When Perfection is a Problem

Potluck Creative Arts Lesson LineSimply Music

The goal in learning to play any new piece is to get to a point where you are able to play it smoothly and evenly, hardly ever making mistakes. Because that’s the goal, you might think that if you can do that with all your songs, you’re in great shape. There’s a possibility, though, that things might not be in nearly as good shape as they seem. Indeed, one of the biggest threats to your progress as a musician might be lurking underneath this apparent success. It’s all a question of not what you’re learning but how you’re learning it.

You’re taking piano lessons. You want to play the piano. To do that, you have to learn how. Simply Music provides a fantastic way of accomplishing that. But what, exactly, is Simply Music providing? It’s helping you learn a number of songs, yes. But most importantly, you are learning a way of learning. You are learning how to take something you want to learn, some whole, and break it down into parts, methodically choosing which part to work on first, which next, working on each part slowly and carefully, putting each new piece into place when you’re ready, so that in the end you will have very effectively learned the whole thing that you wanted to learn. This is a process that can be applied to almost anything. You are learning how to learn.

In this respect, it’s important that you understand that there are two pieces to the puzzle of learning, both of which are crucial. There’s the destination, and there’s the journey you took to arrive there. There’s the result, and there’s the process that you used to get the result. There’s the song you know how to play really well, and there are the particular learning strategies that helped you get to that level of performance with that song.

The importance of both of these things, the journey and the destination, helps us understand just why we put such a strong focus on building a repertoire and keeping all your songs alive. The repertoire is the foundation that allows you to keep progressing through more and more advanced material. While that involves gradually more complex songs to play, that’s just the beginning of it. Your repertoire is the basis on which you learn to read written musical notation. The repertoire and reading are the foundation for understanding music theory. Jazz, composition, improvisation, accompaniment — developing your best abilities in these areas and others rests on the repertoire. But it all rests on the repertoire in two ways. The increasing number of songs gives you a growing musical vocabulary that you’ll need in order to keep advancing your learning of the language of music. But the songs themselves are the result of a process, the destination of a journey. And it’s the way you learn every one of those pieces that equips you with a way of learning that is just as much required for you to move successfully through those advanced areas.

Given this, we can now understand why being able to play a song isn’t itself enough.

Simply Music is built on the notion that all people are inherently musical, and it is designed to help people gain access to the musicality that’s already inside of them. Nevertheless, some people do have a greater ability than others to access certain aspects of their musicality on their own, without a method helping them along. Maybe they’ve “got rhythm” or “have a good ear.” Either way, music might seem to come more naturally to some than to others.

At the same time, natural access to musicality is not a black-or-white thing. Music is a whole-brain activity, drawing on all sorts of abilities. Even someone who doesn’t have as natural access to some of the more obviously “musical” aspects of musicality might have very natural access to others that are less conspicuous.

We really need to come to see that there are pros and cons both to having more access to any aspects of musicality on your own, as well as to having less access to it. Why? Because in teaching music and in teaching a way of learning, Simply Music is designed to give you a complete musical toolkit — access to and an ability to use all of your musicality. People who have more natural access to certain aspects of their musicality have, in effect, a more natural ability to use some of the tools in that toolkit. In that respect, there are things they may be able to do that others cannot. However, they also have a very strong tendency to use those natural tools at the expense of building their ability with the many other musical tools that exist. It’s like loving flathead screwdrivers so much that you use them to hammer nails and chisel wood as well — instead of getting to know the hammer and the chisel, which are better tools for those jobs.

The thing about favoring certain tools over others is that, in any pursuit, every person eventually comes to a place in their development where they discover that their strengths can no longer compensate for their weaknesses. Anyone trying to get good at something should be aware of this. Every piano student should be aware of this. Those who have obviously musical talents like a good ear must be especially careful, but nobody is exempt, since anybody could have above average access to some aspect of their musicality. In any such natural access lies a hidden danger.

I can speak about this from personal experience. I’ve been a musician since I was very young and have always had a lot of natural access to musicality, including some of the more obviously “musical” tools. For decades, though, I’ve been painfully aware of gaping holes in my musical abilities. Could they be filled in? Yes, but only with vast amounts of effort at this point. Whether or not I put in that effort now is not the issue. The issue is that I wish I’d had better guidance earlier on, helping me cultivate my entire musical toolkit as well as possible from the start, so that I’d never have found myself overusing the tools that came most naturally while learning insufficiently about others. Had I received that kind of support, I wouldn’t find myself in the gaping-holes situation I find myself in now.

The hidden danger, then, is that students with enough natural access to some aspect of their musicality can learn a song without using the best strategies for doing so. They can arrive at the destination without taking the most effective journey to get there. They take a shortcut instead.

