A New Approach


One of the greatest things about my teacher is her willingness to look at what she’s doing wrong and change her approach — which is exactly what she did with me today.

To start with, we need to understand the status quo. What’s going on and why is it a problem? I’m not talking about technique right now. I’m talking about my approach to learning technique and my teacher’s approach to teaching me — teaching me how to play, how to learn, how to take charge of my own musical path. Everyone starts out learning and teaching with the this-finger-goes-here approach. This is normal and good because people who know nothing will fail if left on their own. I’ve even met accomplished musicians who tried to teach themselves cello: they failed too. With children this approach continues on for a long time because children just simply aren’t all that self-directing. Adults, however, are a bit of a different case. Yes, we need to be told where to put our fingers in 4th position and how to correctly shift there. It would be terrible if we were left to crash and burn all by ourselves. It is necessary, for beginners especially, to use this most basic approach and is also true for dynamics and articulation as well. Perhaps I should re-label this as the telling the student exactly what to do approach.

Now why is this a problem? My teacher actually told me that there will be no more of this (except of course in the case of being taught technique I’d not encountered before — it would be disaster to let me fend for myself when it comes time to learn thumb position, for example.) What did she say was the problem with her teaching and my learning? After all, I’ve only been playing a year (noticed I said playing not learning. Something has changed.) Surely I shouldn’t be left to fend for myself yet! Except that I should. Almost entirely. Enough that I actually fail. After last weekend’s joint lesson with her teacher, she said she realized a lot of things that were wrong with her approach to teaching me and her method of teaching me was holding me back. She said she should already have changed it a long time ago.

So what did a typical lesson used to look like? I’d get there, tune up, and then play some scales to warm up. She’d stop me, usually around the first or second note, and talk about some nuance of technique that I needed to work on. By the end it would always sound the best it ever had. Cool, right? No. Anyone know what the problem is yet? We’d then move on to one of my current songs. She’d ask me how it went, what parts I felt I actually improved, where my problem spots were. We’d work on various areas of difficulty with her instructing me on some new aspect of bowing or shifting or musicality. All of this would always be of immense interest to me and I’d walk away with a great deal more knowledge and understanding and skill than I walked in with. Again, does anyone know the problem yet? Seriously, think about it before reading on. I didn’t understand until the end of my lesson today why this way of teaching was such a damn big problem. After all, I’ve been learning very quickly and almost linearly. How can that be a problem? Why is my teacher convinced she’s been holding me back?

What is happening in that whole entire scenario is that my teacher is in total control. She is the keeper of information and I am the receiver. She tells me when something is wrong and tells me how to fix it. She tells me what to work on each week when I practice. She tells me how to practice it. Why to practice it that way. What to do when I get stuck. I’m saying this like she’s bossing me around. She’s not. All our lessons are conversations in which we are both totally engaged. It has always been a partnership — a partnership devoted to the transmission of knowledge and skill and ability from teacher to student. But what she has been teaching me about learning is that I need her. I’m dependent on her for damn near everything. When I’m practicing I want her there to help me. I even wrote a post about that: A Little Pocket Teacher with a Little Pocket Cello.

So isn’t this what everybody’s teachers are doing? Being totally relentless and getting all over our butts about every little thing until we finally do something right and then starting the whole process over again? Yeah, but my teacher has decided this just isn’t good enough. She can do better as a teacher and I can do better as a student.

Now I need to talk about the technique part of today’s lesson. It was utterly and completely different than ever before. She started out asking for a specific scale — G major, two octaves, 4 notes per bow. She wanted to instruct me on the shift from E to D in the second octave going down. But she didn’t tell me what was wrong or what to do. She asked me to listen to it. What do I hear? I hear the slide. It’s ugly because I don’t want a real slide there but I don’t know what to do to avoid it with the bowing she asked for. She then explains to me she’s going to try to teach me how to do this correctly. She says that this may fail, that what’s she’s going to do is advanced and I simply may not be able to do it yet. I’m not going to go into all the technical details — my lesson went close to half an hour over time and would take years to put into text — but I want to talk about how she approached the problem.

