I went to the Aspen Music Festival for many summers to study with Paul Kantor, who wisely (but frustratingly!) didn’t always give me the answers.

As my teacher, I expected him to tell me what was wrong, and how to fix it. But often, he’d flip roles and ask me what was wrong, why I thought so, and how I ought to approach changing things. Sometimes he’d even mimic and exaggerate what he saw me doing (ack, the horror!), and ask me to play the teacher role.

As a kid, I didn’t want to think so hard. This was messy. It involved a lot of educated guessing, stumbling around, trial and error, and periods of frustration.

I enjoyed clarity, and so all I really wanted from a lesson was to be told what to do next so I could go work on it.

I mean, isn’t that what a teacher is supposed to do?

A surgeon’s keys to learning

Ramsey Musallam was a young high school chemistry teacher, with one 2-year old daughter and a baby on the way, when he was diagnosed with a large aneurysm that required open heart surgery.

He admits to freaking out like any normal person would, but that he also took great comfort in his surgeon’s confidence. He asked his surgeon where this confidence came from, and his surgeon responded with three keys.

  1. His curiosity drove him to ask hard questions about the procedure. What really works? What doesn’t?
  2. He embraced the inevitable and messy process of trial and error.
  3. Through intense reflection, he gathered the information needed to design and revise the procedure.

Musicians may not deal with issues of life and death on a daily basis (though it can feel like it sometimes), but it seems to me that this model is just as applicable and valuable for musicians as it would be for surgeons.

How so?

Curiosity and tough questions

Listening back to a recording, what sounds good? What doesn’t sound so good? What’s working? What isn’t working? Why? Why not? What assumptions do we need to question?

Embracing the mess

I didn’t mind tidying up from time to time, but I used to resist cleaning my room, because it meant emptying the closet, dragging things out from under the bed, clearing off the desk, and making everything a lot messier before it got any better.

We like things to sound good even in the practice room, so it can be difficult to be patient and allow ourselves the freedom to experiment and try different things that might sound worse in the short term – but could eventually lead to breakthroughs in our playing.


This is the part that might be most difficult. Not because it’s actually difficult, but because it’s a lot of work! Actually thinking, pondering, and stewing on what we observe in our practice, and what we are learning from our trials and errors can be exhausting!

I didn’t want to think that hard in the practice room. I just wanted things to get better on their own. And they usually would – to a degree – if I just kept playing things over and over.

But not at the rate that I wanted. And not at the level of consistency that I needed. And certainly not in such a way that I felt confident about my ability to reproduce what I had prepared when the stakes and the pressure were cranked up.

But this is where I’d argue that much of the real learning happens. Where all the questions consolidate into a new theory of how things work. How left-hand pizz works. How upbow and downbow staccato works. How playing fifths in tune work. How resonant sound works. How clear attacks work. How playing softly works. How nailing the high note works.

Where things become less about crossing your fingers and hoping it sounds like it did in the practice room, and more about knowing that it’s going to sound like you want, because you know exactly what works and what doesn’t.

Frypans are %&#$ hot!

This process of asking one’s own questions, stumbling around to gather one’s own data, and pondering on the data to discover one’s own conclusions is actually a hugely gratifying process, and while not as easy as simply being told what to do, can be a much more robust process as well.

I remember being about 2 years old, watching my Dad cook pancakes on an electric griddle. Like any 2-year old, I couldn’t understand why my Dad kept trying to keep me away from the griddle. He said it was “hot,” and that it would hurt, but that didn’t really mean anything to my 2-year old brain.

So what did I do? When he wasn’t looking, I touched it. And quickly discovered what “hot” meant.

We can certainly learn a lot from wiser, more experienced folks, and there’s a lot to be said for heeding their advice so we can get to where we want to go more quickly and avoid unnecessary missteps and boo-boos.

But sometimes, especially when it relates to confidence, we have to figure things out the hard way. Because it’s one thing to be told what to do, and another thing to discover and learn for ourselves.

The one-sentence summary

“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” ~Confucius

Additional resources

Ramsey Musallam on 3 rules to spark learning @ TED

Paul Kantor on Dorothy Delay and teaching vs. learning