The saying “practice makes perfect” is misleading. It can also in some contexts be quite demoralising. You see, for anything to be ‘perfect’ implies something finite, something that is so exquisite that it can not be improved or surpassed, and is something that is so superior that it is uncommon to achieve and therefore virtually impossible. We end up being in competition with ourselves and other people.
THIS IS COMPLETELY THE WRONG APPROACH TO TAKE WHEN LEARNING A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT! Or learning anything, for that matter.
Learning is transient. It is not linear. Learning happens when content is broken down into “manageable chunks” and a “scaffolding” approach is used by the teacher. Sometimes it goes well and it ‘sticks’. Sometimes we have learning blocks. Sometimes things make sense straight away! Sometimes they don’t. Learning is not solely reliant on one factor, like just the teacher, or just the student. An effective learning environment is reliant on a multitude of factors: the student/teacher rapport, the subject knowledge, the pace and variety of the lesson, the physical environment, emotional intelligence, personal resilience, what is going on at home, or with friendship groups, or simply how we happen to be feeling at that time of day.
All of that is ok. All of that is ‘normal’.
What is important is that nobody gives up. I include me (the teacher) in this.
In my first lesson with students, there are a number of stock things I tend to say, to do with technique “make sure your belly button is lined up with middle C” (to ensure the student is sat centrally at the piano) or “try not to squash the mouse in the house!” (reminding students to keep their hand shape/fingers rounded on the keys, and not flat). But one of the most important points I always make in the first lesson is that I honestly don’t give a monkey’s about mistakes. I even play any old rubbish for them and make lots of deliberate mistakes to show that actually, nothing bad will happen if they play a wrong note. The ceiling isn’t going to fall in, no-one is laughing and/or pointing, the world is not coming to an end. The student often looks at me aghast, as if I am completely bonkers (well, a little bit of bonkers does help now and then!), and I repeat to them “no, seriously, I don’t care about mistakes at all. What I care about is that when you make a mistake, you never give up.” Of course, this is a challenging idea for us all to incorporate into our daily lives anyway, but as long as my students know that it is absolutely ok to make mistakes and that they are a crucial part of the learning process, that is all that I can ask in terms of them having a positive approach to learning.
Practising is transient. It is not linear. But! It needs to be mindful, and regular.
PROGRESS is what we are after. And yet, even progress is not linear. We are not aiming for perfection. Well, some of us (think we) are, and have we achieved it? Can we truthfully say that we are ‘perfect’ in one or some aspects of our lives? Surely the notion of perfection is relative, anyway? What is a perfect cappuccino for me is inevitably going to be different to someone else’s. (I happen to be going through a phase of enjoying mine coconut milk and chocolate sprinkles at the moment, just in case you’re wondering. But who’s to say I won’t like it that way next week?) Anyway - back to the matter in hand: aiming for perfection (whatever our idea of perfection may be) often leads to all sorts of self-critical inner dialogue that actually delays or even prevents us from even having a go. This sort of self-sabotage is quite common in many aspects of our personal lives and of course is a challenge I am sure we are all familiar with to one extent or another.
However: the two main points I must make here are 1) as long as we aim to adopt a more mindful approach to things, i.e. that we simply ‘notice’ or ‘observe’ without emotional reaction or judgement when we make mistakes, then surely that is crucial for positive progress. Instead of panicking, or throwing in the towel, or criticising ourselves when a mistake is made, we simply ‘acknowledge’ it, and calmly say to ourselves, ‘it’s ok, all that happened there was a wrong note was played. What needs to be done to rectify the situation?’ [Notice how I have completely removed the notion of ‘I’ (the self) from those sentences. I just find that for me personally, it helps to voice things in the third person in order to maximise the efficacy of mindfulness.]
The second point I wish to make is in order to make positive progress, a student needs to have all the tools and skills available to them in order for them to help themselves improve and develop whatever it is they are working on. The tools and skills fall into two types: emotional resilience, and practical strategies. I teach all sorts of students, of all ages, of all walks of life, and as a teacher, it is my responsibility to facilitate their learning in the best way I can for them as an individual. One size does not fit all. In the course of the first few lessons, all my students are shown and taught different strategies for practising, so that students soon develop the skills to become ever more independent and discerning when it comes to taking responsibility for their own learning.
The best progress happens when:
In conclusion, it is important to remind ourselves that learning to play an instrument, rather like learning a sport or a language, or even starting a business, is very much a long game. Success has its roots firmly in the attitude and approach we choose to take. It is all about the process, and how we apply ourselves with determination and drive. In this day and age, where the concept of ‘instant gratification’ is becoming more and more an integral part of our lives, perhaps more so than we realise, the idea of gradually and patiently working towards something sits less and less comfortably with ourselves. As a piano teacher, I cannot promise perfection. But I can guarantee that I can help you progress.