Natural Learning

Version 2Have you ever said, in the middle of a bad day, “I can’t get out of my own way?” In situations like that, it seems the harder we try to get on track, the worse it gets. The more effort we expend, the worse are the outcomes. Then there are other days when everything seems to just come easy. We are able to do things seemingly without even thinking or trying. We just do a great job, and don’t even know what we did to cause it to come out so good. In this article, I’m going to discuss why that is, and how we can use what happens on those good days to avoid having the bad ones. Many of the techniques I will discuss are applications of “Inner Game” principles by Timothy Gallwey.

All of this has to do with how our brains work. There are certain tasks that our brains perform without any effort or intervention on our part. Our heart keeps pumping, without us having to control each beat, and if somebody throws an object at us, we may not catch it, but we protect ourselves from it without having to calculate the objects speed, path and eta. Our brains do all of that for us, automatically. This ability to go on “auto pilot” is helpful for other tasks besides maintaining our life or protecting us from harm. For example, once we have repeatedly practiced a musical passage slowly, we are able to suddenly play it fast, no longer needing to control individual notes. They are at that point “in the fingers.” That’s the brain on auto pilot, using the same functionality as it does to keep the heart going. It’s the brain saying to us, “I’ve got this, just stay out of the way and let me handle it.” Sure enough, if we try to control every note in a fast musical passage, we will instantly be incapable of playing it at anything but the slowest of tempi.

When we try to control things like this, we are prone to getting in the way of what our brain is capable of doing, and we are also apt to distract ourselves with negative thoughts like, “I can’t believe I messed that up again,” or “stop raising the pinky up so high.” Our brain will solve these problems if we give it a task that requires that fix. For example, instead of trying to control the pinky so that it doesn’t rise, set about playing the passage more legato and evenly. Given that task, your brain will adjust the rise of the pinky to accomplish the task without you having to intervene.

Being task oriented and leaving the details to our brains to figure out works in larger contexts also. For example, when we sing a phrase before we play it on an instrument, our brains now have a task: play that phrase the way I just imagined it. Then play the phrase. If you haven’t tried this before, you’ll be amazed at how good it comes off the first time, just from imagining, or audiating the phrase before playing it. You will audiate it again while playing, and your brain will figure out how to make the performance sound like the audiated version it remembers from before you started playing.

Do you teach band? How quickly do your clarinet students play “over the break” the first time they try it. I used to have to wait patiently while they made many repeated attempts, and when the first success came, it was often followed by an unsuccessful attempt. Then I tried taking away the student’s control over what they were doing. I had them hold a low tone and toldl them not to apply the register key until I cued them. They had no idea when I would give the cue, because I made sure I was as random as possible about it. This eliminated their ability to think through what they were going to do, and to worry about not succeeding. In a fraction of a second, they just applied the register key, totally relying on their “auto pilot” to execute the task. Immediately, the upper register note began to pop out. What used to be an unpleasant and laborious task became easy and expediant. And on times when the note did not come out the first time, I continued the same strategy, until the brain figured it out, still without the child consciously interveneing. This is literally getting out of our own way.

This strategy even works in concerts. At some point, I discovered that my band concerts were better when I did not conduct everything at the same tempo as I had rehearsed it. I found that fast pieces were better if I went  little faster in concerts, and slow pieces were better if I took a little more liberty with rubato and ritardandi than I had in rehearsals. Once the band was well rehearsed, the new tempi did the same thing that my cue to play the upper register did for the clarinet students. It took their ability to intervene away, and forced them to rely on what their auto pilots could do with what they had learned. This is important. Our conscious minds are not the only place learning is taking place when we are rehearsing something; our subconscious minds are learning too. They are learning how a task is successfully performed in a way that we are not even aware of, and with a set of actions that we cannot control. But the brain knows how to do what we do not. It’s as if someone else is performing for us, but it is not someone else, it is us, powered by our brains on auto pilot. We provide conscious learning, but then we must hand it over to the subconsious side of our brains to take and run with.

Guiding a student through slow practice, and then gradually increasing the speed often doesn’t work. Why? Because as we increase the speed gradually, we are not giving control to the auto pilot. We are holding on, only increasing the speed enough so that we can remain in control. Practicing at the same slow speed longer, and then immediately playing at tempo works much better, and such immediate success will rarely fail to delight your students. The immediate jump in tempo forces the subconsicous mind to take over, and that’s where the successful performance is going to have to come from eventually anyway.

Part of the success of this strategy is that it distracts the conscious mind from distracting and destructive thoughts. When I’m teaching a new piece, I used to spend most of my effort at first in teaching notes, and only later adding in expressive markings and interpretation. This left everything under the control of the conscious mind, so as these other things were added to playing the right notes, they overwhelmed the conscious mind, which has a very limited capacity. Then I started teaching expression and interpretation almost from the start. I sang the phrase or played it, and I had the student play it expressively, not necessarily exactly as I had, but with a similar kind of expression. Before I knew it, all of the note errors we had been working on dissappeared, and the performance was expressive. What happened? The auto pilot was given the task of playing the phrase expressively, and not of playing the right notes. In order for the phrase to be played expressively, the notes had to be right, so the brain solved that problem in order to successfully complete the task of playing expressively that it had been given.

Teaching this way is a key that unlocks another level of achievement and proficiency, both in your students performance and in your own. I encourage you to try this and look forward to your enjoyment of the results.

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