What does a teacher do if she wants to teach a beginning student an advanced technique without telling her what to do? (@Jon — think about this a while! Imagine someone like me, who has been playing a year. Then imagine trying to teach me a technique that you consider far beyond what I could learn — perhaps something you would teach one of your university students.) She started out with a demonstration and explanation of the technique. She made sure to answer any questions I had on an intellectual level, exploring the ins and outs of what she was doing. This way I had a very clear idea of what this should look and sound like and feel like and exactly why. So far this doesn’t sound any different than anything else she’s taught, really. But here’s the difference: I was the one who had to walk myself through figuring out how to correctly perform this technique. She wasn’t going to tell me what I was doing wrong or how to fix it. She wasn’t going to tell me anything — she already showed me how the technique was done and I understood it. I already had all the tools needed to figure it out for myself. It was up to me to be innovative with my learning. I essentially had to do what she’d been doing all along as my teacher. This doesn’t sound much different than practicing at home at first thought, but it really is. Practice is working on things we already know, things our teacher has walked us through already. We’ve done these things already and just need to work on consistency or refinement or combining them with other techniques. This was me teaching myself to do something I’d never done before. Granted, with guidance in the room.

So, of course, I kept trying to ask her to tell me what I was doing wrong and what I should do to fix it. She walked me through how not to do that. How to answer my own questions. It was one of the more difficult things I’ve done and one of the scariest. She’d cut the tether tying me to her and I was on my own. Eventually I managed to get it just right. It actually sounded exactly how she was playing it. This is sounding really boring and ordinary as I type it out — does it sound that way to you guys? — but I suppose by the end this technique that seemed complicated and mystifying was exactly that: ordinary and nothing special. In truth, I think she could have gotten me to learn it the old way and probably a lot faster to boot.

But then she asked me to practice one of my pieces. Not play it for her. She told me to walk her through how I would practice. Not so unusual, really, but it was so very interesting in the context of the different learning process I’d just been through. She wanted me to ask myself the same questions she asks of herself when she’s teaching. She actually wanted me to ask them out loud. And answer them out loud. I couldn’t just be me, I had to be her too. Being a cellist of only a year, there are lots of problems to work with. I had a lot of burning questions about this piece from a whole week of practicing. And she wouldn’t answer them! Instead, she forced me to answer my own questions. To see that I had the answers all along. To see that not only did I have the answers to these questions, I have answers to a whole lot of the other questions too.

As I was getting accustomed to this process I started realizing all these ways to solve so many of the many problems I’d been encountering with my technique and thought I needed help with. And I wasn’t even trying to figure these things out. They just kept popping into my head. I decided to try one of these solutions that I’d spontaneously thought of. As I was working on it I suddenly realized I already knew how to do it! I’d been puzzling about it for weeks and not understanding my teacher’s answers to my questions about it for weeks.

By the end of this lesson she had effectively stuck me in the driver’s seat of my cello journey. She told me that if she’s doing her job right she will get to just sit back and enjoy watching me make progress. Not in the sense that she’s not doing any work — she does a lot for me and is my greatest advocate — but I’m the one responsible for my progress, not her. Not anymore. She’s the source of things I don’t know about yet, but no longer the source of things I already know but don’t think I know.

So what does one do when she suddenly realizes she’s the one in control of her own journey? She asks for what she needs. And what do I need? I need to play with a group. Some sort of real ensemble. I want to learn those skills long before I’m the fabulous soloist that I may not ever be. She mentioned her summer chamber group plan, but I told her I want more than just that. She talked about me joining the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra in the future — they take advanced community members and she played with them in high school. Yes, I’d like to play with them when I’m ready, but even if I’m ready in only 6 months that’s not soon enough. So, I told her about this adult beginners’ orchestra I’d seen briefly mentioned in one little corner of the internet (seriously, it’s on a single web page, and no more) that supposedly exists in the Sacramento region, which didn’t have any contact info listed. It was supposedly founded by a former student of her university teacher, so she should be able to find out more than I have been able to. She told me she’d look into it for me and I e-mailed her the info when I got home from the lesson. I do hope this turns into something, but I pretty much plan on bugging the crap out of her until I end up in a satisfactory ensemble.

