The Levels of Learning

 

            One of the most frustrating aspects of learning music is when a bit of advice useless to you then offers another student dramatic positive change. Have you ever been there, being given a small snippet of information that seems to have been a lifesaver for someone else, but barely scratches the surface of your problems? I see it constantly, but there is a clear reason for it. The worth of a given piece of information is absolutely relative to the level at which a person is in their development.

            Whether you realize it or not, whether you like it or not, you are not nor have ever been a blank slate. You are the compound result of millions and billions of outside stimuli, constantly prodding you and your being in various directions and dimensions. You are the result of your culture, with thousands and hundreds of years of thought, reason, tradition and philosophy baked straight into your upbringing without you even realizing it. Every thought you have is inevitably nested within the surroundings of your upbringing. Every cogent neuronic firing in your brain is built upon all the philosophy embedded in your cultural traditions. This enables you and those around you to have social and mental shortcuts to more effectively communicate. Let’s be honest, thinking is hard. Developing a fully-framed and working philosophy of being and the world is a nigh insurmountable for a single man to develop whole-cloth. So, we outsource this job to the eons of time, to stories and traditions built up over centuries. If the end is a civilized society, then we might say that those stories, traditions and philosophy are a good and work well. Regardless of our opinions on that matter, it is inescapable that all of your thoughts, moral compass, and being are sprung from what came before you. This is also in part why there is more peace within culturally homogenous societies, and why marriages between people of vastly different cultural backgrounds have a higher rate of separation. If the thoughts of nearly everyone in your society is founded in the same tradition, there is less explanation that needs to happen for everything said and done.

            But what the hell does this have to do at all with playing and teaching an instrument? Because, as who we are as a person is wrapped up in layers and layers of understanding, the same is true of our individual disciplines, though admittedly on a very diminutive scale.

            The initial aspect of this is just how much has to be actively considered when first learning. Getting the most basic movements out of the way of your active conscious is one of the first steps towards proficiency at the instrument. Progressing each layer of playing is often little more than laying more and more movement into the realm of the subconscious.  

            Think, when you first start an instrument, you are stuck what are certainly simple motor patterns, but they seem difficult for a time. Why? Because you must actively think about every single one of them! Take for example, tying your shoe. Is it difficult for you now? No! At least, I hope it isn’t. If it still is, I’d imagine that either you were a young child (if so, peculiar but quality choice of reading material. You’ll go far) or that you suffer from some sort of acute mental retardation (if so, also a peculiar choice of reading material). It was difficult for you at one time, however. I certainly remember the process of learning to tie my shoes. A lot of my difficulty came from wanting to figure it out on my own, resulting in a rather messy, complicated lump of a knot. After being shown the proper movement I still found it frustrating and tiring to practice, trying to get it right every time. But before too long, you become increasingly acclimated to the motion, and now don’t even have to think much about it. It is encoded within your muscular memory. The cranial program labeled “tying shoes” has become so efficient that it has been relegated almost completely to your subconscious. Any skill, whether in sport, art, dance, or music, is based upon the same principle.

            Let’s now go to the violin and how this principle works there. When starting, the student has so much to actively think about. This is why I break down the necessary movements within each region of playing (violin and bow) and have them practice just those movements in isolation. Someone like myself can swing and sway the violin around (carefully, of course), lob it up to my shoulder without much thought and know for certain that it will go into the right place. If you’ve been playing the violin for even a year at this point, you can likely the same. A complete beginner, however, will not have the same level learning, and I must spend a few weeks carefully working with them to even put the violin in the right place on the shoulder. They have to be consciously and actively thinking about everything involved in putting the violin on the shoulder in the correct way. This trend continues into the hand-position on the neck, putting the fingers down on the instrument in the correct pattern with the correct joints, and of course, everything involved with the minute motor movements of bow technique. Once a student begins to get these things “under their fingers,” as the saying goes, they can move on to actually making some kind of sound with the instrument.

