Teacher v teachers: actively assembling one’s own pedagogy

I’m wondering whether the problem isn’t teachers in general but just limiting oneself to one teacher — having one single point of view rather than trying a variety of things. One of the nice things I’ve noticed from watching video art tutorials is that there are three people I watch habitually and not just one: Lisa Clough/Lachri, Hajra Meeks, and Sadie Saves the Day. Each is very good at explaining things — not at telling me how to do things, but at telling me how they do things, and since there are three of them, I get a bit of parallax, and can judge which approach might work, as well as seeing that if one approach doesn’t work for me, there is a variety of others that can be tried. There just isn’t that kind of parallax, that kind of pedagogical variety, on the harp yet.

But when one is wedded to one teacher, one sees only that one point of view and gets only one kind of advice. Even if that teacher is good and gifted, it’s still only one way to look at things, and for me at least, it felt as if, should something not work for me there was no other option but to keep hammering at it even if it was obvious that it wasn’t going to work. It also felt as if, should something not work, I Guess I Just Can’t Do That. 😦 The absence of parallax was crippling.

And even having a kind, gifted, enthusiastic teacher (as I did) didn’t matter, unfortunately. Again, this may be a personality thing; there’s a strong chance that it was just very hard for me personally to have only one teacher rather than a variety of viewpoints that I could use to actively assemble a pedagogy for myself.

Most classical music pedagogy also, even with a kind, gifted teacher, really does assume the student is too stupid to not to stick their own thumb in their eye. The whole culture really looks down on the student. It’s just part of the culture. This means that even the idea of actively assembling a pedagogy would cause most classical teachers to cringe in horror.

In the end, I’m confident that after years of learning some of the most intellectually demanding subjects to cum laude/Phi Beta Kappa level, learning several languages pretty much on my own, and mastering many other things, I am more than capable of learning how to pluck a string and not burn the building down in the process. The fact that I’m playing more demanding music with greater ease and relaxation, along with finally bringing my fourth finger online, maybe two weeks after finally coming to terms with striking out on my own, has shored up this impression.

I think there is just a style of learning where you either stick with one teacher (which probably did me damage on the piano as well, now that I think about it), and another where you listen to people explain not how you should do things but how they themselves do things, and then assemble a pedagogy for yourself out of whatever’s on display on the banquet table.

If you happen to hit the jackpot and randomly find a teacher whose style and hands mesh well with your own, then maybe that’s fine, but really — what are the odds of that? And it still won’t teach you to winnow and assemble, to take an active part in your own learning, which every student ultimately needs to be able to do. In the end, you still will only be doing what you’re told and unaware that other options exist. Even if that one teacher’s pedagogy fits you well, knowing the other options will at least let you figure out why it works for you.

I’m not sure whether one teacher could help but become a sort of Procrustes in the end, even if they set out not to be. In the end, you need the freedom to sample more than one bed and to make up your own mind which one fits you best and in which circumstances.

It will be interesting to see whether or not this new way of looking at personal pedagogy will also translate to improved relaxation at the piano. I never thought of that before. It might. And significantly tension/tiredness has limited my piano playing since I was a kid. Maybe I can start trying Hanon this way or something, approaching it like I did the Salzedo exercises, just doing them and paying mind to my own hand while I do it. I don’t know. If I can pull myself away from the harp long enough to do it.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a lot of teachers will tell you that the most important thing you can do is find a teacher. They’re teachers saying this! What self-employed businessperson is going to think and tell you that their services aren’t vital?

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The relaxation I’m able to get

… is amazing. I seriously somehow loosened up the back of my hand to the point where I can do things without strain, or at least without noticeable strain. I can seriously play for a long time, even using my ring fingers, even doing the up and down arpeggios that had stymied me for years. I just don’t know what happened, other than that it didn’t until I finally just gave up on that stupid classic “place all fingers in one direction” business and the Salzedo stuff that I thought would solve the problem (and only exacerbated it) and just started thinking about my fingering from first principles.

