“Ironically, many are unhappy with an educational experience that has only rewarded them… These students have all been tested, tried, and found to be worthy of extreme praise. What does it mean when such an intelligent person gives the wrong answer?”
So… when Ellen Langer listed music lessons as one of the places where limiting, hobbling mindsets are cultivated, I was a little piqued. I’d taken music lessons for years and felt a certain time-tested loyalty to The Music Lesson as pedagogical practice: I was accustomed to the rigor, rigidity, and self-discipline (or unhelpful, unhealthy self-criticism), the type-A personalities, the minefields of politics regarding everything from where one sat in an orchestra to how the music was played, and I paused for a moment and realized that this is precisely what Dr. Langer was talking about in her book, The Power of Mindful Learning.
In this book, Dr. Langer pushes back against conventional wisdom about education as well as conventional wisdom itself. Despite the fact that I have learned a great deal about imagining things, places, and people complexly, and despite my rigorous humanities training and the strong emphasis it placed on multiple perspectives, ambiguities and, iconoclastic takedowns of master narratives and Eurocentric models of everything from history to art to music to education, I am still trapped by what Dr. Langer refers to as mindless learning. Both in and out of the practice room, I do things every day simply because “that’s the way they’re done”, or “every other way is wrong”. This is especially ingrained in music: there’s only one correct way to hold a cello bow–all other ways are not only wrong, but could trigger a career-ending injury and subject yourself to a lifetime of “bad habits” (If I had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase in my lessons, I’d be a wealthy woman); the best way to learn technically-demanding passages in a piece is to drill-drill-drill until it’s branded onto your brain and you can play it without a second thought.
Let’s re-examine that, shall we? The goal is to “play it… without a second thought.” As a traditionalist, I can safely admit that I agree with a lot of the conventional wisdom offered by my many teachers (even the ones whose harsh critiques made me cry and quit playing for years at a time), but I do worry about the future of music practice and education when the goal is to learn for the sole purpose of not having to think about it ever again. Just think about the implications of that for a second, and you’ll be concerned, too.