            These levels of learning continue all the way up into advanced playing, and I find it is helpful to be able to think of learning as little more than the process of moving things into the realm of the subconscious so that you can add another level of conscious thought. This is also where I can get to the main point of this article: the problems that arise when a teacher doesn’t adequately consider current levels of learning and instead gives instruction that only works at the teacher’s level, not the student’s.

            If you’ve read through my blog posts so far, you might have noticed that I have a peculiar derision for what I’d consider to be “bag of tricks” teachers, i.e. those that treat teaching the violin (or any other instrument, for that matter) as if it were such a simple process, throwing out little tricks and advices that seem to fix problems in the short term (often just within that lesson) but leave the student ill prepared to work things out consistently on their own. The teacher then gets to pat themselves on the back every successive lesson as they continue this bollocks throughout the day. Much of this stems from schools’ tendency towards hiring great performers, not pedagogues, likely with the interest of attracting naïve students and their loan money to prop up the inflated house of cards that is the modern conservatory system. But there is also the fact that many of these so-called teachers are giving “tricks” that actually work for them at their own level. If you have built up the levels of learning that it takes to be a concert artist, then what seems like a simple “trick” might really work for you. If you are not at this level, however, then much of what is being provided for in your lessons is nearly useless. Of course, it would also be useless if I was just moaning all day about the sad, current state of violin teaching, so I will do my best to proffer some solutions.

            Firstly, have a detailed, step-by-step understanding of how you do EVERYTHING that you will be teaching to your students. If you have an ability, but don’t have such a crystal-clear way of explaining it so that someone with the IQ of an above average turnip could maybe understand, then don’t teach it. On occasion you might be able throw out ideas for your more advanced and motivated students to play around with, but in 95% of cases you’d be best sticking to what you understand consciously, not just internally.

            Secondly, never stop exploring how to more adequately explain concepts to your students. This harkens back to an earlier post where I postulated that it is often those who were not as natural as performers who make better teachers. Those who, for the sake of their own playing, had to take apart and fundamentally understand every aspect of technique and musicality, might have a much clearer idea of just how to explain those ideas to others. Even so, your journey as a learner mustn’t stop when you are no longer officially a student. The best teachers that I’ve observed are like children in many respects, always finding newer and clearer ways to explain concepts and techniques.

            Thirdly, take into consideration the level of learning of each student is and add instruction accordingly. Talk to your students about the idea of the conscious versus the subconscious, about how learning an instrument is little more than slowly increasing the things you don’t have to actively think about. Have your students read books like “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell, or “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman to get a better idea of the subject. Avoid quick fixes that do little more than to stroke the shaft of your own ego but produce little productivity in the long run.

            And Fourth, don’t be afraid to explore ideas with your students, especially as they become more advanced. Playing an instrument well becomes more and more abstract the better you become. While the beginner is taught basic movements, the more advanced player must know what they are doing by feeling, hearing, and then making smaller and smaller adjustments. Getting to each new step requires certain level of brain rewiring, as well as a lot of active thought on the part of the student and the teacher. Stop acting like you are the all-knowing Oracle at Delphi and be open to trying different things and ideas with your students. As your students get much more advanced, it might not be as easy to judge exactly where their level of learning is. So, it is on you, the teacher, to figure out what cues and advices will help them. Some of this might be trial and error.

            Great teaching can only exist within the strange amalgamation of humility, confidence, and a desperate search for learning. Many have the confidence but lack the desperation for knowledge and certainly lack the humility. I believe we can raise up a generation of pedagogues at the highest level, circumventing the current bloated system, and breathe new life into higher classical music education. All it takes is a little care, a lot of drive, and a yearning for understanding how people truly learn. I’m up for this task. I hope you will join me.

Pointless Things Your Teacher Tells You That are Technically Accurate: Practice Slowly. Part III in a Likely Indefinite Series.

