I’m not a huge believer in the power of positive thinking in the “Law of Attraction” sense (in fact, I’m currently working my way through The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman which give some pretty convincing evidence against this philosophy). However, I do believe that how we talk to our students, and ourselves (we are our own best teacher, after all), has a direct impact on how we learn, and our attitudes toward music and the learning process.
Many therapists and self-help books discuss the influence of our “self-talk,” or the language we use when we talk to ourselves. In the most simplistic sense, it is healthier to change the negative words we use when talking to ourselves–words like: “bad,” or “ugly,” or “stupid,”–to “good,” “beautiful,” or “smart.”
It doesn’t have to be a black-or-white 180 like this. During my time at the Manhattan School of Music, I took a course on teaching from Dr. Carol Ann Aicher. One of the things she mentioned is to never say something is “hard,” to yourself or your students. If something is “hard,” I don’t want to do it. I don’t even want to try. Hard is impossible. Hard is painful and time-consuming, and I’m likely to fail. She suggested using the word “challenging” instead. I want to live up to a challenge. A challenge is possible. A challenge is something that you will eventually be successful at if you work at it.
I’ve taken this one step further. I’ve realized that we often tell our beginning students (5th-6th grade in Texas), “Crossing the break is hard,” “High notes are hard to get out,” “6/8 time, triplets, sixteenth notes, and dotted notes are hard to count, so let’s wait on that.” We do it almost without thinking, and not without compassion: we want to let them know that if they fail, it’s okay. The problem rears its head, however, whenever I start teaching at a new high school, and I have students who have come up with all kinds of tricks and crutches for crossing the break, they bite high notes out, they’re scared to death of any notes with more than one beam, and can only play dotted rhythms or things in 6/8 if you sing it for them first so they can memorize how it goes.
So I approach all of my beginners with a “this is easy” attitude. This puts the challenge onto my shoulders as a teacher to make sure that I set them up for success for all of these “easy” things. As soon as a student can play a chalumeau C with a good sound, embouchure and air, I bump the register key and a beautiful high G inevitably comes out. Then I have them do it with theirthumb. All I say is, “That’s how you play one of the higher notes.” I don’t say, “…and they only get harder from there, so DON’T try to go higher, yet!” I also don’t give them praise, like, “Oh my gosh! You just played in the high register and this is only your third lesson! Do you know how hard that is??” I don’t even call it a “high note,” or the “high register,” I simply say, “That’s how you play one of the higher notes. Easy, right?”
Before they even learn how to put their clarinet together, I put a metronome on something moderate like 80. Then I ask them to say “Ta” for every click. Then I tell them to “Ta” every other click. Then every four. Then I ask them to say two “Ta’s” for every click. Then three. Then four. Sometimes I have to do a little work like giving them a three- or four-syllable word to say with the the best first, or putting the metronome on eighths to help even things out a little bit. But once they’ve got the hang of it, I write down what a whole note looks like and say, “That’s a ‘ta’ that lasts four beats.” I repeat with half notes and quarter notes, then eighths, triplets, and sixteenths. “Easy, right?” And so far, they all say, “Yeah!” Then we move on to something else. When we get to dotted rhythms, I explain in a very mathematical way what a dot is. We don’t even bother counting it right away, I just make sure they understand the concept. I even played a game with a student this year after he recognized the pattern dotted notes follow, culminating in me asking him, “So what is a dotted 64th note?” This eleven-year-old responded: “Um…a 64th tied to a 128th note?” “You’ve got it. Easy, right?” (I say this calmly as MY self-talk is screaming, “WHAT?? THAT’S AMAZING!!!”)
For the first few months with beginners, I repeat these exercises every couple of weeks, always saying, “Remember this? I know it was easy for you, but I just want to make sure you still remember how to do it.” Then they do it, and I might add a tiny challenge, but nothing they can’t do. Then we move on. This way, I have all of these sixth graders who can play in the clarion register right away, who aren’t afraid of sixteenth notes, and know what a dot does, and none of them know how spectacular that is. They just know that it is.
High Schoolers are harder to crack, you have to spend time undoing the “this is hard” conditioning they’ve had for years. I’ve found, however, that if you take a step (or ten) back and re-teach some of the basic concepts as if they are easy, students–the ones who have the patience to stick with it–will truly appreciate it. I recently spent a whole lesson going over the basics of rhythm with a high school junior who had unfortunately never fully learned what whole notes or 4/4 time were, but by the end of the lesson he was counting 32nd notes and dotted eighths in compound meter with an eighth-note pulse. His response at the end of this lesson was, “Oh man. You just clarified EVERYTHING for me. Thank you so much.”
This isn’t to say that you should tell a student that everything is easy all of the time. I just don’t pre-empt what they’re about to do by telling them something is hard OR easy. They try something first, and if they get it, I point out how simple it is and move on. If they struggle, I might say, “No problem. This is challenging, and here are some ways to work on it.”
I know some teachers and band directors who play videos of clarinetist Han Kim performing grad-school-level music when he was 11 years old, and when their students say, “How did he get to be so good??” their teachers say, “He practiced.” Okay, that is true, but I’m also guessing that no one ever told him something was too hard.