Raising Self-Awareness: How Are We Doing?

by lsisterhen

Our favorite students are usually the ones who do what we tell them to do immediately and without question. In fact, these dutiful and obedient “dream” students go home and work hard to make sure that our demands are met, never questioning the reason that the rubato has to be just so or the accent must be exactly this loud. But after these students—the stars of our studio—have graduated and moved on, what becomes of them? Is their achievement simply the result of imitation, or is it the result of independent work guided by a teacher who helps them find their own voice? These are questions we need to continually ask ourselves, because in our field there is a great risk of becoming overly authoritarian and simply expecting students to follow our lead. It is very easy to latch on to the quick, easy way to get our students playing at a high level quickly, whether it is to prepare for a competition, be accepted at an audition, or simply to play the way we want them to play. That is why so many students sound like their teachers. Yet, people like Glenn Gould, who developed a great deal of his technique under the teacher Alberto Guerrero, took what he learned from his teacher and developed his own unique artistic vision, taking his playing to a much higher level.

Intrapersonal Intelligence
Many music teachers use the highly effective teaching strategy of “transfer” to help students learn how to think independently. Students might learn to phrase two-note slurs correctly in a Mozart sonata, for example, and then transfer that understanding into a different piece, such as a Haydn minuet, so that they apply ideas on their own in different contexts. Yet teachers talk a bit less, it seems, about how to develop self-awareness in their students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in most educational institutions there is very little work in place to teach students to understand themselves, or to develop what Howard Gardner terms “intrapersonal intelligence.” A person with strong intelligence in this area understands their strengths and weaknesses, their feelings, and their motivation to practice. Like any of the multiple intelligences, it can be further developed.

No Words Necessary
It seems to me that music lessons are one of the natural places where students can begin to understand their instincts, emotions, and intuitions while gaining a broad understanding of what it means to be human. Why? Because the instincts, emotions, and intuitions that we have are the same ones that Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms had centuries ago. And understanding emotions is one step on the ladder, while verbalizing emotions is the next step up. Music allows us to express ourselves without words or labels when we are just beginning to understand what it is that we want to express. For this, students need to have a sense that their own footprint is on their performance, that they have had a part in the preparation and in the final sound. As the famous saying goes, “when words fail, music speaks.”

First Steps
Learning to critique others during performance classes is a great way to start letting students know that their opinions are valuable and unique. Allowing students to make interpretive choices is another. Allow them as many opportunities as possible to hear high-level performances, and their ear will become a more reliable, trained guide for making these decisions on their own. Ask questions as often as possible: “where is the high point of the phrase?” Let them solve problems on their own. Give them opportunities for self-evaluation, so they can decipher whether they are accomplishing what it is that intend to accomplish: have them record themselves on video and watch it, perhaps journaling their comments or filling out a questionnaire. Be a facilitator rather than a dictator. It is then that we teach students to fish rather than giving them the fish to eat, as the Chinese proverb suggests. Most importantly of all, allow time for questions. It is the curious and inquisitive students who dig the most deeply into the repertoire. They must understand why they are doing what has been asked.

Physical and Emotional Awareness
I believe that there are two different types of self-awareness: physical awareness and emotional awareness. Though they complement each other, some students do have more awareness in one area than in the other.

One of the things I love about yoga is the way that it teaches you to become aware of every bit of tension in your body; as you move slowly through the postures with the breathwork keeping you mindful, you are reminded by the best teachers to do the following: to take notice of how your body feels, to take time after a pose to be still and notice your breath, and to listen to your body, going only as far as your body will allow. Yoga, tai chi, qigong, and other body awareness practices are all wonderful supplements to music practice. Too many of us force our bodies into the music, rather than listening to what our bodies tell us about efficiency and sound production. Music teachers would also do well to allow time in lessons for stillness, rather than hurrying through to cover each mistake before time runs out. To stop and breathe and be still after a particularly well-played passage, to soak in what was just accomplished so that our minds remember the sound and our muscles remember the feel; these are the necessary elements of a productive practice session, as well. Ask students: “how did that feel?” Cue them on where to observe if necessary. “Do your shoulders feel less tense when you play high up on your fingers?” It takes time, but what you are doing is helping the student build a blueprint of their physical norm so that they know when an imbalance occurs. When this happens, it often results in a musical problem. Students need to know how to solve these problems on their own.

As far as emotional awareness is concerned, the best thing that teachers can do is to let students know that they are in a safe and accepting place where they can talk honestly. Bringing up your life stories helps them feel more secure in sharing their own. Asking them how they are doing at the beginning of each lesson is not a mere courtesy, but a sincere invitation to open up. Bring their stories and their emotions into their music; allow them to create imagery that is personal to them. Pride, fear, anger, sadness, joy—young students are just learning to sort through these emotions, and they may be afraid to be vulnerable. Music lessons offer another vehicle as they mature to learn that their opinions are valued and their feelings do not have to be hidden. We so often forget the true value of music lessons. As Cheryl Lavender said, “The fact that children can make great music is less significant than the fact that music can make beautiful children.”