This is, without doubt, the most quintessential meme in all of music education. If any teacher knows anything about what they are doing (and often when they don’t) they will give this advice to their youngest and oldest, their worst and their best. Practicing slowly is so obviously fundamental to learning proper playing that it could seem ludicrous that a teacher might have to remind his students of it. But, of course, if you teach you will say this many, many times.

                Much of this is due to the impetuosity of youth. I certainly know it is not pleasant for a young child to practice slowly. Dull and tedious are the worst sorts of things to a child’s mind though, ironically, are often the best things for them. There is also the added difficulty that, even as adults, we want instant gratification. We see great playing that we’d like to emulate, and we want it now. We fantasize about our ideal and we want it now. We see that beautiful mass of black on a page, and we want it now. But, as with all things of quality, we can’t have it now. We must not underestimate the amount of slow practice needed to sound our best, opting instead for a lesser, if sometimes passible, version that is closer to tempo and more “fun” to play. The love for what is best over what is immediate must be cultivated.

            But what happens when we pass this point of development? Certainly, there comes a time when a student will willingly sacrifice time and energy to sound his very best. He’s grown to where he values quality over expedience. The struggle now is not to get the student to practice slowly, but to understand how to do so properly. This aspect is too often ignored.

            I certainly remember the frustration of thinking I was practicing correctly and slowly, and not benefiting sufficiently. I hit a wall not long after starting conservatory where practicing wasn’t working the way I thought it should. I’d put in the slow practice, but with negligible returns. I realize now that, without the necessary intent, my routine was little more than throwing notes up against the violin, hoping enough of them would stick.

            What, then, would have been the proper way to practice slowly? What would have saved me the frustration? The problem that most teachers face when advising slow practice (besides just getting the student to do it) is that it’s often ill-defined. As an impetuous adolescent, practicing slowly merely meant “Under Tempo.” I would play through parts of a new piece at a tempo certainly slower than I had intended for a performance, but my aim was merely to get to the final tempo as soon as possible. If your students are going to make consistent progress, this must be addressed.

Under Tempo vs. Slow Practice

            First, how would I go about defining “Under Tempo?” Under Tempo is any tempo that, while slower (even significantly) than the targeted performance tempo is still able to hold the “flow” of the music that would be present in a performance. We run into problems, especially when unexperienced, with trying to mimic what we’d like a performance to sound like when first starting to seriously practice a piece.  It’s too easy to think we are just a bit of metronome manipulation away from performance-ready playing. This impatience ironically leads to us having a slower rate of learning.

            But what is true “Slow Practice?” Slow practice, properly defined, is anything slow enough to be able to execute exactly whatever aspect of the music or technique you are trying to accomplish at that given time. Let’s be straight with ourselves. We can’t do it all. Everything that we do in our music, from the beginning to the end, is built in layers. The idea that one could catch everything to be caught in a certain passage if it is taken at the right tempo a bit silly. But I’ve often heard teachers say this! Of course, the student quickly discovers this truth while working things out at home, but the seed is already planted, causing him to not to pay as close attention to smaller details in the effort to get to tempo. It is either this or the student thinks, because they are playing under tempo, they are actually catching everything in the music, when they are not certainly not. 

            For slow practice, I’d recommend starting with just the technical aspects of the music. Unless unnaturally gifted, you won’t be able to do too much in terms of the music while working out the technique of a piece you have never played. In fact, trying too much to infuse your sense of musicality and expression in a landscape you haven’t fully mastered can blind you to mistakes and improper technical setup. I know this all too well from experience. You feel so much that you are making beautiful music, and it is all too enjoyable. Unfortunately, the facts of the matter don’t care about your feelings.

