Presentation for the University of Nagoya, September, 2013
“The proper aim of education is to promote significant learning. Development means successively asking broader and deeper questions of the relationship between oneself and the world. This is as true for the first-grader as the graduate student.
Because of broad technological, demographic and social changes, the proportion of students over 25 years of age has billowed from 25 percent to 43 percent in the last ten years. The necessity of working with these adult students of very different ages, levels, goals, financial conditions and personal disponibility poses important questions as to the possibility of an effective diagnosis of the musical, technical and artistic profile of the student. This is a prerequisite for establishing short term goals for the period in which the student is immediately responsible as well as beginning to construct a platform from which it will be possible for the student to consolidate what he has learned and continue his development by establishing medium and long term goals.
These considerations in turn pose the question of the role of the artist teacher in relation to adult students in particular and can perhaps give some valuable insights into our work with students of all ages.
Who are these adult students over 25? There are no norms. These are not the 17 and 18 year olds coming to study who intend to complete standardized 4 or 5 year programs which are completely charted out from A to Z. Some of these people have never interrupted their musical studies. Some are resuming studies after one or more years of interruption for various reasons: personal, financial or for healthy considerations. Then there are more and more foreign adult students who wish to broaden their outlook and knowledge and have the additional issues of language, cultural and personal adaptation and a host of very pesky other problems such as police and living quarters which permit the pursuit of musical studies.
The unique chance that an instrumental or vocal teacher has to help a student in our one to one relationship is determined by the quality of the diagnosis which we are in a most favorable position to make considering our weekly meetings with the student on a regular basis. It is of utmost importance to ask good questions in order to determine first of all who the student is as a human being, establish short and medium term goals, and discover his actual level of personal awareness, his technical level, and his understanding of music as a language.
In our diagnosis we must determine the students learning style and whether he has a mindset as talent and intelligence and capability as a fixed entity or and “incremental” conception, which means that with well thought-out strategies he can augment his strengths as well as improving his weaknesses. People who believe in “fixed-traits” are always in danger of of being measured by failure in a way that prevents them from coping with failure in a constructive way, thereby impairing their possibilities to develop. On the other hand, people with an incremental mindset believe their qualities can be developed. Failure can hurt without defining them and leave many areas of growth and paths to success open.
I believe that without a clear understanding of these mindsets, our work with our students, especially adults, can at best be superficial and at worst reinforce a whole self-limiting belief system.
We must also aim as soon as possible to ascertain the essential learning style of each student. Is it auditive, visual, intellectual, manual, or most likely a combination of all of these and in what proportion. Theseattributes of our student’s unique personality must always be taken into account in repertoire choice, devising appropriate working strategies, and in devising short and long-term goals as well as performance itself. Indeed there is a fine line to preserve between passion and discipline, analysis and internalization of technique. Unfortunately, most teachers simply impose their favored learning approach upon all of their students in a hit and miss manner.
It is easy to simply listen to a person perform one or two pieces and on that basis assign them a program for the year which they will present at their exam some eight months later. This is indeed a quite primitive way of going about establishing an apprenticeship with someone and does not really take into consideration the emotional, intellectual, artistic and personal evolution of the student into consideration. Obviously, exams, competitions, auditions, concerts etc. Should be seen in their true light as extremely valuable feedback for all of the short term goals. But I believe that if we ask the correct questions from the beginning such as “where would you like to be pianistic ally, musically, personally and professionally three years from now, we would have the information which is essential to helping someone in a far more profound way. Such information would make it possible to construct with the student a goal plan with reasonable goals and time limits which would surely give great impetus to the students efforts. This razor-sharp focus does not preclude changing or modifying goals or priorities but the question of a three year time span enables both teacher and student to focus on real possibilities and makes all goal whether short, medium or long term all the more pertinent.
I would like to concentrate today on three main areas of development and the first is the Emotional-spiritual-artistic personality. I believe that in most cases we must help the student discover and feel his talent, originality, and the fact that he is unique and has something important to say, and it will not happen because he uses the politically correct urtext edition in vogue at the moment. The student must feel that it is essential to work with love and really like his work while he is doing it. It is also essential to release any feelings of shame or guilt for perceived inadequate past work and performances. This is not modesty which is a splendid quality but simply a lack of self-respect. Often as a way of forestalling criticism people say “I know that it is awful” before anyone else does. This is cowardice. It is conceited to be ashamed of one’s mistakes. Of course they are mistakes, take note and go on! At the same time the pupil should be warned of constantly appraising himself, especially to younger colleagues, wondering if he is better or worse. There is nothing which makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate as well as indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money, because the best way to know Beauty and Truth is to try to express it and share it with others.
It is of supreme importance to place the whole person, with his originality and diversity and his actual reaction to the music he plays and the way he expresses these reactions in the center of our attention. This is the only way to unleash a potential growth factor which will expand rapidly and entail technical and musical development.
