John Steinmetz

bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, speaker

Six Talks on Music, #4

John Steinmetz

We've been running an experiment here the last couple of days, and I forgot about it in all my passion yesterday. We've been turning the video screens on and off, and I'm curious to do a little study, in the least effective way: a statistical study.

I'll give you a choice: you can vote to have the video on, to have the video off, or to have a little of both so that you can examine the differences once more. Could I have house lights so I can see the contest? (You can see that the video guys are getting really nervous now about this.) How many would like to have the video stay on? [Lots of hands go up.] How many would like to have the video off? [Lots of hands.] How many would like to have a little bit of both? [Not too many.] It looks like the Ons have it for today, so we'll leave it on.

Of course, the real question isn't, “Is it right or wrong to have the video?” The question is, “What are the effects of having it on, and what are the effects of having it off?” I've heard from just a few people, and it's been interesting what you have to say. I think it's really worth discussing what you gain from the video—you certainly gain something, otherwise we wouldn't have all those yes votes—and what you gain by not having it on.

Any technology can be thought of, and should be thought of, in this way—as a double-edged sword. That way you are thrown back on your intentions. You have to consider what you are trying to accomplish. Will the technology help me accomplish that, or will the side-effects of the technology overwhelm my intentions? In some cases, a technology will completely obliterate my intentions and create a whole new set of intentions that wasn't at all what I wanted in the first place. (Just pick up U.S.A. Today, and you can see a lot of evidence of that kind of thing.)

Now I want to say thanks to all our teachers. Yesterday I was pretty hard on teachers, and I did that Keynote Speech thing, standing up here on my high horse and wagging my finger, and giving a ringing call for the elimination of all these terrible things that have been bequeathed to all of us. I know I need to thank my teachers, and I think all of us here need to thank our teachers, and their teachers, and their teachers before them.

They are the ones who handed us our shame. They handed us their own shame. We probably created some of it ourselves, but, to the extent that they handed us some of their shame, we need to hand it back to them, and say, “I'm really sorry about this, but this isn’t mine. I took this by mistake from you and I'd like to give it back now.”

I heard a tape of John Bradshaw's, and he takes people through a guided imagery in which they do that in their imaginations. Apparently it's a very powerful thing to do. You might want to sit quietly some time and, in your imagination, go pay a call on your teacher and give back whatever you'd like to give back. It might be a certain sentence that rings in your ears that you'd like to give back.

At the same time, I want to thank all of my teachers for having the courage to go ahead and teach me, even though they weren't perfect teachers yet, because I learned a lot of great value from all of them. I also learned from people who didn't know they were teaching me anything, people that I heard or read somewhere. They were all flawed human beings. Not one of them had achieved perfection; not one of them had eliminated all the mistaken assumptions or brain damage from their lives.

But they went ahead anyway, and I profited greatly from that, and I want to thank them. I want to try and remember, as I do my teacher bashing, to do it in that spirit of gratitude.

I've been pacing around inside my head ever since yesterday, trying to figure out what to say today. I think that I'd like to do one more talk today about teaching itself, and then get back to some other, more general topics.

From where I wound up yesterday, when I was so hard on the current technology of teaching, I need to come back a little bit and talk about how we can go about discovering or devising or utilizing some other kind of teaching technology. Do we have to create that technology, or can we find it somewhere and begin to put it to use?

Before I do that, I want to put in a moment for reflection. I think this is a typical conference, in that it's really rich with input. That's why we came; we want to soak up as much as we can. I personally am at the point, now, where I'm starting to leak a little bit.

So I want to take two minutes for us all to sit and not say a word—don't say anything to anybody. You can close your eyes if you want, or you can leave them open; I wore a different suit today so you'd have something different to look at. But just reflect a little bit, in whatever way you want, on what's happened to you so far. Something somebody said, some music you heard, something you remembered from your own experience. Let's just take a minute to reflect. Please don't use this time for sharing things with other people, but share with yourself.

[Two-minute pause.]

Okay. Wake up slowly. That feels kind of nice; I hate to have stopped it.

As I was thinking about what I would say about an alternate technology of teaching and what it might be like, I was struck with how easy it was for me to slip back into the old technology that I'm so familiar with, in order to teach about the new technology. I remembered how often I heard people give lectures about how lecturing isn't a very effective way to teach.

In fact, I've noticed that education innovators often use the very techniques that they are trying to get rid of, to teach about the new techniques. I once went to a conference about art education, at which people gave ringing speeches about how art could go where words couldn't go. And there was no art at the conference anywhere, just words.

Sure enough, I ended up doing the same thing, slipping into the old technology. These are some of the things that I caught myself doing: I started worrying about what a short time I had to dispense all the wisdom that I had accumulated. I had so many good anecdotes that I wanted to tell, and pitfalls to warn against, and “Don't forget to do this,” and so on.

And then I thought, well, a really good way to do this would be to point out the mistakes in other peoples' teaching. I could shame them in front of you, and then you'd know that that wasn't the right way to teach. I actually thought about doing this.

Or maybe I could talk about what is wrong in our current teaching technology, and then talk about how we ought to fix it. I made a whole list of the assumptions of our current teaching technology, and then, in a second column, I wrote assumptions of the new teaching technology, so that you could eliminate your unacceptable thoughts and substitute the correct assumptions.

And then I realized that I wanted, in fifteen minutes, to make you all into perfect teachers, instead of just letting you be the flawed and terrible teachers that you are.

You can see how much trust I had in all of you.

So I said no, that's no good. I can't do that. That's terrible. Instead, I'll just make you uncomfortable about what you're doing, so that you'll do it in the right way.

I think that really worked well with this panel this morning, don't you? [In the teaching demonstration, the master teachers had repeatedly complimented the students on their work.] They were afraid to give any critical comments at all to the student! I'm really happy to have been able to terrorize them out of their bad habits.

What all this boiled down to was that, as a teacher and a Resident Wise Person, I was, in fact, a sham. I had better put on my best suit, because I really wasn't good enough to get you all to be perfect.

I thought it was important to tell you all those steps that I went through. All those methods occurred to me. This current technology of teaching is deeply ingrained in us, and it's deep in our culture.

As I was watching the session this morning, I really enjoyed the way they taught us by using examples of what the students had done well. The same kind of messages were transmitted—”Here's the kind of thing you want your students to do when they practice”—but they used examples of what the students had done well, instead of examples of what the students had done badly.

As I watched that, I also noticed that this was more boring. There was no drama—we didn’t have any problems to solve.

I remembered a workshop I had given one time, on rehearsal problems. The workshop was musicians at a chamber music camp. I said, “Let's make a list together of all the problems that come up in rehearsal.” I stood at the blackboard and wrote things down as people said them.

It was hilarious. There was a tremendous release, as people were able to talk about things. “What about when you get made into the scapegoat of the group, and everybody blames you?” I’d write that down, and everybody would laugh. Somebody else would come up with another one, and we'd laugh. We had about twenty minutes or half an hour of hilarity and recognition, and release of things that had been pent up for a long time.

Then I said, “All right, we'll just leave that list on that blackboard.” I went over to another blackboard, and I said, “Let's make a list of techniques for solving rehearsal problems. We're not going to go through the problem list one by one and find solutions for all those. We're just going to think of all the solutions we can.”

They thought of a whole blackboard full of solutions. But it wasn't anywhere nearly as much fun. We didn't laugh as much.

I suddenly realized that problems are a lot more fun than solutions.

That's why I kept wanting to bring up all these problems in everybody else's teaching, because that would be a whole lot more fun and entertaining. I think this attitude is deeply embedded in our culture. It's not our teachers’ fault. It's something about the way we think.

As I was considering that this morning, I remembered an article I read recently [in In Context magazine] by a Swedish doctor who has been doing research about what helps people to be healthy. He discovered in his research that almost nothing is known by Western medicine about what helps people to be healthy. Everything we know is about what makes people sick. All the measures we take are to stop the sickness; we don't actually know very much about what fosters health.

So he went around interviewing people who had had cancer—had had a kind of cancer that was supposed to kill them—and had lived longer than they were supposed to. He wanted to find out what made them stay alive. That kind of thinking was shocking; nobody had done this before.

And—surprise, surprise—it turned out that the people who had survived so long had a special vitality and love of life. Some of them didn't have that before they got cancer, but something about getting sick triggered that, made them suddenly realize for the first time in their lives, “Hey, I'm alive!” Getting passionate about being alive seemed to be the one thing that all these people had in common.

Let me just tell a few stories to try and begin to fill in a picture of what another technology of teaching might look like. How might we create a technology—or find a technology—that can hold simultaneously the two things that I was talking about yesterday?

If it's really true that learning happens best when you're not trying so hard to learn something; if it’s really true that growth happens best when you can hold, at the same time, that you love who you will be when you grow and you love who you are right now; if what we need is that kind of situation, then what kind of teaching technology would foster that?

I'll tell a couple of stories that might help lead in that direction, but I think it's crucial that everybody understand that we're all going to have to find this for ourselves. It's not going to be a list of steps to take. It's not going to be anything like, “Here's how you hold your wrist, and this is where your fingers have to be.”

Betty Edwards is the author of Drawing on The Right Side of The Brain, and she writes [in her second book, Drawing on the Artist Within] about how she changed the way she taught. She was teaching a drawing class in high school. Betty Edwards herself had always been able to draw. It was easy for her. She could make marks on paper that would realistically represent something that she saw.

This seemed to her to be an easy thing, something that any person could do. In her drawing class, she tried to promote that idea and make it easy for people. But it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes something like this would happen:

A student is trying to draw a still life, and Betty comes over and says, “Well, that's good, but can you see that the apple is in front of the bowl?” And the student says, “Yes, I can see that,” and Betty says, “Well, now look at your drawing. Can you see that it looks like the apple is kind of in the middle of the bowl instead of in front of the bowl?”

The student says, “Yes, I can see that,” so Betty says, “Well, then just draw it the way you see it.” The student says, “I don't know how to do that.” Betty says, “All you have to do is just look. All the information you need is right there in front of your eyes.” The student says, “I don't know what to look at.” Betty says, “It's right there, all you have to do is look.”

This is sort of like, “Just concentrate!” It’s a method that you might call Exhortation. Sometimes it works, but for this student it didn't. So Betty went away, and instead of doing what a lot of teachers do, instead of saying, “Oh well, that student doesn't have any talent for drawing,” she got mad—not at the student—she got mad because she knew everybody could draw. So she tried to figure out what the problem was, what was really going on.

It took her a long time to do it, a long time of talking to people and reading a lot of things and watching students. She began to notice that there were normal functions of the brain that prevented most people from seeing what they needed to see in order to make a drawing.

I'll do a quick example of this. Look around and notice that everybody's head looks about the same size. We don't see any big giant watermelon heads. Everybody is about the same.

Now take your program and roll it up, and use it as a telescope to look at somebody fairly close to you, so that the person’s head fills up the whole telescope.

See, participation is good! Okay, now move your telescope and look at somebody far away (but not on a video screen). Look at how much smaller that head is, how little of the space in your telescope is filled by that distant head. Can you see that?

Now put your telescope down and look around. Do you see any tiny pin heads or big fat heads?

Our brain translates what we see to make it seem that everybody's head is the same size. This is hard-wired brain damage. This brain damage is useful to us; it prevents us from mistaking heads for watermelons. But this brain damage does get in the way of drawing. There are many, many ways in which our normal brain function interferes with drawing.

Betty began to discover this, and so instead of saying, “Concentrate more!” or “Just look!” she developed a bunch of techniques, like rolling up the tube, to show people how to overcome their hard-wiring so that they could actually see what was there. The kids who learn how to draw at an early age stumble on a way—naturally, without anybody teaching them—to overcome their hard-wiring. But anybody can be taught to do that.

You can think about music in the same way. There are things that are hard-wired into us. They don't have to do with concentration, they have to do with perceptual blocks, and we can learn to notice what those are.

Another story is from Tim Gallwey, the tennis teacher who wrote The Inner Game of Tennis, and one of the great teachers of all time, in my opinion. He is a gifted teacher. He's also very insightful, and has noticed things that hadn't been noticed before.

His moment of changing from old technology to new technology of teaching came when he was teaching a tennis lesson. He was just an ordinary tennis pro somewhere, nobody famous. He's giving a lesson, and he's watching somebody hit the tennis ball, and the student is doing something bad with his stroke. Tim is about to make a correction. He is about to say something like, “Your racket's too high; put it down lower.”

Tim is just about to say this when the student, on his own, puts his racket down lower and corrects the stroke. Tim's first reaction was to get mad, because he didn't get to give his correction. His second reaction was a kind of horror, as he realized that he apparently wanted to teach more than he wanted the student to learn. That's when Tim got curious, and he also went on a long journey, mostly of close observation of students.

He took with him this question: What really helps learning, and what gets in the way of learning? He decided to change his mission, so that his mission was no longer to see that the student learned. He abandoned that mission completely—it seems like an irresponsible thing for a teacher to do!

He changed his mission to a research mission: “Let me see if I can learn as much as possible about what helps learning and what blocks learning.” And that was a brilliant choice, you see, because even if he gave an instruction that messed up the student, he would learn something about the learning process, and so would be better able to help.

If he obstructed learning, he would learn. If he helped learning, he would learn. He was in a win-win-win-win-win-win kind of situation. That's a great kind of new mission, I think. One result of his new mission was a book that has been influential for many of us here.

Two more quick stories from Tim. These are from his book, The Inner Game of Tennis. A guy comes to him saying, “I've been to five other teachers, and I've got this problem. I take my racket back too low. Could you help me with that?”

Tim goes with him out on the tennis court. They hit a few tennis balls. Sure enough, the guy is taking his racket down too low. Tim says is about to say, “You're taking your racket back too low,” but it occurs to him that five other people have already said this to this student. Maybe Tim doesn't want to be the sixth one to do that.

They go over to the club house, where there's a sliding glass door. Tim says to the student, “Look in the glass door like it's a mirror, and watch your stroke.”

So the student does his stroke and looks in the glass mirror, and says, “Oh my God, I'm taking my racket back too low!”

It occurs to Tim that one is not surprised by something one already knows. Even though that student had been told five times, and even though he could tell Tim, apparently he didn't really know it.

You could meditate on that one for a couple of years. You can draw a lot of conclusions. One of them is: The body does not speak English. Another one is: Teaching is not telling.

Here’s the last story. Exhortation in tennis is “Watch the ball!” I'm sure Tim used that. Of course it’s the right idea: if you don't see the tennis ball you're going to have a much poorer chance of actually hitting it. But “Watch the ball” is a little bit like “Don't think of an elephant.” You end up doing the opposite thing somehow.

Tim developed a clever trick. Instead of saying “Watch the ball,” he says to the student—even somebody who has never played tennis before—he says, “When the ball bounces, you say ‘bounce,’ and when the ball either hits or misses your racket, you say ‘hit.’”

He throws some tennis balls, and the student is supposed to say “bounce” when the ball bounces, and then swing and say “hit” when it hits or when it doesn’t. And, sure enough, in order to do that, you have to watch the ball.

What he wanted was for them to watch the ball, so he gave them a task that they could succeed at easily, but that they couldn't do without watching the ball.

I think a little reflection on those stories—and particularly the moments of change for those teachers, who started out as old technology teachers and came to very different kinds of new technology—might help us all to figure out how to overcome the difficulties of the current technology that we have for teaching. The old technology is very firmly ingrained in us, it's very ingrained in our students. That makes it difficult even to see that we're in a box, let alone how to get out of it.

I wish you all luck in your explorations.