            Start first with intonation, taking care that you are setting your hand up in a way that will translate into playing at full speed, and start at an almost non-tempo. You aren’t playing music, you are listening to the framework of notes you will hang your music on. As you get better at this, you will notice certain pitfalls of hand placement that you can take care of at earlier stages. Make sure that the frame of your hand is secure and consistent. (I’d like to quickly point out here that, though all my examples come directly from my experience as a violinist, the fundamentals can be translated over into any instrument)

            After you’ve staked out the basics of the intonation, find a tempo at which you can play most of the notes in tune and with proper technique. I say most, not all, as often at this stage you find you can fix a few straggling notes by going over the section a few times without decreasing an already slogging tempo. I find that 40 beats per minute is a good start for most passages. Sometimes you can jump straight to 50 or 60, but also sometimes you have to start with a metronome click per eighth note. Whatever it takes, make sure you have a metronome going, and that you are playing with as much detail within the given paradigm that you are working on, which is intonation in this case.

            This is how students, especially the younger students in need of discipline, should be taught to start. This is “Slow Practice.” Not only will this give them proper technical growth but will also help them in developing their priorities while practicing. It lifts the burden from their shoulders of needing to sound like a performance within the first week of learning the piece. The benefits they will gain from slowly and judiciously developing their technique, patience understanding by approaching practice in this way will pay dividends later in their development. It is your job, as a teacher, to instill this sense of duty as well as guide them through learning how to practice properly. There are those who merely throw technically accurate information at their students, not even caring if it sticks. I imagine they assuage their conscience by thinking they’ve cast the ball into the student’s court. It’s only the student’s issue now, they’re absolved of any further responsibility. These are no true pedagogues. Be a true pedagogue.  

           

On The Importance of Personal Momentum, and the Danger of Losing It

I certainly do find some irony in the fact that I spent 20 or so minutes before finally starting to write this watching a variety of YouTube videos. There wasn’t any research going on, I just get easily distracted, and I also am struggling with a loss of personal momentum.

            The idea of personal momentum is something that most people have thought of in one way or another, that as you become less productive it becomes much more difficult to get back into a productive state. I’ve reached points in my life of intense personal momentum, however. There is a certain level of progress that one reaches where it almost seems like they are no longer the driving force behind their work. A few years ago, I was in very good physical shape. While I had the desire to become an even stronger and better-looking version of myself, the main thing that drove me back to the gym every day was how I’d feel if I didn’t get to go. I had massive amounts of energy, but if I didn’t expend that energy, I felt very uncomfortable.

            A similar thing happened during a 5 or so week period wherein I was practicing AT LEAST 8 hours every day. I say “at least” because I really don’t even know how much I was practicing during that time, as I was practicing nearly every waking moment. That experience might actually go beyond the range of “personal momentum” and enter into complete obsession. Lately, I’ve had problems pulling myself out of bed before 8:30. During that 5-week period, however, I’d be waking up at 3:00 A.M. to start practicing. I had a massive amount of momentum. It was not just strength of will that kept me going. It was like there was an outside force that compelled me at every moment of the day. I even lost considerable weight during this time. The obsession with practicing was, oddly, the only thing that knocked away my obsession with fitness. It overshadowed my desire to eat, as any preparation of food would take away time that I could spend practicing.       

            While terms like “obsession” or talk of being compelled by outside forces were how I expressed these experiences, I’ve come to really appreciate the term “personal momentum.” It was a term I first heard used by Stefan Molyneux, a philosopher and social commentator who runs a very successful YouTube channel. I don’t know if there is another man on that platform who more is capable than Stefan Molyneux in productive output, both in quantity and quality. Others, as well, consistently put out fantastic content, of whom you often hear of working 16-hour days. As an artist and a creative person, I long for that level of motivation. I envy the deep-seated push that makes creative work the most enjoyable, and the most tiring. Having experienced it before and having now lost it to a certain degree, I crave it more and more.

