A Simple Technique That Could Help Boost Your Effectiveness With a Struggling Student

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Once you get pretty good at riding a skateboard, hitting a tennis ball, or playing with a nice juicy vibrato, it can be easy to forget what it was like when you were struggling to do these things as a beginner. And be surprisingly difficult to remember just how unsteady, awkward, uncoordinated, or ineffective everything felt in the early stages of learning that new skill.

Because sure, everyone goes through periods where they struggle with vibrato, playing with a straight bow, or executing clean attacks and articulation at some point. But, as your skills develop, and you start playing at increasingly higher levels, you begin to forget many of the little details that become increasingly automatic, and no longer require as much conscious effort.

And in much the same way that you don’t remember how hard it was for you to learn how to walk, and would probably be hard-pressed to teach a class on Walking 101 to toddlers, this “curse of expertise” can not only lead to advice that isn’t particularly helpful (like “just put one foot in front of the other”), but comes across as being less empathetic, and less encouraging or supportive.

So, how can we overcome the “curse of expertise” and give better advice to our students when they are struggling with something that’s no longer difficult for us?

Expert guitarists

Harvard Business School professor Ting Zhang conducted a study (2015) with guitarists to see if there might be a way to help experienced players give more helpful and encouraging advice to beginners.

74 expert guitarists, with an average of 8.7 years of experience, were asked to make a 1-minute recording of themselves playing a piece of their choice.

Half were asked to “play as you would on a typical day” (the control group). Which led to some pretty cool recordings like this one:

But the other half were instructed to play the instrument flip-flopped. As in, “flip your guitar around, play on the fingerboard with your RIGHT hand, and strum with your LEFT hand.” This was the “rediscovery” group. Which led to recordings that sound pretty much like you’d expect, like this one:

Observing a beginner guitarist

Then, the experts watched a video of a beginner guitarist struggling to play some chords, and were asked to give 3-5 sentences of advice to this person.

They were also asked to answer some questions in response to the video, like: 

  1. how much potential they thought the beginner had (1=very little; 7=a lot)
  2. the quality of the beginner’s playing (1=very bad; 7=very good)

Novice guitarists

75 novice guitarists, all with less than one year of experience, were then presented with the advice given by several randomly selected experts, and asked to rate this advice on the following criteria:

  1. how encouraging the advice was (1=not at all; 7=extremely/very much)
  2. how motivating it was
  3. the level of detail in their advice
  4. to what degree their suggestions would “fix the player’s technique”
  5. and to what degree their input would “help the player produce a better sound”

So did playing the guitar reverse-handed, and reliving the experience of being a beginner help the expert guitarists provide more useful advice?

A few differences

Well, before we get to their advice, let’s look at a couple of the differences that rediscovering the feeling of being a beginner seemed to contribute to.

For one, the guitarists in the rediscovery group thought more highly of the beginner’s playing than the guitarists in the control group (3.26 vs. 2.56, where 1=very bad; 4=neither good nor bad; 7=very good). I mean, it wasn’t a dramatic difference, of course – the playing was still pretty subpar. But the guitarists who experienced beginner-hood were slightly more generous in their evaluation than those that played their guitar as they normally would.

Another interesting difference was that the rediscovery guitarists also rated the beginner as having more potential than those in the control group did (5.59 vs. 4.94, where 1=very little; 4=some; 7=a lot).

Better advice?

In terms of the advice given, guitarists in the rediscovery group were significantly more likely to use words involving specific body parts in their suggestions to the beginner guitarist. Like recommendations on what to do with the fingers or hands.

For instance, one guitarist in the control group said: “This player needs more confidence…This player’s hand placement is wrong,” and “I would say practice that everyday. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.”

Whereas one of the guitarists in the rediscovery group said: “Have that right hand flowing on the strings, and suspend the hand using your pinky finger as a swivel on the body of the guitar…Play slower, and work your way up to full speed; Kirk Hammett didn’t learn it overnight!”

Needless to say, the novice guitarists rated the rediscovery group’s advice as being not only more helpful (4.68 vs. 3.96, where 1=not at all; 7=extremely/very much), but more encouraging as well (4.75 vs 4.23, where 1=not at all; 7=extremely/very much).

Takeaways

I don’t know if playing an instrument ever feels easy, but the main takeaway for me is that being reminded of just how difficult it really is to play one’s instrument might be a pretty great empathy hack. And perhaps make it easier to feel more compassion and less frustration when working with a student who is struggling with something that you’ve been doing pretty effortlessly for years.

