Let Them Struggle

As a teacher there’s a lot I want my students to feel. I want them to feel comfortable and affirmed. I want them to feel valued and safe. But more than any of that, I want them to be *learning*. If they’re not learning, I’m not really teaching them, and sometimes all of those things I want them to feel while they’re with me for 50 minutes won’t help them learn anything.

When’s the last time you really pushed yourself while you felt comfortable and safe? Probably not recently.

It’s usually under great discomfort and constant pressure that we make strides and adapt – necessity makes us grow the fastest. Of course we can grow without those things but the progress isn’t as big is it?

So I’ve been making my private lessons an environment where that kind of exponential growth can happen. I do this in a couple ways but the main way is asking a fairly obnoxious number of questions and giving very few answers.

After they play something I don’t tell them what I think – at least not yet. It’s always “how’d that go?” first. What did you hear? Was that better? Ok let’s do it again. If I can get away with not making any statements and asking only questions that’s ideal. Maybe they can’t find the answer immediately so I ask some guiding questions but I try to avoid giving the answer like its the plague.

Because it is.

Once I give them the answer, the opportunity to learn how to learn is drained. Maybe they know the answer now and they can work on it but they’ll still need me to give them the answer. They’ll always need me or another teacher there unless I teach them to evaluate themselves critically and to be aware of themselves as they play.

And they have to be hard on themselves too. I don’t let anything slip by, I want them to learn excellence. If they learn critical self-evaluation and they learn excellence all we have to add is problem solving and that’s pretty much how to learn.

The problem solving part is the toughest part for myself and for the students. I let them struggle to find the answer. Sometimes for a long time, like 5 or 6 minutes. Which is like 5 or 6 eternities for a high school freshman (2.5 eternities for a high school senior in case you’re wondering).

Sometimes I want to swoop in and say “just put your pointer finger here,” watch them do it and pat myself on the back. We got there painlessly. “I’m a good teacher!” I could say to myself. I know I can’t do that though. They won’t learn how to learn if I do that.

So instead it’s “Maybe there’s something off in the way you’re playing. On the video, do you see anything in your hand that’s unusual?” and then they say “no,” and then I say “look again.” Then they say “no” again and I say “look again,” again. Maybe this happens for a whole 45 seconds before I say “did you check every part of your hand?” and then let them try to figure it out again.

I know this might seem agonizing or even antagonistic and it feels that way too. I don’t relish it at all.

But what I do relish is when I let them struggle for awhile and then they get it. And then I can say “who figured that out?” or when they play something great “who made that?” and then they say “Me” and I can say “exactly,” with a massive grin on my face and give them a huge hi-five.

After we have a victory like that in my private lessons we celebrate. Because earning the answer to your questions is worthy of celebration. Having answers handed to you isn’t but searching and finding and struggling and battling for the answer – that is worthy of praise.

The last part of course is the debrief. My job isn’t finished until they can take victory home as a new tool and use it. So after they figure it out I say “so how did we get there?” and they’ll almost inevitably say “I moved my finger.” That of course is not helpful. That’s the answer. I don’t want the answer, I want to know how we got to the answer.

So I redirect them to the steps instead of the result. It may have included recording a performance and listening to it or watching it, looking at a mirror, paying attention to how their hands feel, listening to sound the drum is producing, etc.

After the debrief we move on. Sometimes the process is 2 minutes long, other times one process takes the whole 50 minute lesson. I’m fine with that and I’ve conditioned my students through many repetitions to be fine with that too.

The real learning isn’t going to happen in front of me. It’s going to happen in their bedroom at their drum set when they hate how they sound. Or in a practice room at school when their concert is tomorrow and they can’t figure out how to play the part. So I want to make sure they’re prepared for those moments.

The effect of this has been that my students who I’ve had for a long time are solving the processes for themselves very quickly in lessons and coming back better and better. Sometimes after only one of my questions they figure out the entire concept in their head without a word from me. These students have almost arrived to the destination. They’re figuring it out with just a bit of prodding. In a couple years they won’t need prodding, they’ll have it figured out.

They won’t need me.

I’m trying to build individual musicians who can figure things out for themselves. As I get closer the feeling is incredible. Worth a million dollars every time it happens.