            The tough part about creative output is its nature toward exponential growth, both on the incline and decline. The more you push yourself, the easier it is to create. The less you push yourself, the difficulty of getting off your ass multiplies. Inevitably, you will at some point find yourself stuck in the middle of these two scenarios, only able to make the turn in the right direction through the weakest of human traits: will-power. Will-power often seems so strong in our abstract fantasies, and even more often finds its strength only in fantasy. Right before anyone enters any grand attempt at self-improvement, whether it be weight loss, exercise, working harder, or any self-improvement in general, they gleefully imagine how strong their own will will be. This all-powerful image of themselves can deflect temptations and obstacles at every turn with the patience of Job and the resilience of the Buddha. But, what inevitably happens but a few moments after they begin on this venture but abject failure? Every known excuse (and some previously heretofore unthought of) comes in like a deluge, begging you not to upset the status quo. But you must upset the status quo, even the littlest bit. In all likelihood, the littlest bit is all your pathetic will-power can muster. This is why I don’t get upset with people who try and try to crack some bad habit. They may just have to make little cracks in it over time before they gain the necessary momentum to really achieve their goals. That being said, all attempts must come from a place of true desire for achievement, not just shallow, wishful thinking.

            I’m always reminded of a very interesting story about anti-smoking campaigns. A survey study was done on the effectiveness of two different campaigns. One campaign focused on being nonjudgmental and giving helpful options to prospective quitters. The other used scare tactics like blackened lungs and cancer statistics. Which do you think was most effective? Most people, upon hearing this, answer that the first, more helpful and less judgmental campaign was the most effective. This is incorrect. That campaign was nearly useless. The one that used scare tactics was, by far, the most useful for helping people quit, because it is not the “how” that matters, but the “why.”

            Most people, if they are truly honest with themselves, know exactly what it is they need to do, and how to do it. But so often they do what affects them negatively or what distracts them from what they should do. When I say “most people” I of course mean all of us. This is such a universal that it’s in the Bible: For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. (Rom 7:15) Why is this? Because we haven’t been made to want to do what it is we know we need to do. Think about the smoking campaigns: the reason that the harsher campaign worked is because, through fear, it made the smokers want to quit. The how was incidental. If you truly want to accomplish something, you will figure out the how.

            So, swinging back to personal momentum, the idea is to get oneself into the mode where you’ve committed to wanting the good that you should do, resulting in pleasure coming from one’s productivity. A lack of personal momentum is often mired in immediate pleasures, pleasure found in quick, dopaminergic bursts. This isn’t necessarily the now nearly memetic vices of sex, drugs, alcohol, and pornography, but more often includes little distractions. Distractions like watching 20 minutes of “educational” YouTube videos when you are supposed to be writing a blog post.

            How does one gain this momentum in their life? It seems to me that it is only through desire and force of will, pushing bit by bit until the boulder gets to the top of the hill, where you can finally let it roll down. It’s where you have a clear idea of what you need to accomplish, and a full desire to accomplish it, which nearly shoves you out of bed in the morning to do so. It’s where you can see the evidence of your own progress, and so it drives you to make even more and more. Life becomes a challenge of seeing how much immediate pleasure you can deny yourself in order to gain something of greater and lasting value. That is personal momentum. I pray we all can achieve it.

Pointless Things Your Teacher Tells You That are Technically Accurate: Relax. Part II in a Likely Indefinite Series.

A few years back, when I came up with the idea of this series of blog posts, the first topic I thought of was not this one, which some teachers act as if is the Holy Grail of technique. It was certainly not in my mind at that moment and only recently, as I have been teaching more, did I feel this was most necessary to address.

            At studio class in conservatory, a constant was the barking of “just loosen up”, “just relax,” “just let your shoulder’s rest”, “just let the weight of the bow play the instrument”, “just. . . just. . .just. . .just. . .just. . .”

            The word “just” is really the problem here. It conveys the idea that your best playing is on the other side of flipping a switch. You could do this now, if you so chose, but your current state of not doing it tells us you refuse. This is, of course, a mockery of the truth of the matter. The student does have a choice, but the choice is closer to stepping out to a long and difficult road through uncharted territory. The choice to face sounding worse than your best in the moment to gain greater powers of playing in the future. Teachers too often want immediate results, desiring their students to leave the studio in awe of them, “fixing” problems with immaculate ease. The problems, however, aren’t really fixed. They must go the whole week without their teacher, and the ready-made solutions rarely work as effectively in the practice room. This is a great irony that, in the teacher’s efforts to provide quick solutions, the student takes longer to learn.