It also seems that this may be an effective way for you to get into problem-solving mode, and make it easier to rediscover some of the important technical and mechanical details that are so habitual and well-ingrained in your technique, that you’ve forgotten what it was like when these key elements weren’t so automatic.

Take action

Going through the list of orchestral instruments in my head, it seems like you’d be able to flip most instruments in some way, whether it involves switching your hands, or reversing/flipping your instrument, or standing on the other side of it. 

But I was a little stumped when it came to voice, piano, and percussion instruments like snare drum… 

So I thought maybe this is something we could crowdsource. Meaning, if you have any ideas on how singers, pianists, etc. could re-experience what it’s like to be a beginner again (on these instruments), I’d love to hear about it – please share below in the comments!


Reference

Zhang, T. (2015). The personal and interpersonal benefits of rediscovery (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/17467290

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Comments

50 Responses

  1. As a ski instructor we were required to cross train in different snow sports. So the alpine skier would have to learn to snowboard or the snowboarder would have to learn to cross country ski, etc…This gave the experienced snow sport instructor the same experience that a beginner would have. Ski lifts suddenly became difficult to veteran instructors and going fast down the slope was not as desirable when you were unsure of your ability to stop or turn. It was a matter of being in the mind set of a beginner. It gave us empathy and understanding and took us out of our egos and made us think a little deeper about our teaching. It doesn’t matter what instrument you play on. A pianist could try to learn to sing or play the violin (which I did myself). It is having to be a beginner again that makes us better teachers, makes us think about our bodies and how to accomplish a seemingly simple task and then more effectively relay that information with patience and a deeper understanding of the learning process.

  2. Activities that make me (pianist) feel like a beginner again:
    – after being a strong sight reader for my entire life, learn complicated keyboard solos by ear
    – sitting on the treble side of the piano while teaching and demonstrating the student’s RH/treble clef part with my LH or standing on the bass side of the piano and demonstrating the student’s LH/bass clef part with my RH.
    – playing HT with crossed hands
    – playing in alto and tenor clefs (or other combinations of treble, alto, tenor, or bass clefs other than the most common treble/bass clef layout)
    – learning how to play the mandolin (my first string instrument). Building chords is different than on the piano, so my fret hand and my mind are getting a real workout. Also, HT is a new coordination between fret hand and strum hand. And I learned how to read tablature notation too.

  3. I’m a pianist and teacher. I started taking aerial acrobatics classes a couple years ago and it really keeps me in touch with my students. I started at absolute zero and have had to slowly develop both strength and skill, something like learning to read music and play the piano at the same time. I have learned so much about teaching movement by learning it in a totally alien discipline. I think I’m about twice as good a teacher as I used to be.

  4. Hi
    As an Alexander Technique teacher I have witnessed my mentor and teacher, Cathy Madden working with pianists on out of tune pianos (due to venue restriction). This takes away the ability for the piece to sound right and amazingly helps a student make updates to coordination and performance plans. She will often get an instrumentalist to take their instrument out of tune to remove the “perfection” boggart (for Harry Potter fans). Perhaps this idea could help one revisit the “beginner’s mind”. Also with singers she has used noise cancelling headphones. Again removal of the result of technique can be quite disconcerting but an amazing learning experience.
    As a dancer of many years(classical, tap and jazz) and now AT teacher learning a distinctly new style of dance brings a beginner mind. Taking up tango as a 35 year old definitely used my skills but as a partner and social dance really challenged what I thought I knew about dancing 🙂

  5. As a pianist, to feel like a beginner again another technique I use is playing the music backwards- as in, start from the last note of the last measure, and read right to left, working your way up the page, until you reach the beginning of the song. This forces you to really focus on the notes and it’s a lot harder than it sounds!

  6. Pianists can learn a completely different instrument, such as violin or drums. In my experience, starting to learn a new instrument (or two) and experiencing how awkward it is just to hold the instrument, along with the experience of learning as a beginner and the struggle involved is an eye opening experience.

  7. Wonderful article, wonderful comments.

    For dance teacher ZOË, in a partner dance we can switch roles; reverse the embrace/frame; dance figures in the reverse direction (i.e., start to the other side); back lead; and finally, echoing Terence’s great suggestion, take a class in an entirely different dance style. Argentine tango to Hip-Hop?

    1. Thank you David!! Those are great suggestions, although unfortunately my style of dance (bellydance) does not involve partner dancing. I did in fact just take a couple of tango classes, and it was a completely new feeling (and we did role reversal which was extremely helpful). I’ve dabbled in other styles of dance, and it does help a bit to get that beginner perspective, but I still often seem to underestimate how difficult things will be for my students.

