Have you ever had a lesson during which your teacher asked you to do a task so simple that you felt practically insulted at the request? Were you then embarrassed to discover that in the process of performing that task your teacher found a small (and irritating) technical flaw that you hadn’t noticed?

This is a common frustration for musicians as they progress from one invisible level of playing to the next.

What you may not know is that the initial frustration of recognizing a fault is fairly insignificant when compared to the frustration of trying to correct it. Let me give you an example.

Susie-Q has just learned that she must not ‘anchor’ her pinky fingers underneath the keys when they’re not being used. She attempts to play her scale again while ‘floating’ her pinkies above the keys and she misses a note. She starts again and misses a different note. Frustrated, she starts again and plays too quickly, resorts to anchoring the pinkies and misses another note! Susie-Q has known this scale for three years but is eventually brought to tears in frustration from what she thinks should be a simple task.

What is actually going on here? Why is Susie-Q struggling? What can she do to help the learning process?

Have you ever watched a baby learning to stand? With wobbly legs and wobbly bodies…struggling to balance…lifting the knee to take a step and falling swiftly on their padded butt… So cute! Each day the baby may struggle to get vertical once again and she will wobble less and less. It’s practically in the blink of an eye that the same baby is balancing and standing without the hand or the table or the stroller to cling to. Progress!

Now, that same baby has stood again and again. She has also picked up toys and books many, many times in her short life. The difficulty comes when this baby tries to pick up something while standing. The inevitable…Padded butt.

What happened? New technique. A combination of old techniques in a new way is a new technique. The amazing part is that in most cases the baby does not get frustrated. It’s almost as if the baby expected the blunder. She is ready to try again. And again. She learns and she carries pride with her. Many times you will see a baby learn a new skill and then brag a little! This baby stands, squats her little legs, picks up her older sisters metronome and says, “TA-DAH!” (She probably just threw your metronome- TIP: keep your clarinet things in your room…)

I have found that many of us develop very strong and unrealistic self-expectations for learning. Many educators blame this on “instant gratification” experiences but I think it has more to do with personality, determination, and self-worth.

You should know this: when your teacher corrected your technique they probably not only forgave your mistakes but also expected them. That’s right! Expected!

When you try to process new information and change the neurological/physical patterns of your technique it is a process. Slow down. Separate the tasks. Do repetition. Take a break. Stay slow and combine the tasks. Do repetition. Take a break.

Science and medicine have done a significant amount of research about how your brain learns and we know that your brain chews on this new information/technique for the next few sleep cycles. When you practice well you are actually preparing your brain for the practicing that goes on during your REM sleep. Isn’t that amazing?! Practice well, sleep on it, and then practice well again. Our amazing mentors have been telling us for years that it takes three good practice days to learn new concepts. Try to wait three days before you let frustration creep in.

So, next time you plan on changing technique, cut yourself some slack! Make an achievable goal and a reasonable time-frame. Allow your body and your mind to grow and learn but don’t let your self-esteem plunder. Learning is progress even in its baby steps.

Photo credit: Jim Lawrence



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