            I propose, in contrast, that the student be sent on a journey. This journey has a guide, but the student is in no way unaware of either the arduous work or the time that this path will take. However, when it is done he will know that he has covered and truly cleared a great deal of ground. No stone unturned, no root left festering. He has a level plain upon which to build his technique.

            This is all an over-complicated way of saying the student must be taught how to relax. People often act as if relaxation is not our normal state. It isn’t. Our bodies developed through most of history needing to respond immediately to internal and external stimuli. If yours didn’t, then it was likely you wouldn’t last long. While these muscular reactions are absolutely natural and necessary for survival in the wild, they aren’t always ideal for violin playing. For example, your right shoulder might be inclined to raise as your upbow gets closer to the frog. From my experience as a teacher, I can almost guarantee that that is the case. My beginning students always react with raising their shoulders when I teach them to do a full bow. It’s a perfectly natural response to the motion of raising your arm, and it is detrimental to your bow control.

So, what can be done? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen teachers merely tell their students to “just relax” their shoulders, or to keep their shoulders down. As you might have guessed by everything I’ve said so far, this is not only useless, it might be counterproductive. The teacher should instead focus on nurturing the student’s “Mind-Muscle” connection.

What, exactly, is this connection? I believe that I will devote an entire blog post to this someday but, in short, the Mind-Muscle connection is full awareness and control of which muscles you are using to perform a certain movement. We often move about without taking any thought as to what muscles or groups of muscles are causing our movement. While this will not negatively affect our day-to-day activities (though it might cause muscle imbalance and therefore joint pain later in life), it becomes a significant problem when you are trying to do something that requires more specific motor patterns. You must develop a connection between your active mind and the muscles you are seeking control over.

I start out teaching this awareness from the student’s first lesson, as they learn to move their fingers up and down on the string. If I didn’t set very clear parameters for the movement, there would instantly be chaos in their left hand. If I merely told them to move their fingers up and down, and gave no other instruction, their untrained muscles would react in whatever way was necessary to make the fingers rise and descend, resulting in an inconsistent and ugly left hand. Instead, I give them clear instructions: “a slight curve to the fingers, don’t squeeze the string, move only from the base knuckle, make the movement going up and going down mirror images.” This is a lot of information for someone to take in, but if I continually give them these cues as they attempt execution of the movement, I have them doing the correct movement by the end of the lesson. Some students are a bit slower than others, of course, but once that connection is made, they can do the movement with relative ease.

Now, repeating the instructions to the specific movement isn’t the only tool to help the student improve their mind-muscle connection. Helping the student visualize it through illustrations and cues is also very helpful. An example I often use is for the student to imagine a string, running from their brain all the way down to the pertinent muscle. I take my finger and, starting from their head (without physically touching them, of course) slowly trace down to the point of movement. Sometimes the student will be able to do the correct movement immediately, and other times the student will need a few more cues. For example: with the “string” still connected from their head, I have them imagine that they are tugging on the string in their head, moving the muscle like a marionette. It is also helpful to touch the joint from which they must move. All of these will slowly build up the direct connection they must have between their minds and their muscles.

Speaking of slow building, I cannot stress enough how important it is for the student do start these new movement out as slowly as possible. This will be much slower than they would imagine is necessary. I tell them to take whatever speed they were about to do and do a 3rd of that. You can also tell them to divide the movement pattern they are attempting into ten different micro-patterns and do each individually and sequentially. If you don’t have the proper patterns built in, you cannot jump into the movement. They must be built from a very, very slow base. Once that base is established, however, it is nearly unbreakable.

            But what does this have to do with relaxing? Well, in the same way that we train the mind-connection for muscles that we want to move, we must also train it for muscles that we want to stay dormant. This always goes back to the raising of the shoulder of the bow arm.

