This series of posts features “sayings” that are posted on the wall of my piano studio. They give insight and reminders to my students. These sayings are based on common mental mistakes that I have seen over and over throughout my years of teaching. These predictable mental “rabbit trails” can sidetrack students and shut down their confidence. These sayings are also influenced by two of my favorite books on Music Psychology: “The Inner Game of Music” by Barry Green, and ” The Perfect Wrong Note” by William Westney.
“SMALL PIECES ARE MAGIC”.
My new students often crouch with burrowed brows, tight shoulders, and nervous hands as they try to wrestle down the hardest song we have ever tried. Thoughts like, “Am I in over my head? This teacher must think I stupid”, play over and over in their heads, so loud I can almost hear it. But I remain very calm. Not because I already know the song well, but because I have a proven remedy for the students’ struggle. I let them struggle a little to make the cure a little more noticeable when it comes. After all, this is the biggest hurdle every music student must cross. The sooner they recognize this common delimma and the way to solve it, the sooner they move to a whole new level of mastery. My plan is to:
- Watch them fall into “The Trap”.
- Let them thrash around a bit.
- Throw them the “Magic Lasso”.
- Watch them easily pull themselves out.
- Repeat a few times until the cause and effect is clear.
- Watch a smile spread as new confidence grows.
Now before you think I’m a poor, sadistic uncaring excuse for a teacher, hear me out. Once the students have finished this strange ritual, they understand the strange wisdom behind it and SWEAR by it. If you are a music student, you most likely fall into the trap too (or you probably would not be reading this article). But enough of the riddles. Let’s explore this 5 step process:
- The Trap– It starts early and innocently. The student comes in thinking, “I really am serious about this. I’m going to attack this with all I’ve got. I need to learn quickly. I’m going to get as much as I can and study hard when I get home”. The problem is, every one of those thoughts most likely will hold the student back. I try to warn the student of the trap, but determination has already set in. The student ignores me and presses on.
- Thrashing around– I know that those thoughts cause the student to “tighten up”. And soon after, the brain (actually the right brain, the side needed for music), starts to shut down. I realize that the more I try to make him slow down, the harder he will push. So I have to let the student see it on his own. At a certain point, the student realizes that things are getting worse. He bangs the same chords over and over to no avail. He mumbles something like, “If I could only get it in my brain”. Soon he runs out of gas, exhales, and looks to me for help.
- The Magic Lasso– The bad news is that that my new student has lost his optimism and is wondering if this was a good idea after all. The GOOD news is that he is now ready for a new revelation. One that gives my students such an infusion of confidence that they often laugh out loud. I usually pause for a second and then say, “Let’s just try something different for a second. Notice how your body feels. Take a deep breath and drop any anxiety that you feel”. (Some people are so determined that they even resist that admonition. But I know that in time each one gets tired and comes around). “This time we are going to do something very counter intuitive. This time, keep a very passive attitude, almost like you don’t care. Keep slowing it down until you can play it easily and consistently. And most importantly…lets break that passage in half”.
Most students tackle the piano like their to do list. They go for speed and efficiency. They bite off big chunks and hunker down, like college homework. But Music is different. The to do list is a left brain activity and music is right. So I convince the student to take a very SMALL chunk of the passage and play it over and over. It seems counter intuitive (and it is). But soon that small passage feels and sounds pretty good. (We are moving from left brain to right brain). The student’s stiff body starts to move with the music. The tense face softens. The magic lasso is pulling him to safety. I finally ask, “How does that sound?” “Better, lot’s better”. “How does it feel?” “I’m kinda’ getting into it”. “Good! Take note of what just happened. You’re developing a powerful new habit. Each time you struggle with a passage, take a deep breath, and break it in half. Keep breaking it until you get the feeling you just got with this passage. NEVER try to play a whole song until you can “feel” the separate chunks. The smaller the chunks, the better. It seems like a longer process, but it really is a quicker process. The song will sound so much better. And you will feel “music” instead of anxiety. Let’s play some more!”