Music Teacher's Helper Blog

An Adult Student Dilemma

One of my students is a professional educator who has gone through all the ranks of teaching, on up to top positions in education administration. You would think he would be a good student, and in some ways he really is: he respects my suggestions, works to understand them, comes faithfully to lessons, is proactive with ideas he wants to pursue, and is generally patient and persistent.

But there are often moments when he can’t seem to do the simplest actions, or even follow the simplest instructions. And if I insist he focus on those simple instructions, he can eventually get it, but there is an unspoken sense that I’m treating him a little like a child, even though I have no intention to do so.

The problem, I think, comes down to acknowledging one of the ways in which learning music is different from other kinds of learning.

In many arenas of education, the instructor wants to teach a piece of information but knows it isn’t helpful simply to give it out when the student isn’t ready to understand it. Sometimes I like to test people out by offering advanced information to see if it makes sense–my own judgment of whether they’re ready to understand may not be perfect. But more often than not, if someone doesn’t know enough to ask the right questions, they aren’t ready to hear the answer.

So it is a common teaching strategy to lead the student bit by bit to where s/he is ready to grasp the new information. And it is common learning strategy, in response, for a student to try to figure out what the teacher is getting at, because if the student can go there and understand the point, s/he can grasp it and move on. This is especially important to an adult student paying good money for lessons!

But music isn’t like that. It is a combination of information and physical sensation, and it comes to nothing if not set in motion, down the river of time.

When I ask my student who is a professional educator to try a simple exercise with three notes, and he can’t seem to get it, sometimes I think he is just trying to figure out in his head what exactly I’m getting at, so he can understand the point and move on, rather than follow the simple instructions as if being led by baby steps.

What he may not realize, though, is that I’m not always getting at anything other than exactly what I’m asking him to do. Sometimes in music, you need to experience the smoothness of playing two notes on the upbow leading into a strong downbow on a beat note, and this feeling needs to be felt and built into the hands and ears several times in a row, for its own sake. It’s not always a mental exercise or a piece of information to understand. There’s no ulterior motive to jump to. It is what it is. And when that bowing in that spot becomes comfortable, that spot in the music flows better, and the mind can focus on more important things. The repertoire of muscle memory has just broadened, and doors to better musicianship have opened.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

1 Comment

  1. Allison

    I have the same problems with one of my adult students. The student is a professor, with a background in medicine, but sometimes he doesn’t seem to understand or be able to do even the most simple things. I pride myself on explaining things well without seeming patronizing, but to make it worse, he gets physically shaky (seemingly from nervousness) which happens often with adults, I find. But I do, indeed, find it curious that such smart people find it hard to surrender to instruction, or sometimes even understand it.

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