      I think the problem is that after you’ve been dancing for awhile you have better body awareness which helps in all styles. While I remember a time when I definitely didn’t have that body awareness, I don’t really know how to help my students achieve it other than giving them very specific verbal and physical feedback, and practice practice practice!

  8. For singers: I remember once receiving the score of a Bach aria in Soprano clef. I thought it would be a fun challenge but ended up going back and asking for it in treble – just couldn’t get my head around the keys/modulations/accidentals. This should help me have more compassion for young students who just can’t or won’t learn their solfège! To return to beginner’s mind for vocal technique – I agree that trying to figure out singing in a completely different position is about as close as you can get. Not everyone can manage a headstand but try singing in “rag doll” or Downward Dog.

  9. Become a beginner again AND learn something about historically informed performance! For me, learning baroque oboe, when I was already playing oboe professionally at a high level, was frustrating, humbling and enlightening. I recommend pianists seriously study harpsichord or fortepiano; flutists learn traverso; violinists get a baroque violin and baroque bow and have at it! Not only will you become a better, more empathetic teacher, but you’ll begin hearing early music in a completely different (and exciting) manner.

  10. A singer suggestion- Take some Speech Therapy sessions. This process can take the teacher & singer right back to learning the basics of how your voice operates. The slow, precise exercises bring detailed attention to how the articulators work, the low breathing operates and then putting that together with learning a new song- whatever the level or genre. While some Speech Pathologist adjust for their client, most will use the same exercises they use for youngsters or those they are using for retraining voice users, or tongue and swallowing actions. Humbling and concentrated work, which could assist with feeling like a beginner.

  11. Singing in different positions poses different challenges (eg: lying flat on the floor, kneeling, hanging upside down from the hips, putting your arms in strange positions, standing on one leg and waving the other around) and in some cases leads to major breakthroughs (as the new position removes an old habit that gets in the way of singing, and the singer learns through experience of not being ABLE to do the old habit in the new position that it’s not only unnecessary but detrimental).
    Also, trying something extreme like sticking your tongue out and holding it between your teeth, or doing something weird with your lips can create a “handicap” that can be informative.

  12. For piano, some things I do to test my memory are to either play with eyes closed or switch hands (right hand plays left hand part, and vice versa). They definitely can give you the feeling of being a beginner!

  13. Harp is an easy one on which to experience “beginner mind”… put it on your left shoulder and play left hand high, right hand low, which is quite a mental shock. Playing with fluffy gloves on also causes fumble fingers.

    As for singing, have you ever tried singing one song while listening to another song on headphones? The lack of correct aural feedback makes for horrible intonation problems, at least for me!

  14. I believe as a piano teacher it is important to put myself in my students’ shoes. I participate in recitals and auditions so that I can remind myself how hard it is to prepare for these things. I push myself to find ever more difficult pieces so that I can understand how it feels to struggle. And I work out at a cross fit gym so that I can be humbled when I have to struggle to learn a new skill like rope climbs and double unders ( passing the jump rope twice under my feet while jumping only once)

  15. Several years ago I took a knitting class to give me a break in my routine. And it was something I had always wanted to learn. It was so hard. My brain knew what my hands were supposed to do, but getting my hands to do it seemed impossible. I thought, “Wow. This is how my students must feel.” I would suggest that most any new activity especially involving fine motor skills and coordination can help us empathize with our students. Thanks for this article — it reminded me of the importance of lifelong learning.

  16. Here’s a couple of suggestions to rediscover the basics of playing piano

    1. To maintain a connected legato, play the phrase extremelely slowly (like 1/4 tempo so every note is a sustained tone) and with 1 finger. Match the volume of one tone to the sound of the previous tone as it dies away.
    2. Play jumps and shifts with your eyes closed. Make a mental list of all the physical actions involved in the movements.
    3. Sight read your scores using alto and tenor clef, or try to play the passage transposing it as sight. What difficulties do you see in decoding the notation?
    4. As mentioned before–switch hands (LH play RH part and vice versa) or play with hands crossed.

    For vocalists:
    1. Sing a passage of lyrics with all the consonants removed so that you sing only the vowels. What do you need to do to sing with uniform resonance and consistant intonation? How do you shift from vowel to vowel smoothly.
    2. Sing the passage either up or down an octave to make it less comfortable. Which intervals are difficult to hear and execute?

  17. Learn a new style! Yes, you can read chord charts, but can you really groove in the pocket with a reggae or funk band? Can you play an interesting jazz solo? Can you accompany a dance class? Can you reduce an orchestral score? Can you transpose into every key? Always something new to learn!

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