Adults have a tendency to concentrate on the past. What they did or did not do, and where they failed. In this way a person abandons the present for the past and by waging this personal war wastes valuable resources instead of using them to handle what is going on now and move forward. By focusing on past problems it is easy to believe that things are worse than they are, which creates further problems in the present. I would suggest attempting to help a student develop a more resilient attitude to emotional problems and to cultivate an ability not to brace against them but to use them as stepping stones to improvement and flexibility like a blade of grass in a storm. Otherwise our stiff and strained attitude will prevent us from sustaining focus and accessing our full talent.
Many adult students have responsibilities that younger students do not. They are often busy with half or full-time employment and can often be distracted by random or unexpected events. It is essential to learn to cooperate with the world and what is and not to be dependent on outside positive stimulus in order to function with focus and inspiration. In an Indian parable, the choice was whether to pave a road in a field of thorns or to wear sandals. Wearing sandals is the internal solution. We learn to integrate the environment into our creative process, not denying emotions and distractions but using them to channel into higher focus.
Many adults have a typical “downward spiral” talk based on fear. This is reactivity to circumstances that appear to be wrong, problematic and in need of repair. In this case our role is to help the student notice when he is holding back and help him to let go. To release the barriers of the self that keep him separated and in control and thereby the vital energy of passion soars and connects you with the beyond. We open up to the energy of the music and the audience and let it out in our own unique voice. The greatest fear we have however is that of being ourselves. People want to be someone else. They do what everyone else does even if it does not fit who and where we are. We can’t move and develop that way because it’s running away from the one thing which we own, that which makes us different ourselves.
I would urge each student who is experiencing a “downward spiral” to try and use this psychological moment to become more astute and more sensitive to eventual bad habits. Since there is little learned from any challenge which we do not engage, this is a key moment to find our point of resistance and stretch our abilities.
This is the central springboard from which our work on helping the student develop the attitude and tools of mastery will ultimately be built. The teacher doesn’t have to know all the answers and how to fix all problems, and sometimes it is necessary to hold back even if he does know the answer. We need more questions that establish the student’s “ownership”. Our students too often just want to know what they need to pass the exam and graduate as quickly as possible. Legitimate but limited. On the other hand questions which are very creative are:
- What is it that you really want to be and do?
- What are you doing really well that is helping you get there?
- What are you not doing well that is not helping you get there?
- What will you do differently to meet those challenges?
- How can I help and where do you need the most help?
We together with the student must understand his larger purpose and to be aware of strengths, inner and outer blocks, personal plans and motivation to achieve positive outcomes.
Empowerment is the process of releasing power in people, their knowledge, experience and motivation. One of the main causes of lack of empowerment is overmanagement. If the teacher feels too responsible and is reluctant to relinquish control the student’s sense of ownership is absent and motivation and creativity is impeded. The pupil must be sure that he is responsible for the outcome he creates. The teacher must always emphasize the benefits of empowerment and persist in encouraging self-leadership. Possible questions could be: What could you do to make things better for you? And where should you focus to move ahead on important goals? This non-directive approach allows the student to own solutions and take ownership and responsibility for their actions. We are using influence and not position.
Teaching of course is not therapy or “fixing” other people but guiding people to find their own solutions. An artist must always keep his art in harmony with his own unique disposition. New information and techniques should be integrated without going against ourselves.
The second area of importance that we must discuss is the mastery of the language of music. This is of course a central question in our work. Music is our language and the level of our command of music’s language determines our ability to communicate profound musical ideas and emotions. Somehow we see one of the marvels of the human spirit , the tonal language of classical music, confined to unimaginative and sometimes mechanical courses of “theory”, “solfeggio”, “ear-training” etc.> The attitude of most students is to use great creativity in “getting out” of these dreaded, boring subjects. The result is in many in stances people of undeniable technical and musical ability but musically illiterate. This problem is compounded by a positioning of classical music performance in relation to international sports events where speed, mastery, flawlessness etc. are the only criteria. This is then augmented by the rather flimsy knowledge of the language of music by otherwise talented musicians who are on the juries of piano competitions. I believe that this undeniable standardization of musical performance is due to a very large degree to the initial deficiencies in students’ knowledge of musical language. One too easily forgets that until the twentieth century almost all of the great instrumentalists were composers and or at least trained as composers. This gave them an insider’s view of how music works and their grasp of musical communication was arguably far more individual and convincing than today’s very polished but rather flat and anonymous sounding albeit very technically accomplished soloists.
The teacher of the adult student has the unique opportunity to assess the level of musical knowledge and the student’s ability to use this knowledge in performance. Our duty is to demonstrate with utmost eloquence how the deep knowledge of musical language is essential for convincing performing but also quick and thorough learning and memory. What separates highly competent people from merely competent ones___and the distance is huge, is the all-important in-depth internalization of musical language and its various structural levels, and how they function to create musical form and expression. The depth of this knowledge is what opens channels into the intangible, unconscious, and creative components of our art. Without this knowledge our intuition, an all-important compass in art cannot function. The mind cannot create a navigating system and chunk huge amounts of information into very manageable chunks which enables one to see much more and do much more with much less effort.
