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.

Higher Standards

In the last 6 months or so I’ve been much harder on my private students. I was hard on my drumline students this season too.

I said things like “that’s not good enough,” and “is that the best you can do?”

I also said “I’m disappointed,” and “don’t come back to a lesson with that kind of preparation again.”

Harsh right? Maybe. But maybe in general we all could use a harsh kick in the pants to start excelling instead of being mediocre. Maybe that sentence was harsh too. But I’m ok with that.

I didn’t just start pushing my students harder out of nowhere. They were “warned” if you will. I spent a lot of time talking with them about what my expectations were going to be and why my expectations for them had suddenly risen.

It was because my expectations for myself had risen. Dramatically.

I’m not sure where it came from, but I started seeing greatness in areas of my life that aren’t music. Example: Gordon Ramsay cooking a steak.

I began realizing that I had no excuse to not be as awesome as this girl doing a Karate saber demo.

And of course greatness in music too.

As a drummer and as an educator, I need to be striving for that level of greatness. Shoot, as a person I need to be striving for that level of greatness.

It’s my mission to share these kinds of things with my students when I get a chance so that’s what I did. Its not that I haven’t always dealt exclusively in high standards — I think and hope that I have. Just recent exposures to greatness have pushed me to more.

The results have been pretty outstanding to put it simply. They’ve worked a lot harder for me, thus forcing me to work harder for them. Higher standards rub off.

No one has complained either. I like how Gordon Ramsay cooks a steak, not so much how he terrorizes his chefs into doing it. While I’ve enforced high standards and accepted nothing less, I haven’t been mean or condescending. Just simply reporting the facts.

“This is not good enough,” isn’t mean. It’s honest. I think we could all do with a bit more honesty with ourselves, with others and especially others with us.

Being forward with my students has made all of us have better experiences. No one has complained, everyone has improved.

The more I experience greatness the more it rubs off on me. Hopefully it has the same effect on you. So go experience some greatness and then get to being great.

Don’t accept less than that, less than that is not good enough.

Advice to a Future Performance Major

Just a few days ago a high school student about to graduate asked me for some advice on where he should go. He’s a saxophonist who’s very advanced for his age and planning to major in Jazz. We had wonderful conversation (not just about where to go but much more) and I thought I’d share the big stuff with you.

1. Where does your motivation come from?

I didn’t go to a school with the kind of international renown that a place like Berklee or USC has for Jazz education. There was no money for that. I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. I received a wonderful education but most of the time I had to motivate myself.

By my Junior year I was a big fish without a lot of competition. I had worked really hard to get to the top of the program and in virtue of upperclassmen graduating and my hard work, I got there.

But I didn’t say “what do I do now?” when that happened, because I knew it didn’t matter. My competition wasn’t at USF. As a drummer, my competition is Steve Gadd. My competition is Philly Joe Jones. My competition is Robert “Sput” Searight. My competition is me.

So I didn’t need to be in constant competition with my classmates to push myself. I already wanted to push myself, no external incentive needed.

I told the guy asking for advice that he doesn’t need to go to some expensive college if he’s motivated internally. He’ll push himself without a need for the hand-holding of his teachers or the competition of his colleagues. If he’s got the motivation, everything he wants to learn is already out there and he’ll find it if it’s not offered where he ends up.

2. Maintain and Build Your Network

I went to college a 2 hour drive from where I went to high school. I didn’t realize how big a deal that was until maybe a year ago.

Since I didn’t move to some other town many miles away, I kept the network of people that I had done a good job for in high school. My first professional gig was playing with my private teacher. I got my first (and current) teaching job working for my old band director when he moved to Tampa. That’s just two of many examples.

Relocating as an entrepreneur means giving up the network you’ve created and creating a new one. Relocation has its benefits, yes, but losing your network is a liability.

I told the guy that staying in the area he’s already built a huge network in will mean being well-established when he graduates. I also told him to make use of that momentum by being away from school and on the scene as much as possible while he’s in school.

3. Go For Free

I was extremely fortunate to go to college almost entirely for free. I had a full ride scholarship that covered everything I needed every semester.

All the credit goes to my mom on this one.

When I was a senior in high school she was always harassing me about finding scholarships. We spent hours at the dinner table in the living room filling out every application she could find.

Yes, she. I didn’t help a lot. The whole thing was really burdensome and tedious.

I wasn’t a brat or anything, I just didn’t have a clue the value of graduating with zero debt. But she did. She made me do it and I’m eternally grateful for her foresight.

Everyone who’s hope is to be an entrepreneur (that’s what being a freelance musician is) should have a primary goal of going to college for free. Maybe that means researching scholarships for an hour every single day or filling out 20 applications per week.

I told the guy to forget everything else I’d told him and remember this. Graduating with no debt as an entrepreneur puts you ahead. We can have a $2000 week this week and a $200 week the next. Having a variable income makes debt even more crippling than it usually is. I would make being debt free the very highest priority in choosing a school, and if being free of debt didn’t work out, go to the place that offers the most so you graduate with the least amount of debt possible.

So there it is, the three things myself and the guy talked about.

Going to a nearby university for my education was easily the best decision I could have made. I motivated myself, kept my network and went for free. I know this might not happen for everyone, but the closer you can get to these ideal situations, the easier post-graduation life will be.