Sometimes it baffles me that I’m ever able to learn anything at all on the cello. Yes, sometimes it’s easier — when I’ve been working on a piece for several weeks I start to get more confident, so learning the more minute technicalities actually becomes the easier part. This is always my favorite part of the process, but unfortunately that’s not what I’ve decided to write about today. It seems that for most people, or at least my teacher’s other students, they love that initial stage of learning a new piece, the put-this-finger-here-and-bow-in-that-direction stage. Maybe that’s fun sometimes for a piece that’s at my current level, but when I’m learning new skills, it’s always the most miserable time for me. For whatever reason my brain resists this the most out of everything I try to do.
This week I’m working on three pieces, two short pieces by Schumann and one by Rameau out of Feuillard. They are designed to introduce me to the A harmonic, D harmonic, and 5th position, respectively. (The Schumann pieces are all about interesting harmonies too, but that’s a bit harder to practice without having another cellist there to play the second part.) I really am excited to be done (for now) with the pieces I played at the recital. I could always learn more from them, but when the thought of practicing them a single more time fills you with dread, it’s time to move on (so glad my teacher agreed!) Thus, I now have three new pieces to work on, all moving me slowly up the neck of the cello. Which, while I really am glad not to be stuck in 4th position anymore, my mind is resisting more than it has in quite a long time.
This reminds me of the last time my brain majorly resisted learning something new. About 6-7 months into playing my teacher took off all my stickers, introduced me to 4th position, and to shifting. Having to suddenly do everything by ear and muscle memory in 1st position was more than enough to make my brain turn itself inside out with protestations. It was seriously awful. But then, she had me start on 4th position, all by ear without having any muscle memory to help me out. And then explained to me I had to shift between the two. I think what I learned in the next two weeks of practice was a greater mental feat than I’d ever accomplished previously.
Anyhow, back to talking about my resistant mind: I don’t know why adult brains fight learning so much. Nothing I ever learned as a child was ever a tenth so difficult, no matter how hard it was. There was never this almost physical feeling of my brain putting up a fight. It’s like I can feel my brains rigidity which was never there as a child, or even as a teenager. It’s not that it’s completely rigid. Just that I have to exert a thousand times the force to get it to bend. I have a number of thoughts about all this adult learning stuff, but it’s all kind of a jumble. Please bear with me if this comes out as just a jumble.
It is often said that adults have a harder time learning new things. This is especially said about learning an instrument as an adult (at least non-musicians learning an instrument.) I totally disagree. What I have noticed is this: the adult mind may resist more, but adults also have the capacity to push themselves through this process. What I think truly determines how slow/fast an adult learns is how strong of a will the person has. Adults can recognize that while the human mind is limited, it can be carefully trained to overcome its own resistance. Children rarely have that understanding and, even more rarely, the ability to work with their minds to accomplish their desired outcomes. I think that any reasonably intelligent adult who has the will and carves out the time needed will learn quite well, whatever it is they’re learning.
I keep going back to the actual resistance of my mind. Why so much resistance? I don’t experience this in all areas of learning to play the cello. There are some aspects of learning that, interestingly, my mind seems to give way to, rather than resist. Anything to do with dynamics, articulation, musicality, my mind softens and accepts whatever it’s being fed. My teacher refers to me as her “dynamics person” because I love learning these things so much. No matter how much she teaches me of these things I always want more. But shifting up a half step to play in 5th position turns my mind into a brick wall. Why? What’s the difference between refining something you already know how to do and learning something slightly different but extremely similar to something you already know how to do?
Okay, new line of thought. I know this is all over the place. I’m just not even sure of what I’m thinking until I’m typing it out. I’m sure if I read all this over it would sound odd. Oh well.
I notice different emotional reactions (or maybe causes) to learning different things. Learning new aspects of articulation, dynamics, and musicality, I feel happy, excited, good about what I’m doing. I’m actually convinced that, if I continue to learn and structure my life around playing the cello, I really will become a good cellist one day even though I began as an adult. Then shifting up half a step into fifth position I’m convinced I’m the worst student to have ever lived, that I’m a fool for thinking I can learn this instrument, that I’m a joke compared to anyone who really plays the cello. Why? I have no idea what the difference is.