I find it ironic that after all this fretting in my post about Being a Real Cellist I actually feel like one now. Never saw that coming.


5 responses »

  1. I’ll have to come back to this one later, Elysia, as I’ve got to go teach in a bit and want to get some practice in myself.

    But the short response is–YES–that is exactly what teachers should be aspiring to do. I’ve always felt that the true purpose of a teacher is to eliminate the need for a teacher–basically to teach someone how to learn on their own, to teach themselves. Sure, that doesn’t mean to completely cut the teacher/student relationship off–there are always things that can be taught once the skill level of the student is ready. But the best kind of readiness will be teaching the student how to learn!

    Sounds like you have a wonderful teacher and as I said in my first response to your blog, even teachers can learn a thing or two from each others adventures in playing this instrument!

    I think everyone can benefit from ensemble experience–ultimately it is a next step–and a big one as then you can’t just be aware of your own playing but someone else’s and how you affect the each other’s playing.

    I’ll actually probably be blogging about some of that since Monday’s are usually my cello sectional coachings and even though, for the most part, the kids are playing the same music (well, theyre supposed to be anyway–doesn’t always work out that way–haha) some of those issues of feedback from other musicians still plays a part.

    Hope you can find that adult beginner group!!

  2. That sure was a long response for someone who has to come back to this!

    I think with beginners in particular it may be harder to figure out how to “eliminate the need of the teacher” as you put it. I’m sure it’s far easier with college students, for example. I’d also bet that plenty of teachers would balk at the idea of someone playing for only a year being taught in this manner, at least from what I’ve found of their opinions online. After all, this largely hands-off approach is going to make me fail. Which is exactly the point. My teacher only wants to use the telling-me-what-to-do approach if I’ve genuinely failed. Which should mean that it’s not solvable with only the technique she has taught me up until that point. If she’s taught it to me I’m going to have to deal with failing until I figure it out. I’m actually really excited about this (although in the midst of failing I may end up writing a few melodramatic blog posts complaining about the process!)

    Have I mentioned that playing the cello is the awesomest thing I’ve ever done?

  3. Aww, I’m so happy that you told her what you need and hope you find a group soon.

    Although my teacher has a different style, I relate to the work-it-out-yourself technique. This week she said we’re ready to move on a piece, have a look and we’ll talk about it next time. No instruction, just dive in and have a go.

    And that fits with the orchestra too. The parts handed out last night had no props. No bowing, no fingers, just little black dots. And after only twice through, the conductor says ‘let’s try it at speed’ – well you sure work stuff out quickly. Then get lost. Then find yourself. Then get lost again…

    And I was thinking exactly the same as you. Who taught me to play my favourite aria? Where did that come from?

    Last week I asked my teacher about another piece from the beginners group. She seemed pleased that I’d tried to work out some fingerings and I think maybe a little surprised too.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that we absorb all these skills but never really notice them, being consumed by the next scale and practice piece. Then something happens and we realise just how far we’ve come.

    And how far we have to go 🙂

  4. Haha–yeah, sometimes I get lost in writing–get in that “Flow” moment, as it were!

    As long as you don’t hurt yourself when you fail and all will be just fine. Generally if it’s hurting, then you’re either overworking something, or you’re doing something poorly. Pain can be your best teacher!

    @Neophyte – welcome to the world of ensemble sightreading and thinking at the seat of your pants! Being able to read music at someone else’s tempo is a wonderful way to get out of your comfort zone as well as a great way to make you learn new skills like not stopping to fix every little mistake along the way and eventually to work out bowings, fingerings, articulations, as well as the shorthand that ensemble musicians use in taking note at what the conductor is doing!

  5. Pingback: The Method To My Madness (Assuming I Don’t Actually Suck At Playing Cello.) « The Adult Beginner

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