quarters each time, in four weeks they will have eaten the entire cake being satisfied with a nice dessert each week, but never making themselves uncomfortable by eating too much cake and swearing off of it for weeks on end.

Okay, so my analogies get a little wacky at the end of a long day, and I was probably craving chocolate cake, as usual, but this is literally all I explained and here’s what happened…

He said, “I understand.” I said, “Do you want to try this with the metronome on 1/4 tempo?”. He said, “Yes.” I turned on the metronome, added a subdivision, and he played the section I asked him to learn for this week with NO PROBLEM. All of the things he said he didn’t know how to do were essentially there, and we spent the lesson, as we usually do, working on refining the shifts, the timing of his string crossings, his movement, his phrasing, etc.

I asked him if he felt comfortable learning the next section on his own, if there was anything I needed to go through with him first just looking over it, and he said he would be fine.

It was a very good learning experience for me. As much as I have struggled with protection and compensation in my own mind and body, I still frequently fail to recognize the small and varied ways in which these protections exist in everyone. In some cases, simply the acknowledgment of that protection and giving someone the little bit of support they need, even when it steals just a little bit from the opportunity to learn, goes a long way towards opening the door for real learning to happen.