Instead of assuming that someone else could tell me what it would feel like inside my own hands (which are unusual for the harp), and wasting time looking for that written down, I just sat down and figured it out for myself, and it was faster and much less stressful. I had been drained and disempowered when I was trying to make my hands work from the outside; once I inhabited them from the inside and listened to what they wanted, and solved my problem myself, it was energizing and empowering.

And thanks to this, I just cannot get over the relaxation that I’ve managed to achieve while playing. And I’ve got confidence that I can manage future challenges, too.

Again, I’m not Catrin Finch by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m a lot better than I was and am able to do (slowly) or visualize doing things that I never thought possible. I am honestly still in a kind of shock. Maybe it was some kind of nerve pathway thing? I just don’t know. But once I realized that I could treat my hand as two intersecting see-saws, that did it. That did everything. That was the breakthrough that I’ve wanted since November 2014.

There is no such thing as a received truth.

No matter how many teachers you listen to, how many books you read, or how many videos you watch, you will always learn faster by just doing it. And despite what people will tell you, a teacher is not necessary, and with the addition of simple common sense, you will not destroy your hands if you touch a harp without a teacher. (My hands didn’t hurt until I started taking lessons and trying to do things The Right Way!) If you are an idiot and don’t pay attention to your body, if you take that “hardcore” boo-yah nonsense on board, if you are stupid enough to think that “pain is weakness leaving the body,” then yes. You will screw up your hands beyond repair.

But if you play thoughtfully, approach the instrument and your hands as an engineering problem to be solved (since that’s exactly what it is), and go slowly, paying mind to your body the whole way, you’ll be fine. A teacher will not make things any faster, and for people such as myself who think better in silence, an external voice will put our internal thoughts into disarray and scatter any attempt by them to draw together into a coherent idea. I can always think better when I’m by myself. I like to gather data from other people, but when the time comes to assemble that data into a coherent structure, I need solitude. (A more externally-focused person may find a teacher more useful.)

The one thing a teacher can help with I think is when you are playing a piece and then partway through you realize, “Hey, my shoulders are up to my ears, when did that happen?” and you can’t always tell when. A teacher can tell you, “They started getting tense right here.” That sort of thing is useful — but then that’s more what a coach does than a teacher. (I should start videoing myself to see when things start going awry when they do.)

I don’t know. I’m lately just thinking about this sort of thing. I’m just not comfortable with the idea of a teacher at this point. This breakthrough, and the fact that it only came when I finally signed off on Received Harp Truth once and for all — and made it stick — really has changed the way I look at everything.

I also watch art videos made by a very successful artist and art tutor named Lisa Clough on YouTube. She is always the sort to say that picking up art supplies and just playing with them on your own will teach you more than reading a billion books or watching a billion videos — despite the fact that she makes money on her videos.

But she’s also really good at giving first-principles-based advice on artwork. She’s golden at saying things that don’t tell the student what to do, but tell them where to look on their own for the solution that works for them.

I think that’s a good thing for a teacher, but … I don’t think that’s what most teachers do.

I’m just still thinking all of this through.

Practicing error correction

I’m thinking now of things that I need to practice in terms of recovering the still point after wandering off course:

  1. Climbing and descending the harp,
  2. Bringing the shoulders up then down, and
  3. Bringing the pinky up then down.

I think the third one will be the hardest, but it’s probably extremely important. Getting that teacup-pinky is a killer, and it’s distracting to have to recover from it in the middle of a piece.

“Tu grimpes aux harpes … “

I remember watching this a while back:

and really enjoying the music and the instruction. But one thing struck my ear, when she was telling one of the students that her hands were climbing the harp.

Every single harpist in the world I think has done this, including myself. You get tense, your shoulders come up, and before you know it, the back of your right thumb is scraping against the action, and you’re thinking, “How the hell did I get all the way up here?”

I think I’ve come up with a way to manage that: I practice first climbing and then descending down the harp in arpeggios. Up, down, up, down, calm and relaxed … that way, I recognize what it feels like when I’m too high and I can get myself back down without panicking.

