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Beyond the Control Barrier

breaking mental barriers teaching music

Research shows that playing music involves the firing of neurons in multiple areas of the brain at once.  (See my previous post on this.)  And yet many, if not most, learners, and I would venture to say most teachers as well, emphasize verbal and conscious control in the playing of a musical instrument.

I suspect that this emphasis on control not only hinders the musicality and facility of students, but also places improvisation and learning by ear out of the box, as if they’re difficult or unusual.

If the brain fires in many places at once, then clearly the verbal and executive centers are not all there is to playing music.  Is it possible for teachers to help nurture the nonverbal and subconscious activity that is essential to playing music?

I think teachers nurture essential nonverbal skills often, whether aware of it or not. We do it when we teach by example.  We do it when we assign exercises to develop skills separately from the piece of music where they are needed.  We do it by encouraging playing from memory, and playing in performance.  We do it when we encourage musical expression that requires teaching via metaphors rather than literal instructions.  We do it by understanding and encouraging improvisation at any level, and by at least sometimes teaching by ear.

Why?  Because watching and hearing you play, the student picks up on movements, attitudes, techniques, expressions, sounds, that you can’t possibly describe, and in fact, many times students have picked up on things I did that I did not notice myself, even issues that I didn’t know they were interested in.

When we assign or create an exercise independent from the music they need the skill for, we require them to make connections that verbal description can’t really make, and connections involving muscle memory that the student can’t control but can at best encourage in themselves.  For example, a finger may learn where to be placed through its relationship with another finger within an exercise, whereas without the exercise, the student may just think they need to place each finger in the “correct” place.

When we encourage playing or performing by memory, the student has to learn patterns, structure, and musical profile of the music rather than literally memorizing the notes, which more closely approximates speaking to people naturally as opposed to reading a prepared text.

When teaching by use of metaphors rather than merely giving literal instructions, we require the student to absorb a feeling, to appreciate the incredibly important nuances of intention that make music.  (See my previous post about teaching the intention of music.)  For example, the same notes may be played at the same time across two measures of music, but if the student senses the last notes of one measure as pickups leading to the downbeat of the next measure, they will play more musically, and yet may not be able to explain verbally the literal difference between these two ways of playing.

Improvisation involves knowing something about musical structure — the starting point and the goal from one phrase to another, or from one chord or harmonic area to another.  If the student travels from starting point to destination, no ideas are wrong; some just work better than others.  It’s a learning strategy that pays wonderful dividends.

Learning by ear involves a building of trust in listening, an appreciation for experimenting with notes (as opposed to only playing notes approved and authorized by the brain!), and relying on muscle memory.  (See my earlier post about reversing the learning process.)

Where teachers perhaps fail to nurture essential nonverbal musical skills is when they focus exclusively on written music, when they instill a fear of errors in a student, when they fail to prioritize the value of an important gain over a minor fault.

Written music gives the illusion of control to eyes and brain, and de-emphasizes essential skills of listening, muscle memory, phrasing and organic timing.  It’s obviously a useful skill but exclusive dependence on written music fools students into believing they can think their way into playing well, and damages their confidence in their listening skills.

A fear of errors distracts the student from appreciating the musical meaning of a phrase, much like an actor might feel if they were threatened with losing their part for saying a wrong word instead of getting across the emotion and meaning of their lines.

Failing to prioritize gain over minor faults makes a student lose confidence in their playing.  If the teacher presents the only goal as perfection in everything at the same time — notes, intonation, dynamics, expression — the student has been presented with a slippery cliff to climb, instead of a hill to conquer.  I’ve often seen students give themselves no credit for learning to play a phrase of music, just because one of the notes was wrong.  Some problems are easily fixed; others are not.  Conveying a sense of priority and confidence in the student’s progress is essential to helping them learn, not only because it’s realistic, but because it makes them enjoy learning and wanting to learn more.

Learning to play music is like growing a tree — progress is fragile until enough rings grow to make it sturdy.  It’s like remembering a dream — trying too hard to recall it sometimes makes it vanish.  It’s like raising kids — helping and being on their side through encouragement and constructive criticism results in more effective and long-lasting progress than playing the role of opponent, tester, or in the extreme case, “Whiplash”-style abuse.

I welcome your thoughts and questions!

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]