More Thoughts on Motivation, Part 4.5: “Eye” Stand Corrected. Ha.

Using one’s ears in greater proportion to the eyes is a logical way, maybe even first major step in learning to read music. The ears only have to worry about telling you if you’re playing in tune and making a beautiful sound; careful listening will also provide the solutions for mistakes. However, it is virtually impossible to learn to read music without your eyes. So, what does this post and the previous one have to do with motivation?

Let’s think for a moment about basic human needs. We all need to eat, sleep and be loved. We need to be accepted. Ironically, acceptance is usually conditional; whoever is doing the accepting sets the rules and requirements for said acceptance. Hence, a large part of our lives is spent in pursuit of acceptance. We do extra projects at work to show the boss that we deserve a raise or promotion (or at least not be fired).  We do homework and study for tests in order to be accepted into the next grade, or college, or just to show that we are “educated.”  Being able to read music is an acceptance criterion in classical music; it’s hard work and most of us work very hard to learn to do it with ease and grace.  So, we could say that acceptance is a motivational tool.

Sometimes, I think being a teacher is the hardest job in the world. As a teacher, I am constantly trying to persuade my students to accept my ideas (and accept me, by extension). But I am also a perpetual  student, always reaching, learning, trying to meet ever-higher expectations, striving for acceptance by peers, colleagues and higher-ups. And as I have discovered, expectations are ever-changing and different everywhere I live; life can become pretty depressing when it feels like you can’t meet anyone’s expectations. In the orchestral world, if you don’t meet expectations, you don’t work. Period.

[Random Thought: What I end up wanting to know is how does it make you a better person if you are always focused on how others perceive you? What someone else thinks? Why should I even care what they think? But that is a topic for another day. Ha.]

Are you still with me?

I got the rare and wonderful opportunity to go to a free teacher workshop a couple of weeks ago (the operative words being “free” and “Bach”). Our Fearless Leader was an internationally-known, locally based, soloist, recording artist and teacher. Because of semi-bad weather, I ended up being the only teacher who showed, which made for an interesting group lesson workshop . Luckily, several students magically appeared, creating a nice little talent pool for working on the “Bach Double” violin concerto (Concerto in D Minor, for two violins, strings and continuo, BWV 1043), and thus saving me from the very real mortification of having a private lesson in front of an audience (no warm-up + unprepared = boneheaded). Never one to waste a learning opportunity, despite my lack of preparedness, one of the most important points I took away was this:

Never, ever, give your fingers an opportunity to make a mistake. Never. Ever.

Light bulb ON. Dingdingding! Cue the harps! A Revelation from the Violin Deities!

I have never heard a teacher, Suzuki or traditional, say this, at least not in such a concise way. And I’ve heard, played for and observed a lot of teachers. I have a lot of time and effort invested in this adventure I call a career, a calling, a life path.

However, that nagging voice in the back of my head says that I’ve heard it before.

The concept, phrased more politely and positively, albeit a little more broadly, is a core tenet of Suzuki philosophy: “Create a nurturing environment”. The fact that I failed to understand immediately the significance of this piece of information showed me, plain as day, that my expectations, both personally and as a teacher, are too low. How can it possibly be nurturing to allow my students to struggle? To end up hating the violin (or me) because I thought it was important for them to see their folly in not doing it the way I suggested? Or to use their struggling as a character building exercise? To allow a student to experience frustration to the point that they quit because I pushed them too hard? “You made your bed, now lie in it” is not Suzuki. It isn’t nurturing. Not even if I point wave jump up and down talk until I’m blue in the face get moderately offended quietly wait until they are ready to ask for my help.

The sheer amount of work that I could have saved myself and my students by practicing that one simple rule idea is astounding. And embarrassing. How could I have been so ignorant? And dense. Yes, I just called myself stupid. With good reason. Sometimes, I need a baseball bat to understand because my skull is so thick. And yes, I know that berating myself is not very “Suzuki” either. However, I don’t have time to waste on soothing my ego, or on stuff like “Oh, sweetie, it’s OK. You’ll get it next time.” I learned something. It’s time to implement it. Now. I am much harder on myself than I am on my students. That’s about to change, because it’s not doing any of us any favors. Creating that nurturing environment means not permitting mistakes to get a foot in the door in the first place. Leo, the Zen Habits guy, says, “Your environment doesn’t control your life — you do.”

You should know that I don’t like rules. I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to authority, stubborn, headstrong and independent. It’s not going to change anytime soon. Sorry, but it’s an intricate part of who I am, and I thrive on it. I want my students to question me, to come up with their own ideas. I don’t want them to do things because I said to, or because they’ll leave me for another teacher if they get bored. I want them to do things because it’s either the right thing to do, or because it is the easiest way for them to learn.  “Never, ever” sounds too much like a rule. “You are responsible for your success” sounds more like a personal challenge than a rule. Either way, how unfortunate that such a simple concept, so “Suzuki” in its essence, is lost in the work of being accepted. It puts nearly all the responsibility for the student’s success or acceptance squarely on the teacher, because it is the teacher’s job to teach the student how to practice. What the student chooses to do with this information is an entirely different topic, but this one idea — eliminate the chance to make a mistake — takes the wind out of any possible excuse for failure or sub-par performance.

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