Submitted by Mary Tickner
Books are magical. They have the power to awaken our minds or reassure us of decisions made or changes in a road taken. Several weeks ago, a friend gifted me with a book and assured me that I would enjoy it. She was so right.
“The Slow Fix” by Canadian author Carl Honoré is written to “solve problems, work smarter and live better in a world addicted to speed” (quote from book jacket). The title is a winner but more importantly, the book deals directly with specific steps that can be taken to deal with problems that we, as teachers, are confronted with. While the anecdotes that he uses are not musical, it is very clear as to how they can be applied in our profession, and as teachers, we can use all the help we can get.
I was immediately drawn to Chapter Two with the title “Confess: The Magic of Mistakes and the Mea Culpa” followed by this quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Success does not consist in never making a mistake but in never making the same one a second time”.
Reading Chapter Two brought to mind a 9-year old transfer student named Annie (not her real name). At least once in her first months of lessons, there would be a few minutes of tears and silence, and progress was limited since she always hesitated before playing anything. One day, I decided to try and work on solving the problem and asked her if she was worried about something. After a silence, Annie told me that she was afraid of making a mistake because her previous teacher had stopped her each time she had played a wrong note or rhythm, forgot an accidental or failed to notice the key signature or dynamics, etc … . Plus, the teacher’s voice was always very loud and “she seemed so cross.” The lessons were frequently devoted to one piece or activity only. That explained a great deal. Annie’s confidence had been destroyed and she was developing into a perfectionist (which is equally poisonous) due to the teacher’s teaching style. The good news is that, Annie, having been reassured that mistakes are going to occur but are not fatal, has begun to move ahead. But the old Annie resurfaced last week when, for the first time, we tried to play a major scale HANDS TOGETHER! A long pause then “I can’t do it” and tears. However, after a minute of practicing the fingering on the keyboard lid, Annie slowly tried the first 3 notes and missed the F-sharp! She looked at me, I smiled and said “that is very normal, just try again”. With a pause and a sigh, she slowly began again and navigated the RH thumb turn on F# (and after a long pause) to G. After a few more pauses, we climbed Mt. Everest: the ascending D-major scale HANDS TOGETHER! The trip down was much faster and with few pauses and Annie received a well deserved large SUPER sticker.
Back to “The Slow Fix” and a final quote and anecdote. In the conclusion, Honoré begins with a quote from Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I am so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
As teachers, we have to deal with many problems such as practicing, repetitions and problem solving. Occasionally, our hearts are uplifted, as mine was a month ago, when a student who had been struggling with her first Bach fugue, marched into the studio and dramatically announced that she could now play the first page of her fugue hands together, but very slowly , and “would like to check if it is okay”. “Awesome” I said and congratulated her on this achievement. Then, with equal drama, she pointed to one measure and said “I spent 20 minutes on THAT before I could play it”. Welcome to Bach!
Mistakes are learning tools such as learning to walk, eat with a fork, read, play a fugue, counting a dotted quarter note/rests. We learn to live with mistakes and learn to say “sorry” when our mistakes affect others. As teachers, we are charged with serious responsibilities and always need to be aware of how to communicate our ideas with the positive goal of encouraging the student and building trust. Above all, follow the medical profession’s first charge which is: “Do No Harm.”