With nearly every violinist I have known or taught, there is an inevitable tendency to raise the right shoulder during an upbow. This destabilizes the bow-stroke and often causes a skittering if the player uses much more than an inch of bow. It doesn’t take that long for the student to learn to keep their shoulder down, but often the same problems, especially the skittering, continue. This is because the offending muscle, the trapezius muscle, to be exact, is still active in their bowing. You must help them find the mind’s connection to that muscle and use that to eradicate its involvement. This would be the desired goal of telling a student to “just relax” while playing but produces a much clearer and effective result.

So, teachers, be sure that you are fostering the mind-muscle connection in your students. And students, demand clearer and more detailed answers to your problems in playing. It may take more time, at first, but will pay out so much more in the end.

 

 

Pointless Things Your Teacher Tells You That are Technically Accurate: Introduction. Part I in a likely indefinite series.

I have run the gauntlet of the modern music education system, from Suzuki, traditional lessons, and summer programs, to big name conservatories, small graduate schools, and post-graduate work. Throughout all of this I have been struck by a few major themes. Most important of these is that the conservatory system is an inflated and incestuous institution that seems to serve little purpose but to provide job security to a small number of famous performers for salaries that couldn’t possibly be sustained if the school wasn’t reliant on too readily available loan money. Considering the size of the student loan bubble, I don’t imagine this will be sustainable for too much longer.

            While I would certainly enjoy writing on how I imagine the new, extra-academic performance education would be molded, I’m starting this blog with a much less complicated topic: Pointless Things Your Teacher Tells You That are Technically Accurate.

            One of the biggest issues in much of modern day teaching is that it is dominated by very natural players. Of course, it would seem obvious that those most inclined to playing are also those most likely to have a booming career. There is less for them to work out on a technical level and they are likely to start their careers younger. This allows them more time to build up a reputation within the music world, as well as experience performing and connecting with influential players in the classical music business. Of course, this is all well and good. These people are certainly deserving of all their status and their success. Only a resentful fool, haunted by his own mediocrity, would begrudge them their positions. However, this does become an issue in teaching, as there is a split between implicit knowledge and detailed understanding.

            The aforementioned natural performers are full of implicit knowledge. They know, within their very bodies, exactly what it feels like to play at the highest level. Their nervous systems are finely tuned in. In violin, this can result in nearly nanoscopic differences in movement and bodily understanding that result in either truly great playing, or just passable playing. Because of this implicit knowledge, they don’t often have a detailed explanation of proper technique they can give to others. They give simplistic cues to their students that work for themselves but are useless for the student. These students are far too many rungs down the ladder of understanding for such cues to work. So many students, however, are studying with such teachers. The brilliant light of their performing careers so often lures schools to hire them, and students to pursue them.

            You do find, on occasion, someone that can make a career purely through their reputation as a teacher. Typically, they do not have very active performing careers, and were much older by the time they were noticed for their abilities. Often these types do not posses the natural, implicit understanding most of the great performers have, even if they became very good players themselves. Instead, they were very intelligent, inquisitive, and determined to truly understand how to play correctly and beautifully. If it doesn’t come as naturally to you, you have two options: either you quit, or you buckle down and figure it out – and when you do, it’s in explicit detail.

            When one spends nearly a decade of their life agonizing over exactly what it is that the greatest performers are doing naturally, they have a greater mental understanding of the mechanics of playing and the mindset of performing. This allows them to help their students with greater efficacy. They don’t rely on simple cues, patting themselves on the back when they get a student to sound mildly better in the lesson, only to willfully ignore that the poor youngster will forget how the moment he steps back across the studio’s threshold. The true pedagogue ensures he explains in such a way that the student can solve his own problems through the whole week, for during that time the student is his own teacher.

            In this series I will be looking at the various cues and platitudes that have been said so often and by so many people they are basically memes in music education. All of these are technically true, but are so widely misunderstood or inadequately explained that they become nearly useless. My aim is to explain them properly, so that you, dear reader, might be able to take full advantage of what you are being taught.

The first entry: “Relax,” will be up in a few days.