No one wants to be up there, so it’s not with the goal of practicing oscillating your hands around. The point of doing this is to recognize when your hands have gotten too high, and then calmly moving them back where they belong without freaking out.

So much of playing a piece of music (of life, in fact) is error correction — how to find the equilibrium point when you’ve wandered away from it. If you just practice playing 100% right all the time, that means that your inevitable deviations from the course will not be under your control, and when they occur — not if, but when — they will freak you out. And that’s the last thing you want. What you want is to recognize that you’ve wandered off and gently shepherd yourself back on course.

You don’t want to practice playing the piece that way — you want to practice playing the piece correctly. But you do want to play arpeggios and exercises both straight — at mid-string — and also oscillating, so that you are used to what you should do when you find yourself either too close to the soundboard or, more likely, too close to the action. The process of recovering and getting yourself back on course also must be practiced and not left to chance.

Romanza de Amor

Damn. Just damn. I’m doing this. I’m actually managing to get this done, and it all started to loosen up when I finally just decided to knock out that one exercise in my own way, with my own fingering and brackets. That’s when everything changed. I mean, I don’t sound like Catrin Finch or anything, but I’ve noticed a huge change.

I should get the rest of the Salzedo exercises and see how I could manage them all — ignoring his brackets entirely. These will be my brackets, and I will publish them for anyone else with shorter ring fingers than index. Maybe I’ll even put up some YouTube/Vimeo videos going through them. I cannot be the only person who has struggled with this and either gave up or figured that I’d never be able to play anything demanding.

Practicing with all four fingers

I can do it, but now my challenge is to keep doing it with the same fluidity and relaxed hand that I had no choice but to use at first in order to do it. Now that I’ve managed it, I’m starting to apply the same old tension I always have and I’m feeling my hand become as tense as it ever was again.

OMG, trust-fund art brats.

They overestimate the importance of what they do, underestimate everyone else’s ability to engage in it meaningfully on their own without the approval of anyone Importantâ„¢, and act like they can change the world. They can’t.

You want to change the world? Go to law school and make comics on your own time.

And admit that you’re making comics because it’s fun. Stop trying to apologize for the trivial nature of what you do and just do it because you like it. Why the hell does the fate of the free world have to hinge on your underground alternative neo-Baroque prog-rock music scene and poetry slam? Just play your damned guitar and have fun and get over yourself.

I really think that a lot of this is due to the upper-class nature of that whole scene, and how these people were raised from birth to imagine that they were the elites, the benevolent ubermenschen who were going to save the world, the moneyed white saviors. And as a result, they are so convinced that their every fart and belch is a sign of genius upon which the world rotates. It’s a bit like how Elon Musk has been anointed as some goddamned world-saving messiah when what he actually is is a very run-of-the-mill billionaire’s boy who got told from the time he was 18 months old that every time he stuck a lego brick up his nose he was a brilliant engineer.

He’s not. He’s a spoiled playboy numbnut with good marketing, and that’s all he is.

And most upper-class unpaid-intern level arts types are pretty much the same. Just like Musk wants rapturous adulation for saying something so dull and stupid as, “Build a submarine!” when he heard that a bunch of schoolkids were trapped in a flood, artsy trust-fund brats want to be hailed as gods for writing a modern ballet about internment camps seen by about sixteen people, and they think that what will really help the people in those camps is if more people see their ballet. Of course, the fate of the world depends on whether they are sufficiently the center of everyone’s attention!

Just dance and have fun. Say things that matter to you, sure — but stop acting like you are saving the world or that the government owes you a damned thing for what you’re doing. You really want to do something for the people in those camps? Donate money or get a goddamned law degree. Otherwise just dance, write poetry, draw your comic books, and otherwise get over yourselves.

This is the difference between an upper-class artist and a working-class one. I actually know that what I do matters very little in the grand scheme of things, and it doesn’t stop me from doing it.