Week 3: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“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?”

-Ellen Langer

 

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.

5 thoughts on “Week 3: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

  1. I also come from a music background (viola!) so your post resonated with me a lot. I have mixed feelings about my education in music–I definitely had more good teachers than bad; but there were many moments where I cried and was very torn up over a performance or criticism of my performance, etc. In a lot of traditional environments, there is only ONE WAY; but five minutes listening to campus radio would tell a different story! And you’re so right. In music, we learn challenging pieces so well that we don’t even think about it, our fingers just make it happen! And even more right–it is dangerous to make that a blanket philosophy; we’d stagnate as a society! Lots to think about. I wonder how much music pedagogy has actually changed over the last 100 (or 500?) years? Thank you for sharing part of your story this week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your last question stuck with me. Honestly, I don’t think the pedagogy has changed much at all, just as the designs of our respective instruments has remained virtually unchanged for the last 300-500 years. I think it’s fascinating that this stasis is reflected in both the design and the pedagogy of our musical experiences. It makes me think of a quote by Mahler: “tradition is the not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”. I worry that we are worshipping the ashes in many of our fields, especially in music.

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  2. Hi Jasmine!
    I also come from a music background (viola!) so your post resonated with me a lot. I have mixed feelings about my education in music–I definitely had more good teachers than bad; but there were many moments where I cried and was very torn up over a performance or criticism of my performance, etc. In a lot of traditional environments, there is only ONE WAY; but five minutes listening to campus radio would tell a different story! And you’re so right. In music, we learn challenging pieces so well that we don’t even think about it, our fingers just make it happen! And even more right–it is dangerous to make that a blanket philosophy; we’d stagnate as a society! Lots to think about. I wonder how much music pedagogy has actually changed over the last 100 (or 500?) years? Thank you for sharing part of your story this week.

    Like

  3. HI Jasmine,
    I liked your blog. I’m not a musician but you bring up some good points. I had some similar experiences when I was working full time doing structural analysis in St. Louis, MO. I recall my supervisor during my first or second week of training, after having spent a large part of the day on the details that our work required mentioning to me. “As soon as you get this down, you’ll be able to crank out reports on ‘auto-pilot'” That has stuck with me, mainly because that appears to be an unspoken level of measuring performance. When you become so good at something, that it comes out without thinking. Pretty interesting to have the same concepts in music and I am sure every field has a similar version.

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