Now, a shortcut might be fine if all you need is to learn a particular song. But in the Simply Music program, you’re not just learning songs for the sake of learning songs. Yes, the songs sound great and you can gain lots of enjoyment from playing them. In the end, though, it’s about you being able to play what you want to play, not what some curriculum tells you to play. The point of the elements of the Simply Music curriculum is to get you to that place where you can choose for yourself. You get there by learning the particular songs of the curriculum, in the way they were designed to be learned. This is what builds the foundation for the more advanced musical learning that allows you to become your own musician.

What do you think will happen to a student who relies too much on innate aspects of their musicality and has only minimal experience in the full suite of learning strategies, who has only limited familiarity with a number of the gadgets in the musical toolkit? Quite simply, that student is going to hit a wall at some point. Some new song or topic will come along that requires more than just that the student have arrived at each of the prior destinations noted on the itinerary. It requires that the student have the full experience of the best routes to those destinations, because of all the extra things those routes had to offer along the way — things that the shortcuts just didn’t have.

Up until now, such a student may have had a relatively easy time and may even have been thought of as a “better” musician than others who may have had a greater challenge with each assignment. But those other students got used to facing challenges and learned how to meet them. They will progress into the new material as they always have — with determination, effort and discipline, and, through these, success. Meanwhile, the student who’d seemed ahead in whatever ways never fully learned how to meet challenges and now finds the new material to be a massive struggle.

Only now does it become clear that such students have made what is perhaps the biggest possible chronic mistake. They’ve cheated themselves out of not the ability to play certain songs well as in other chronic mistakes, but out of a fair amount of musical ability in general. They find themselves less able to keep advancing their learning of music.

Can such a mistake be overcome? Yes. But if a chronic mistake in an individual song requires more effort to unlearn/relearn than it would have taken to learn the song correctly in the first place, imagine how much effort would be required for a student to catch up on months or even years worth of learning strategies and practice habits. Some may take on the significant added time and work, with the end result being that they will have caught up to where they should have been in the first place — where they would have been in the first place. Others may press on without really addressing the issue, never getting all they could out of lessons or musicianship from that point forward. Finally, some may simply give up on lessons entirely, further limiting how much of their own musical potential they might ever fulfill.

The hidden concern of overusing certain tools has some particularly insidious aspects. Most basically, the better a student is at learning songs without the appropriate learning strategies, the less likely they are to learn about the other tools in the kit. They are setting themselves up for a case of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” — the smack into the wall will be that much more forceful. Perhaps of even greater concern, though, is that the better a student is at getting good results without the optimal learning processes, the less likely the teacher is to notice, and so the less likely the issue can be caught and dealt with along the way. The student becomes even more likely to hit the wall as hard as possible and face a very serious problem.

Because it is only the very rare student who is so good at this kind of cheating as to make it invisible, there are usually signs that tools are being overused. Those signs are, perhaps not surprisingly, chronic mistakes. Students who diligently stick to the learning strategies for each song, controlling the events each time to get things as right as possible as often as possible, tend to develop few chronic mistakes. With each piece, they simultaneously gain both the journey (the good-sounding song) and the destination (the effective learning practices). It’s only when the learning strategies are ignored that chronic mistakes arise.

A chronic mistake in one song is one thing, but a pattern of chronic mistakes across several songs is itself a pretty good sign that there is a larger chronic mistake going on, a failure to use appropriate learning strategies in general. At the same time, even if you don’t see chronic mistakes, you may be overusing certain musical tools. Whatever you perceive your natural level of musical ability to be, and however many or few chronic mistakes you make in your songs, any failure to learn songs according to the instructions provided is a habit that has to be headed off as soon as possible, for the sake of your own musical development.

With songs that have chronic mistakes, go back to the instructions for each song and carve those circles in the sand as slowly, carefully and deeply as possible. However much work it takes to get your entire repertoire on the right track at this point, it can only possibly take more and more time and effort later on, so don’t wait a day longer. Time can be taken in lesson to coach you through this as needed, and those students in shared lessons can consider scheduling supplementary private lessons for just this purpose.

Beyond reacting to chronic mistakes, your best course of action is to be proactive, developing the habit of rigorously following the specific learning strategies set down for each and every project you are assigned during your lessons. There is room for other things in your piano playing, for not always sticking to learning strategies, for overusing your favorite musical screwdriver. The room for those other things is outside your formal practice time. When you are actually practicing pieces from your lessons, do what has been set down for you.

While perfection itself is never guaranteed, we can come to a new understanding of what it means to do well in terms of learning to play a song. Doing well means achieving a smooth and even result through the use of the learning strategies provided for the particular song. It’s as simple as that — journey and destination, together. Do that, and you’ll hit all the right stops on your piano-learning journey — and you’ll also take all the best paths to give you what you need to continue to reach all the stops further down the line.

Leave a comment below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *