When a beginner comes to me for a first lesson, it’s always a really interesting process of discovery, both for the student and for myself. Some students already have a background in music, while others have never tried an instrument before. Some have studied dance or practiced other art forms; others have experience with contrasting fields of knowledge or interest. Everyone comes to the first lesson with a unique set of skills and interests.
While I never consider a particular “lack” of experience to be a limitation, it’s always fun to work with a student who has a background in music. This was certainly the case when I began giving cello lessons to a boy, about 12 years old, who was already playing some of the most difficult piano repertoire, and at a professional level.
How would someone, already so musically accomplished, approach “starting all over again”? Would they take to it more quickly or be frustrated at the lower level of their newfound skill? Would certain aspects of learning the new instrument be familiar and others completely foreign? How would my approach as a teacher be different, and would there be broader lessons I could apply to my other students.
Going For It
During our first two or three lessons, I would have to say that my new student was doing well – he obviously had a good ear and was coordinated. His basic finger motions were well-rehearsed from piano playing. Nonetheless, his improvements weren’t quite “prodigious”. He had a lot of the same physical awkwardness and misfires that anyone would have when learning an instrument for the first time.
However, from the start, he also had a certain willingness to “go for it”. He was always experimenting with playing higher notes than what I showed him, even if he missed them at first. He would bow with abandon, even if the tone was imperfect.
He was simply fearless. He noticed if he missed something, but it wouldn’t bother him. It was less like a kid studying for a test, and more like a kid playing with a new toy for the first time.
Listening and Listening Some More
It was in the 3rd or 4th lesson that everything changed. Suddenly, he was playing in tune with a beautiful sound, dynamically, musically. Of course, we had spent time going over technique in detail, and I tried to give him everything he needed, in terms of fundamentals. Nonetheless, it was a leap – everything we had been talking about seemed to come together at once.
So, what was it that caused the breakthrough? I may not be able to fully answer that question, but I can surmise a couple of factors, and a lot of it comes down to listening.
Since he had already had the experience of learning to play an instrument at a high level, his questions about playing the cello were very direct. When I gave him an answer, he really took it in, and was determined to apply it. So once the technical points had been clarified, he really reflected on them and pulled them together.
However, the other sort of listening turned out to be even more significant. I soon learned that he had listened to some of his favorite cello pieces upward of 100 times. The effect of that cannot be underestimated. First, he was engaged with the cello and music passionately. Second, he had a sound in his mind – something to clearly strive for. Third, his sense of pitch had been highly sensitized and refined through this process.
Lessons for Every Student
So, what is the secret? If there is one, it may only be knowable through experience. However, as teachers and students we can create a fertile ground for musical development.
What stood out the most with this prodigy wasn’t his dexterity or work ethic (though they were both important), but rather, his passion. When passion is deep and strong enough, it overtakes fear and doubt. By having a clear idea of what he wanted to sound like, and what he needed to reach that level, he was able to quickly bring together the technical points in service of the music.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect a student to simply teach themselves by having an “image” of what they’d like to sound like. It’s my job as a teacher to fill that gap, using knowledge and all the other tools at my disposal. However, I’d urge any student to listen as much as they can to help form that ideal in their mind.
It’s essential to find that passion, to seek it, and to allow yourself to spend time with it (lots of time!). That’s also a lesson for myself as a teacher, since it can be easy to get lost in the details. While knowing how to play the notes will always be an important part of the job, what’s even more essential is knowing why they’re there.