The practical aspects of an ongoing study of musical language can sometimes present serious problems for the adult learner especially as regards to time. But again the teacher can suggest some custom-made program of study and if our arguments are sufficiently convincing and the students feels how much is to be gained from this investment of time and energy he will surely be interested. When the student realizes how the knowledge of musical language will develop his personality, free his emotional expression and give his technical work a razor-sharp focus, he will embrace this path. The mind freed from these basics can concentrate on higher more creative matters and avoid thinking about music on a very rudimentary level that does not reflect his emotional and artistic and technical possibilities. We enlarge the perspective thereby of the conventional mind which tends to relate all the information into patterns that fit our expectations and past experiences. Our thoughts fall into the same typical grooves like shorthand. Creative people always resist this shorthand and try to look at each musical phenomenon from several different angles. A deep understanding of musical language helps us to determine easily possible patterns and suggests techniques to break out and alter our perspective.
The time spent studying musical language and structure helps us to build a vast vocabulary of musical idioms and gestures. Once this becomes hard-wired into the nervous system, the mind can focus on higher things and bend all of these techniques into something personal, combining musical ideas and styles in unique, personal ways. Each of us has a unique voice and musicians can express their deep nature and psychological makeup in their style, rhythms and phrasings. Such a voice cannot emerge “just from being yourself” and be produced instantly. Music is a language with a grammar, vocabulary, idioms and many formal conventions. It is paradoxical that those who impress the most with their individuality are the ones who first completely submerge themselves in an apprenticeship of that language. This real expression of the deepest self than creates a visceral effect on the listener.
Impatience is the greatest impediment to creativity and an artist must have a real musical vocabulary at his disposal. Too many people mistake real creativity and empty imitation of other people which cannot express anything. The phenomenal merits of YouTube are not under question, but many students, adults included, do not have the grammatical basis to appreciate and differentiate the high-quality from the mediocre. An artist must master the technique of musical language in order to find his own unique and authentic voice.
The third element I would like to mention today is technique. Approaching adult musicians with different technical approaches can be very conflictual if the actual musical goal to be achieved is not placed in the center of attention. If someone has in our opinion major technical problems, I would always try first to determine whether or not it stems from faulty musical comprehension or a limited view of the aural possibilities of the instrument. I believe it is our duty, especially with adult students, to avoid the scenario of, “you have to start all over” which first of all is never true and secondly because it creates a negative, stressful situation which is never conducive to artistic development. On the contrary, I believe that it is far more favorable to rapid progress to go into analyzing and deconstructing g technical problems and seeing where the real problem lies. A very important part of technique should also be analyzing practice techniques for all stages of study: the initial stage, the intermediate stage and memory and performance stage. Many people in all fields experience a kind of “technical lock” which is actually natural and the result of an immersion of ourselves in details, technique and certain procedures. If we are not vigilant we can become locked into seeing everything from the same vantage point, always using the same solutions and strategies. True creativity is the openness and adaptability of our spirit and is dependent on how we see the world and on how we reframe what we see. Creativity and adaptability are inseparable.
The all-important psychological elements of technique should be exposed in a way that uses the natural coordination and psycho-motorical tendencies of each person to his own advantage. Of course, these must first be determined! The intellectual conception of a movement in relation to sound and expression is more important than limiting the field to fixed hand positions, arm movements etc. which have the tendency to be very routine and standardized. The ability of the teacher to help someone experience something “good” in both its material sound manifestation as well as physical sensation is essential. Unless we are aware of our strengths and how to optimize them with great intensity it is difficult to approach our weaknesses.
Working on technique requires great focus on many different elements. In elaborating and constructing an artistic technique it is necessary to explore and make peace with imperfections and mistakes. I would encourage developing a technique which would enable us to use im
– perfections to our advantage. This is not encouraging sloppiness! But it is necessary to also develop an interior technique to trigger inspiration which completely changes our physiological response. This way of acquiring focus is trying to augment our feeling of “presence” and actively cultivate inspiration. Thus we gain a really important psychological tool of performance where instead of being in denial , we use emotion, distraction etc. and channel everything into deeper focus and our mistakes and deficiencies become teachers and allies.
The coda to these thoughts on working with adult students could be the subject of a whole presentation: Mentoring. Mentoring, teaching and coaching have many areas that overlap and in working with adult students these areas are sometimes very hard to define. Since we are dealing with adult students who already often have some kind of professional experience, we have the possibility of offering the weight of our experience without fear of judgment. Some helpful guidelines are:
1. Ask good questions and really listen to the answers. Listening in this case is often more important than speaking.
2. Clearly separate opinion from fact and know what you don’t know and admit it. Only this allows us to be completely honest and gives an added credibility.
3. With an adult with whom we seek reciprocity we should guide and not order5 and control.
I believe that our role I n relation to younger students can benefit from our reflections on working with adult students. Let us reassess our attitude towards our students and think again about the meaning of teaching. It is surely not a bunch of tricks or a bundle of neither knowledge nor something we do or give but more how we stand in relation to them. Our efforts toward helping our pupils to develop are more than just change: it implies movement and direction. One simply does not know more, one thinks differently.