Questions and Questions

Have you ever had one of those days in teaching when you feel like you are drained of all creativity and intelligence that you might have ever possessed? You are at first patient with yourself, you wait, you listen, you observe, but not a single logical thought about where to begin enters your brain? Do you eventually become impatient with yourself or with your student or client because you can’t even figure out the right questions to ask?

I had one of these days this past week. My first student started to play some scales and arpeggios that were not too bad, but just not quite in tune and she just looked uncomfortable, jerky, each time she changed strings, which coincided with things being out of tune. I looked at her and listened and looked back at her practice notebook to see some of the things we had already discussed that she might pay attention to in the last weeks. I try to teach by asking questions, so I started with a question about one of those things…”Where do you start to move first when you change strings? Does your arm or hand or finger move first?”. She did it more slowly and discovered, as I expected her to, that she was not moving her arm and hand in the same direction. We had explored this before, and so she discovered this pretty easily. So with that knowledge, she started to play again, paying more attention to how she changed strings.

So what do you think happened? Did it sound immediately better? Nope. It got worse. The string crossings were better, but everything else was worse, out of tune, tight, awkward. What the heck? When we explored this idea as a new one a couple of weeks ago, it was so much better immediately. This time it she had become more tense and her intervals were less clear on individual strings. So I then asked her about something else I was starting to see, knowing the answer I was looking for, “What happens when you move from your third finger to your fourth finger? Do you move forward or back in your arm? What about in your hand? What does each finger do?” She noticed, as I intended her to, that although she would move her arm forward, she was curling her finger back, so her muscles were working against each other and it interrupted the flow in the direction she was going. Cool. That’s exactly what I wanted her to find. “So then play a little more slowly with attention to how you move a couple of times. Great. Now let it go and just play.”

Did it improve tremendously from this new insight? No. She kept stopping and forgetting what the intervals are. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said, “I know these fingerings and I know these arpeggios, but I can’t seem to play anything in tune.”

This student is a fantastic pianist and has been playing the piano much longer than the violin. I asked her if she could imagine the sound of these arpeggios on the piano. See if you can put the pitch back in your head and let the technique go for now; maybe you are just maxing out by attending to too much all at once. She thought maybe that was true and tried to imagine the pitch on the piano first and then play. I told her that the most important thing is to know aurally where you are going; if you don’t know how you want it to sound, your intention cannot be clear; then just notice where you get stuck and figure out what is preventing you from getting there smoothly, easily.

Ok. This was going to get everything back on track right? Not really. It was marginally better in technique, but she was so confused about the intervals that she had to eventually take out her music to figure out what the fingerings were and what she was playing, after having these arpeggios memorized for weeks, because she couldn’t remember how any of it was supposed to go.

I thought, well, this is not my best teaching, despite my efforts to plumb the depths of my intuition and knowledge to try to come up with the right questions to ask her. I felt at a loss, because I was trying to move her in the direction of finding what she needed to improve. I am a big believer in questions and in using them to steer students to the answers they need through their own own listening, sensing, feeling, so that they have a solid experiential foundation to their learning. I want the answers to come from the inside. But somehow it wasn’t working this time, it was like my well of questions had run nearly dry for the moment. There didn’t seem to be any questions that could match the answers she could give or that would yield any really helpful change, and if anything, the questions were almost creating more confusion this time. That was the weird part for me, because asking these kinds of questions was often so productive with students. In any case, I was stuck at the bottom of that dry well.

The only questions left to me were “what’s going on in this student?” and “what does she need?”. These were questions for which I could not find answers inside myself. And then I realized that I had this very intelligent, thoughtful, aware student in front of me to whom I wasn’t asking the most important questions that pertained much more to her than to me, and in fact the ones we could both stand to learn the most from if they were posed and explored even if we didn’t come up with all of the answers.

So not expecting anything earth shattering except a healthy change of direction, I asked her the questions that I didn’t already think I knew the answers to, the ones that might simply be open ended without concrete answers. What do YOU think is happening right now? Where is the struggle? What do you think the problem is?

To my surprise, she immediately became pretty contemplative, and then suddenly just full of insights I had never considered. She said that when she played the piano, the melodic organization was very linear for her, visually and in space. That when you go up and down in pitch, in a line, you move only in two directions, so the coordination and organization is obvious to her, and somewhere in her brain direction is easily connected to pitch, but somehow everything had to become very conscious with the violin because there were so many different trajectories to manage, and that these connected with pitch in much more complex ways; forward didn’t always mean ascending in pitch when changing strings from a low finger to a high finger. She said that although it was all music and line and fingers, hands, and arms, it seemed like her brain had to organize so differently and in complex ways to play music on each instrument. Suddenly so much of the confusion she was experiencing from exploring my original questions in combination made some sense. I would have never imagined this, not having had her personal experience, not having a brain organized by that same experience.

We had a long discussion about this with me finally asking the questions I didn’t know the answers to, and she knew some of them, but not all, but they were the questions most relevant to her experience and her learning. I asked her what she felt like playing next. She went onto her other music with a new ease and actually many interesting comments as we explored some of the ways we could work within the context of thinking about her observations.

Her lesson changed my whole day of teaching, actually. I had been feeling not very full of ideas myself, but as I started to ask each of my students questions I didn’t know the answers to, I realized how full they were, and that they could fill me up with their own insights and that this was maybe the best starting place for their learning and mine.

So, there are questions and there are questions. Imparting knowledge and steering someone to discover knowledge is, indeed, important, but I think it is equally important to continue to ask the questions that we don’t know the answers to as part of our learning and our teaching.

Vertigo and Bach

In the last couple of years I have been dealing with a kind of proprioceptive vertigo that seems connected to a dystonia that involves my spine. Every so often, I get out of bed in the morning and I find that the floor has shifted under me and is slanting about 45 degrees down to the right. Almost every time it catches me by surprise, and I fall into the wall next to my bed. It feels like a kind of unopposable force that pushes me in that direction, as though it really were gravity and not my brain’s illusion. It’s like walking around in a fun house, except that it really isn’t all that fun. I can sense in myself how all of the parts of me are shifted by my contact with the floor through my feet or on my sitting bones if I’m sitting, and I intellectually understand that my body is creating this shift and somehow telling my brain that there is an alternative reality.

This happens every 4-6 weeks on average, and it lasts for 4-10 days, so I’ve had some chance to study it. What I’ve noticed is that if I allow myself to start to function as if the floor is actually slanted and let myself lean into the wall or into the floor the way I already feel that pressure rather than trying to insist on what I know is right, things start to settle down, and I can sometimes find my way more easily. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it seems to create a compromise so that I can see things both ways: I know how things should be, so I can manage to get around, but I know how I have to be to relax into it in that context and even start to figure out how to find some ease.

The repeated experience is rather frustrating, but at the same time, like other challenges in life, it yields some new perspectives, seeing things in ways that we might never discover if we didn’t have to meet those challenges face to face.

This week, I found the new perspective emerge in Bach E Major Preludio, which is no surprise, because there is always more to find in Bach. If you listen to this recording, there is a non-melodic passage that starts after about 30 seconds that is famous among violinists for its unique pattern of fast, repeated, string crossings with the bow and the concurrent, but not rhythmically connected, timing of changing position in the left hand. If you listen to this passage, try to figure out where the real beat is, and then check yourself when the passage ends and see if you ended up in the right place or if you had to make some adjustment to get back on track. When it comes back at around 1:30, see it you can try to find the beat again…is it in the bass, the A pedal tone, or is it in the descending middle voice? Can you identify it?

As a violinist who has played and taught this many times, I intellectually know where the beat is, but once this passage gets going in a fast tempo, my sense of the pulse shifts and I am immediately lost in the middle of the illusion that Bach has created. To play it, it feels like the musical floor is slanted at 45 degrees and you somehow know you have to right yourself and find that beat again to step out of the passage at the end without faltering, even if you have been able to stay out of your own way long enough to keep the timing of the left hand and bow functioning throughout.

