how to become your own teacher…

In my own musical journey, I have been deeply blessed to have the patient, knowledgeable, and supportive input of many great teachers. By walking beside me, encouraging what was good, challenging what was lacking, and helping me change the way I approached violin playing, they brought me to a level where I can comfortably realize the music in my own head. Here’s one lesson that sticks in my mind as particularly memorable:

This was in a group class, with maybe 10 other budding violinists, pretty much all of us on the cusp of evolving from beginners to somewhat confident “intermediate” players. We were in the process of playing a song we knew relatively well and had done many times before. After a few weeks with one song, it can often be very tempting to go on autopilot, playing automatically with no real attention being paid to the performance, and I suspect that was going on. Suddenly, the teacher turned to the parents sitting in front of us, and had them shake their keys, bang on their chairs, yell, and otherwise make as much noise as possible. Basically, she approximated the experience of playing “the slow song” at a late night Friday show at a crowded neighborhood dive bar. There was no way we could even begin playing without tuning the noise out, and therefore listen more deliberately to the actual music. My temptation to play mindlessly went away, because to avoid distractions I had to choose to once again concentrate on the music.

Playing music, even something you’ve “perfected” and practiced hundreds of times, even a single note demands careful listening, and you can not truly listen without first not listening to the noise in the background, whether it’s rowdy parents, unmoved attendees of a disappointing performance, the electrical hum of light bulbs or an amp, or the “noise” from within your own head. For me, it’s that last one that can be the hardest to tune out.

As I talked about last time, what we think about other people’s opinions about us can create a profound sense of either encouragement or anxiety that dramatically impacts how you perform. But even more powerful then that are the thoughts we carry in our own head, the ways in which you are your own teacher. A truly great musician strives to play every note in a “zone” of mindfulness, confidence, and honest evaluation, but the inner voice of self-doubt, distraction, or “going through the motions” can get in the way.   I only meet with students for an hour every week, at most, but you are with yourself – your own body and your own thoughts all the time. So the best way to for me to nurture your musical development is to help you encourage and teach yourself.

There are two false ways of hearing yourself that can get in the way of this careful, attention to our playing. They represent extremes, two false mental approaches to music making, both of which can distort our ability to truly hear ourselves. They are:

  • Underestimating your awesomeness – scrutinizing every imperfection and flaw, every squeak or anything that doesn’t measure up to our vision of perfection, in a stressful mental state that can easily leave you feeling discouraged and hopeless. Getting to a “good” violin sound often takes a really long time, with multiple steps along the way. If you think only about the end result, you won’t see the small improvements your making along the way.
  • Overestimating your awesomeness – Not recognizing pitfalls and problems with the music, ignoring ways the rhythm or pitch may be less then precise, or things that can be added to a piece to make it more interesting or with more emotional weight. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but a musician who is truly empowered to play freely is always striving to play with intentionality – so that technique facilitates playing what’s really in your head.

Some of us are more included to struggle with one, some of us less likely to see what is good, others less likely to see where growth needs to happen. I have had students who, every time we go through a piece, end by making a horrible face of disgust, even when their playing is improving. I have had other students who seem deeply proud of whatever they play, and seem impatient or confused when I point out issues with their pitch, rhythm, or the shape of their hand that still needs attention.

In either case, the answer is to listen deeply to what’s inside your own mind, the voice in my head that invariably speaks up after playing. I seek to ask myself “Am I gravitating towards noticing the positive or the negative aspects of this performance?” and then try to focus on whichever voice I am neglecting. I recommend occasionally making recordings of yourself, and then listening carefully to make sure your pitches and rhythms are really as correct as they seem in your head.

Sometimes I struggle with getting too wrapped in my playing – taking things so seriously and so personally that I “need” to be perfect. Admitting I made a mistake can sometimes bruise my ego – and this can be a really dangerous block, because it makes me oblivious to the ways I still need to improve. I find it really helpful to “prepare” mentally, as well as bodily, by closing my eyes and breathing slowly before each time I play, telling myself that any imperfect notes are not an indictment on my worth as a human being, but merely a challenge I am more than capable of meeting.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Pam says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you your wise words, I have discovered them at a time I really needed them. I am an adult intermediate who started at age 45 , I taught myself for 2 years before joining a teacher for the last 3. I’ve hit some anxiety snags lately, and been discouraged. I value my teacher so much, but she has the belief that being demanding and giving me a lot of material to master is what is appropriate for me. I am dedicated to practice and manage to accomplish most of the material each week, but I find more and more that I am anxious and tense through most of my lessons. I want to meet expectations, but I don’t feel I ‘m being given the space or time to develop my own voice as a musician. There is so much to learn between lessons that I have no exploration or fun time with my violin. I recently have had hip surgery, and it has been a long road back mentally and physically. I have managed to play violin through my recovery, but I’m anxious about keeping up and learning new technique. I really want to continue learning violin and someday reach an advanced level, but I’m not sure how to take care of my mind so I don’t melt down. I have tried to let my teacher know that I struggle to keep up, but I don’t want to be a whiner. I am finding that my feelings are showing up as impatience with myself and a general dislike of how my playing feels and sounds to me. My teacher says she is happy with my playing, but I’m not. I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want to lose my love for violin by feeling perpetually pressured. I’m not developing the relaxed fluency I feel I should at least be starting to feel, and I struggle with mental blocks in lessons because my mind is being rushed.

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