About Musical Learning in Isolation

VERSIÓN EN ESPAÑOL AQUÍ: Sobre el aprendizaje musical en aislamiento

How to live in a world where profound uncertainty is not a bug, but a feature? To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best, and feel at home with the unknown. Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the first world war. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The teachers themselves usually lack the mental flexibility that the 21st century demands, for they themselves are the product of the old educational system.

Quoted in  Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind

Within the last month, music teachers around the world have had to face a challenge that we did not expect: to teach our lessons remotely, through virtual means. Although that is not something new, it is not a generalized practice, nor had it acquired the approval of the majority, and I include myself here. Teaching a musical instrument has always implied a close relationship between teacher and student, and establishing that communication through a technological device could be unnatural.

In any case, what was unthinkable a couple of decades ago, is now completely possible thanks to technological advances, both in terms of devices and the availability of internet networks and the ways of thinking and acting in the new generations. In recent weeks we have been forced to use them, in some cases even by institutional instruction and not by our own initiative, due to the emergency that the planet is experiencing. Today there are many virtual platforms that allow it, and it did not take long for pages and tutorials to appear on the networks with resources and strategies that make it easier for us to make this change in the teaching structure, which will last for an indefinite and uncertain period of time. All of this information is generously shared from the experiences of teachers from around the world.

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However, a linear hierarchical teaching paradigm still prevails, in which the student must fulfill and submit a completed task to a teacher who, from a distance, will approve and comment on what needs to be improved. That is not bad, of course. It is the way in which we have practiced instrumental teaching for decades and with good results. But perhaps the current situation also appeals to us to be able to encourage in students (and in ourselves) more efficient self-learning strategies, always guided by the teacher, but that allow for greater growth and learning, precisely, in isolation.

There are several circumstances that limit the virtual teaching process to be highly effective in this crisis. Ideally, there should be good technological means, high definition internet, hardware memory capacity, and of course, good quality musical instruments at both ends. Even under these conditions, fidelity of reproduction and delays in transmission can play tricks. We are also not considering other circumstances that plague us these days: houses full of people (because the entire family nucleus is in confinement and creates the need to share spaces and devices), over-information and psychological exhaustion. This prevents any process from being carried out comfortably in real time and with the desired regularity and fluidity.

For all of this, I consider that a primary option is to be able to develop in our student strategies that can guarantee self-sufficient learning at their own pace and according to their circumstances. Teacher guidance will continue to be vital, not as a priority figure in a vertical process, but as a component of feedback. This crisis, I believe, is an opportunity to turn our gaze in a particular way to learning by self-observation and self-listening, to the mental study of the score and the critical listening of versions by other artists. This is not new, but it may not be cultivated in a sustained and priority manner, or it has been conceived as a range of complementary resources. Progress in the study of a musical instrument will always depend mostly on commitment and effectiveness in individual work.

It is now a matter of teaching how to be able to observe ourselves in a visual and sound mirror (by real mirrors, self-videos and self-recordings) and to be able to derive our own conclusions about the way we are playing, and incidentally, discover ourselves: an exercise in self-exploration that will undoubtedly make us better artists. This also involves hard mental work to achieve specific results. As Artur Schnabel once said about piano practicing: “Don’t play anything until you first hear it in your head, otherwise it will be an accident.” I understand of course that the search for sound quality is affected when, for example, we play on electronic instruments. But this training in times of crisis can pay off.

On the other hand, it also gives rise to exploring experimentation as a method of self-learning. The teacher does not always hit the nail on the head with the way in which the student must face a technical or interpretive problem. Controlled experimentation can provoke self-discoveries of the functioning of one’s own physiology and even of one’s own psychology.

Of course, all these reflections are made from the experience of more advanced apprentices, piano students in my case. Perhaps it would be unlikely (although not entirely impossible) to obtain results in beginners or intermediate students. But we can, generally speaking, spend a little more time these days to nurture that possibility of critical self-learning rather than to be highly concerned about remote and linear teaching. I think it is the best lesson we can all learn these days.


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