Tackling “the difficult stuff”

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Let’s face it: playing an instrument is really, really difficult.

Even the “basics” that most people cover in their first year or so are a substantial challenge. Think about it: you have to master a new set of physical skills, including precise control of muscles you might not have even known were voluntary. You have to become fluent in a new language (with arcane grammar), both aural and written. You have to understand the mechanics of a fairly complicated device. And on top of all that, somehow you’re expected to express a deep, genuine emotion at the same time as employing all the other skills. Learning music really means training as an athlete, a linguist, an engineer, and psychologist, all at once. It’s really not much different than programming a robot to write poetry in a foreign language while doing push-ups.

The learning curve is steep, especially at the beginning. It’s no surprise so many people drop out when they get their first taste of rigorous study. For most students, that curve levels out somewhere around the sophomore or junior year of a college education. While there’s always more (a lot more) to learn, the second half of a 4-year music degree doesn’t drown you in the same kind of deluge of new information. Instead, the challenges get harder.

In high school, the challenges can be solved with a few minutes of concentrated effort. For instance, you might find a piece in an unfamiliar key: E major means four sharps, so you figure out how to play D sharp on your instrument. You spend ten minutes rehearsing the passage in question with the proper fingering, and you’re good to go.

Later in high school or maybe early in college, you’re presented with the idea of learning scale patterns in the key of E so that next time you see a piece with that key signature, you’ll be prepared and will be able to play the music correctly the first time through. You spend a semester getting comfortable playing a routine in all 12 keys, and you don’t worry about keys anymore.

In the last half of college, you might discover (for instance) that the timbre you’re creating on a D sharp doesn’t match the sound you’re getting on an E. Now you have to learn how to counteract your instrument’s tendencies, adjust your body to create different sounds, and control all of that without compromising the tempo of the music. That kind of work takes more than ten minutes, and more than a semester. In fact, it’s the kind of ongoing work that is never complete.

In the grand scheme of things, however, all of that is “the easy stuff.”

For all of this kind of work, you can record yourself, hear something unpleasant in the playback, and take focused steps to correct the problem. The advice of a private teacher is very helpful in efficiently addressing areas of concern, but not absolutely required. Given enough time, access to Google, and recording software, a dedicated student can progress through all of this alone. What the teacher is really there to help with is “the difficult stuff.”

If “the easy stuff” is “all the stuff you notice is bad when you hear a recording of yourself,” then “the difficult stuff” is, by process of elimination, “the stuff you don’t notice in a recording.”

There are a myriad of details that experienced professionals notice that more junior musicians overlook. Often, there’s a discussion to be had about stylistic choices based on current trend (and employability) or historical context. Sometimes a harmonic analysis implies intonation or phrasing that the teacher can help elucidate. Meta-analysis can be very important; maybe the student hears a number of notes with bad tone, but the teacher hears the pattern and is able to address the underlying weakness. Whether because of lack of knowledge, conscientiousness, or acuity, everyone has blind spots; it’s the teacher’s job to watch out for these and bring them to light.

Ideally, students walk into each lesson able to play their material in a way that they think is excellent. Nobody should need to be told they flubbed a partial or missed an articulation. That’s obvious, and it’s a waste of lesson time if the teacher has to spend time on that kind of thing. However, when students are prepared enough that they can perform a piece the way they want it to go, then whatever observations the teacher shares based on his or her own critical listening are new concepts for the student to consider. That’s when real progress is made.

Problems you don’t hear are by far the hardest to fix. Of course, they take the longest to diagnose, simply because you’re not even aware they exist; you’re not looking out for them. On top of that, however, they usually take the longest to fix, because they require you to change your perception. Prior to being informed of the issue, you think you’re fine — you think that aspect of your performance is good. Before you can even start to improve it, you have to realign your values to recognize the element as “bad” rather than “good.”

The best example for me is my intonation. I have absolute pitch; for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been able to hear and identify notes and chords. My dad had me start trombone in middle school because he knew that my ear would help me negotiate the continuum of the slide. When I got to college, however, my teacher told me (much to my surprise) that my slide placement was very haphazard and that my intonation was, at best, inconsistent. As a child, I had started my musical studies on piano, and I never even thought about tuning — that was the piano tuner’s job. If I pushed the right button, the right note came out. As such, even though I had absolute pitch, I never listened more carefully than about the nearest quarter step. Either a note was a “C” or it was a “B.” Gray areas in between didn’t exist for me in any real way. So, when I was playing trombone (even into college), my definition of pitch simply wasn’t precise enough. I had to sit down with audio stimuli and really teach myself how to hear the different gradations of pitch, and how to get my slide in the right spot. To this day, I work with drones regularly to keep my ear trained; if I stop thinking about it, I often find myself playing “the right notes” but without accurate intonation.

And that leads me to my real point here: if all you’re learning from your teacher is how to correct specific problems in your assigned repertoire each week, you’re missing the most important lesson. Your teacher will point out things to work on, and hopefully the majority of them are items that wouldn’t have occurred to you. However, the crucial skill you should be trying to learn from your teacher is how to listen.

Your teacher heard things in your playing that you didn’t. Whether or not you corrected those items in time for your next lesson, can you now hear them in your own playing? You need to convert “the difficult stuff” (the stuff you don’t notice) into “the easy stuff” (the stuff you can hear in your own playing), so that you can fix it on your own without needing someone else to let you know about it.

In middle school, your teachers tell you what buttons to push. In high school, you know which buttons to push, and a teacher will tell you how to interpret the music. In college, you know how to phrase, and a teacher will help you analyze your music to inform your interpretation. In the professional world, advice of any kind is a rare and precious commodity. Either you get hired or you don’t. If you get a gig, most of your colleagues will refrain from offering feedback out of professional courtesy. If you don’t get the gig, you’ll almost never get a reason — and if you do, it’s probably not honest.

As a professional musician, your most valuable asset is your ability to listen critically. Without the benefit of somebody else helping you improve, you need a keen ear to evaluate your performance and plan your practice. As a student, the more quickly you develop your ear, the more things your teacher will able to discuss with you, and the more you will learn.