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The Hump
It always gets hardest the closer you reach to the summit
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Posted by Dylan Christopher, 5 months ago
Tags: learning, beginner, tips

The Hump

It is increasingly interesting to me how similar we all are, yet we consider ourselves to be completely and utterly unique; this is a point that has become clear to me over my time teaching, particularly so during the early stages of learning.  When I encounter a new student, as a complete beginner, I find that there are repeated patterns of behaviour that create markers.

I call this process ‘The Hump’; the words here represent the main obstacle that blocks a new learning musician from reaching their full potential and later musical success.  I have found that this process can take anywhere from a few weeks to four-years; shockingly, some learners never get past it often quitting out of frustration.

Below are the markers I have found along this journey; while reading them, think honestly about where you are on this journey.

The Preconception

When a new student arrives, more often than not they have already conceived a notion of what piano playing is.  “Music is all about emotion!”, “Playing the piano is like using a computer keyboard!”, “I can already play X, Y, and Z!”, “The pedals make you go faster!”, “The black notes are sharp ones!”, and many more; often these fragments of information have been heard but taken out of context. 

I have found this to be absent in the very young, who are often completely open to anything suggested to them.  Unfortunately, for older students ranging from school-attending age, they have already conceived an idea of what a piano lesson ‘should’ (a dangerous word) be; this will more than likely involve a piece that they want to play or already have started working on.

The first stage is breaking down these preconceptions, slowly.  Before this has been done, they cannot hear a word said to them; many students quit here.

The Delusion

Everyone dreams, however, if the dream is uninformed and not based on what is actually already achieved or possibly achievable in reality, it is a delusion.  A perfect (another dangerous word) example of this, is the moment after I demonstrate a passage to a new child student.  They ask me to play them something; I oblige.  After which the child will immediately sit down and mash all number of random keys, looking to me with the largest smile of contentment. Worryingly, I have witnessed some adults do this.

Despite them not mashing random keys, they will play a piece of music but not actually think about the sounds they make, instead, hearing a perfect performance in their head, regardless of the actual sounds heard in reality.

This is the marker of a delusion; what this learner hears and what they think they hear are two separate things.  You cannot teach this student until the delusion is completely disassembled.  This process does not need to be cruel; ‘tough-love’ will do little more than destroying the learner’s ego, however, constructive reasoning will suffice.

The Shortcut

Simply put, there isn’t one.

Once the preconceptions have been disproven, and the delusion dissipated, the learner will likely look for the shortcut to ‘winning music’.  The most basic of concepts to teach a student is ‘Middle C’ and pulse.  This one note has such significance that everything else that is learned will refer back to it.  However, a learning musician will likely want to skip learning the basics, overlooking this vital piece of information, jumping straight into Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata or similar such pieces, only to realise that they cannot begin to understand a single marking on the page; … they then return to thier original student pieces.

What is interesting here is the need to play music results in a false learning.  Rather than use the methods prescribed in the session, the learner then watches videos on YouTube and simply imitates what they see.  This can happen for weeks, obviously with a warning to the fact that they are not learning anything concrete.  The only way this is stopped is when a piece of music is given, without an accompanying YouTube video, at which point the learner either complains and has a tantrum, or back-tracks and carries out the learning they missed out on, learning how to actually read sheet music via note-recognition and pulse.

Again, worryingly so, this tantrum has been had by adult learners and not just children.

The Comparison

We are not islands; we are social creatures.  As a result, we make comparisons to gauge how we ‘rank’ in the social hierarchy and order of things.  What amazes me is how many students compare themselves to other students. You cannot compare yourself to another human being unless you have spent a day in their shoes living their life; as a human being, your life experiences are different, meaning your outcome will be different.

What is more concerning is when a student compares them self to me.  I started lessons when I was four years old, I have a bachelors degree in music, and a second degree in education, with many, many diplomas in music performance; I teach and perform professionally full-time (I am paid money to do so).

I literally spend all day at my piano.  I repeatedly say to my learners, particularly the adults:

“You cannot compare yourself to anyone! Moreso, you cannot compare yourself to a recorded CD pianist! You are not a full-time musician, you have responsibilities and so do what you can!”

It takes time, but they eventually come around.

Cognitive dissonance

The hump; the base.  All this time and we were simply walking towards the hump.

Cognitive dissonance is the conflict of two equally valid by seemingly opposing thoughts. For new learners, these are: "What I am doing now does not sound like the finished product!", or, "I can't imagine [professional musican], sitting and doing this?" referring to slow practice.

It is a beautiful moment to witness; I live for this moment.  To describe it would be similar to seeing a light-bulb turn on; a person’s entire face lights up.

The concept of music making is a hard-task to grasp, but once a few basic principles are understood, the musician is limitless in their possible potential.

  1. The skills used to play a simple piece are used to play more complexed pieces (i.e. counting, note-reading, listening).
  2. Scales and arpeggios are the base components of music.
  3. If you can read it, you can learn it quicker.
  4. If you can understand it, you can learn it quicker.
  5. If you memorise it, you truly know it.
  6. Practise does not make perfect, it makes permanent.
  7. You do not need to practise for 8-hours a day, but you do need to think while you do it.
  8. Most important: music is not emotional, it incites an emotional reaction in your listener.

These principles represent the transition from a person pretending to learn to play music and actually learning to play music.  The cognitive dissonance here is the internal struggle between the learner as a passive listener (audience), and an active performer (artist).

The win and the fail

The hump; the summit and the fall.

Once the cognitive dissonance has subsided, the learner will feel confident enough to perform.  This might not happen in the first instance, but eventually, they will ‘win’ from a personal perspective (i.e. a graded exam, a competition, a concert, etc.).  At this moment, the individual will feel amazing; this will be to a point where an ego is formed making way for ‘the fail’ and fall.

Due to the previous success, the learner will coast for a period of time.   Practise will diminish because in their eyes, ‘they won’.  Unfortunately, because of the decrease in effort, the skills learned will atrophy resulting in diminished technical proficiency.

This is a point where many stop lessons because they cannot begin to comprehend how they can ever get back to the level of ability they once were.  Some more focused learners will not remain here for long and will immediately ‘bounce back’.

The other side

“Oh, look … another mountain!”

This is where, analogically, the successful musicians are found.  It is a continual process of learning, reflection, self-enrichment, and sharing, not an exercise in impressing people.  At this point, it is understood, completely, that we never arrive, but get closer and closer to ‘it’.

Whatever ‘it’ is.

*             *             *

In past times, musicians were servants; it is hard to think of any musician now as a servant.  Similar to a Tailor, Butcher, Baker, Mason, or Smith, musicians were considered a type of tradesperson.  As a result, it is a skilled profession; the skill paid for by their patron.  Many newcomers either do not know this or are seduced by the fame and adoration that is now associated with the profession.

If you want to grow and be a successful musician, you need to study music intelligently, working on your craft and skill at carrying it out.

Learning cannot be rushed; enjoy the process.

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Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball.  A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.

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