Over the years I have come up with many strategies for understanding, navigating myself through, and teaching this passage successfully. Most of these strategies have involved trying to find new ways to keep the real beat clear, by reducing the weight on certain strings, making small accents, singing it in my head loud enough to drown out the distraction of what’s happening. I’ve also worked to teach students different techniques for making the movement of the bow more fluid in the unusual pattern and then figuring out how to organize the timing of the left hand to reduce the complexity.

This week I had another student who came in with all of these usual issues. She has worked on organizing her bow arm, figuring out how and when to shift her left hand, etc., but each time she tried to speed it up and just let it go, confusion would set in, and all of the things she had worked on so thoughtfully and attentively would fall apart as the beat shifted under her. It’s even funny because I can always feel the shift even as someone else finally plays it in tempo, so I am again just as lost as any other time!

This time, though, I had that sudden clear recognition of sensation of the musical floor shifting under both of us as she was playing, and it brought to mind my repeated experience with the vertigo and what I had learned. I stopped her and asked her where was the clearest place she heard the beat shift to; like me, and I’d wager most of us, it had shifted to the bass note. So I asked her to shift the bar line and slowly play the pattern as though it started on that note. It’s a technique that is sometime useful in other patterns, but I never thought of it here, because I had always been so focused on helping clarify the “right” way, lining up the real beats with the timing of everything else. When she did this, it became an obviously easier and quite familiar string-crossing pattern that I had never recognized before (and I’m a pattern fanatic!). If you are a violinist, try it…maybe it’s always been obvious to you, but this was a revelation to me! Well, it suddenly was so familiar to both of us, that she was able to do it with remarkable ease, and she started to do it faster and faster with no difficulty. How ingenious of Bach to imbed something very familiar in such a disguised way.

But still, I thought, well, that helps the bow tremendously, but it doesn’t solve the shifting of the beat problem. So then I said what happens if you turn that pattern upside down and think about the left hand coordination. We quickly discovered that if we did that same easy pattern starting from the top string rather than the bottom, and changed the perspective, but stuck with what was still an easier grouping, that the left hand timing became simple, and it remained easy for the bow. I started to realize that even in listening to her, because I wasn’t struggling to find the beat, but instead to relax into the ease of the more familiar and less complicated pattern, that I could fairly easily shift my perspective and hear the pattern starting from both the bottom and the top. I asked her to do this back and forth, one time hearing it from the bottom, and the next hearing it from the top.

In reality, the difficulty is that the beat in this pattern is in the middle voice, and there is a strong pedal provided by the a repeated open string (which always sounds louder than the other strings), and a bass line that actually sounds, uncharacteristically, on the last 16th note of the group, just before the real beat, so that by the end of the passage, you either end up thinking there are too many or not enough notes. After doing these experiments in changing the perspective to the “elusivel(y) obvious” (as we discuss in Feldenkrais) easy way, I asked her to just play the passage through in tempo. It was no problem, and for both me as a listener who has spent years getting lost in this passage and struggling to find stability, and for my student newly experiencing the difficulty, there emerged this amazing ability to shift perspective not only into the imbedded illusions of the passage to find ease in the playing, but because the struggle was gone, the beat emerged with great clarity whenever it was needed. I put on this recording just to check myself today, and I find that I am, indeed, hearing it with a different brain!

Introduction

I am one of those people who can “talk shop” for hours on end with anyone interested, and I love to hear from others to learn new ideas and gain perspective. So this is an informal blog that will take the place of some of my lengthy wanderings on Facebook, but hopefully keep the lines of discussion open and even broaden them.

I am a violinist, a teacher of both violin/viola, music, and the Feldenkrais Method®. I also have a strong interest in neuroscience and neurological phenomena, somatic practices, and all forms of learning. I want to share from my personal experience with students and myself.

I am interested in genuineness and thoughtful dialogue, and I promise the same from myself as much as is possible!