The Adult Student: Mind of the Monster

by Matthew Harre

Keynotes, September 1998

A few years ago, when the MTNA Conference was in Washington, my friend, Peter Mose, chaired a panel discussing teaching adults. I remember three things from that presentation. The first was there was barely anybody in attendance. Second, unlike the moderator, the panelists' outlook for adult students was bleak and included a quote attributed to one of our justifiably noted pedagogues that somehow "the adults just couldn't get it." Third, a person named Frances Hekhuis spoke as a member of the Adult Music Student Forum and as a representative of adult students. She was a viola student and said how much her lessons meant to her. She said how grateful she was for her teacher's confidence that she could learn, for it supported her when she lost her own confidence. I left that session upset that teachers kept asking "Why can't adults learn?" instead of "Why can't we teach adults?"

Adults have issues of learning that are the same as children. They deal with these issues differently because as adults they have learned to work from a position of greater strength. Adults are much more direct about these feelings and much more overt in their resistance. That greater strength confuses and scares teachers used to teaching children because, unlike adults, children have to hide their feelings of conflict, anger and resentment about learning. Adults' greater strength also masks their great need for compassion, support, and help from teachers.

Adults also have issues that are different than children. Adults live in the world of words while children live in the world of actions and sensations. This means children understand our instructions more effectively than adults. We must learn how to re-open the adult's world of learning to action and sensation.

It is these issues of adult education I want to talk about today.

When Rosita [Kerr Mang] asked me the title of my talk I mumbled something like The Mind of the Adult Student. She said it wasn't a very sexy title, with which I readily agreed. I asked her to come up with a better one for me and she did. We now have The Adult Student: A Different Monster or Just a Bigger one. It's much better. Of course, we could put our two titles together and call it The Adult Student: The Mind of the Monster but that seems just a tad negative. Maybe The Beauty In the Beast would be better.

It's interesting that we refer to our students as little monsters or, in this case, big monsters. Monsters are fearful creatures that go bump in the night. Why should we think of our students as monsters when it would seem that we have the power and control? Sometimes we do but not always.

We offer our gems of wisdom and receive back blank stares from our students. I remember a time when I was particularly eloquent and my young student looked up at me and said, "May I ask a question?" Feeling that warm feeling of a good teacher on a good day I said, "Of course you can ask a question." "What time is it?" she said. My gift of eloquence was thrown back in my face. We ask our students to practice passages in certain ways and they don't practice at all. Sometimes the relief on the faces of my students at the end of their lesson seems reminiscent of my feelings leaving the dentist's office.

Adult students are bigger monsters. They look at me at eye level and above eye level. They ask questions that imply they don't think I know what I'm talking about. Sometimes they look at me as if to say "You don't really think I'm going to do that, do you?" One student said to me, "I finally figured out what you do at these lessons. You make us do the things you know we won't do at home." I laughed and had to admit there was truth in his observation. What I really hoped I was doing was showing him the way he should practice at home. Teaching is giving gifts of insight, wisdom, experience and knowledge and often having students saying, in essence, "I don't want your gift even if I am paying for it."

If we think the students are monsters, adults know that teachers are monsters. In their many years of schooling, adults have worked with dozens and dozens of teachers. Some may have been excellent but most were not and at least a few were condescending and sadistic. In addition, we music teachers don't have a good reputation. We are the ones who hit students on the hands if they get wrong notes. We are the ones who are never satisfied and always want more.

Adults come to lessons uncomfortable with their lack of knowledge about music. If they are beginners, it's as if we know a secret language. Edward Rothstein compares the secret notation of mathematics and music; how it makes the uninitiated feel left out and ignorant. When students walk into our studio we should have more admiration for their courage to confront their sense of ignorance.

Adult students come to us as if visiting a magician, for music seems like magic. Not that music doesn't have its magical moments for us but their sense of this magic is more primitive. Adults taking lessons usually have experienced the tremendous emotional power of music. They have heard it and felt it in ways rarely open to children. Children come to their music lessons to find out about music. Adults already know from their listening and they come awestruck. They think we commune with the gods, for from where else could such unearthly power and beauty come. They feel presumptuous in attempting this for themselves.

In school we sensed this magic from the beginning for music was different than the other arts. We learned to draw pictures; we wrote stories; we wrote poems; we never wrote music. Nobody ever taught us to write music for that seemed to be beyond the bounds of even our music teachers. Learning music was always learning somebody else's music even though we may have made up songs when we were still in our cribs.

When our adult students walk into our studios for the first time, they don't know what to expect. They don't know what kind of teachers we are. They know that we know more about music than they do so they come not as equals but as ones wanting what we have. Adults, especially the men, do not like this inferior position. All are fearful that their ambitions seem foolish and all are afraid of being part of the emotional expressiveness inherent in music. We live in a society of controlled emotion and music seems so uncontrolled to these students. All are scared and they are trying to hide their fear from you and themselves. Few walk into the studio with a sense of adventure but even that contains its own fear. This fear continues for many more months than either you or I would expect.

Take a moment to imagine yourself taking up a new instrument and how uncomfortable you might feel taking your first viola lesson. What happens to these students when they are afraid is just what happens to us when we are afraid. We quit breathing normally. We leave our bodies and go into our heads. To try to control our feelings we start thinking frantically. We try too hard. When I get like this, I start making stupid mistakes that only make things worse. Instructions become incomprehensible. I don't know my left hand from my right. I don't like myself and I want to run away. It's no different with the adult students when they come to their lessons.

I did take a viola lesson once with Frances Hughes' teacher. The difference is the teacher was my best friend. Rodger [Ellsworth] dropped in one evening after a performance asking if I wanted a viola lesson. I said, "Of course not." In principle it was a fine idea but I had a thousand reasons for not wanting to do it. Rodger persisted, saying it would be a good way to know what my students felt like and other such reasonable nonsense. I relented and took my first lesson. The result was not as I expected at all.

Tensely, I put the viola under my chin and the bow in hand I started to listen to his many instructions, some of which seemed contradictory to me. What I didn't expect was I got really furious. I told him he didn't know how to teach and that I was going to take this viola and smash it over his head. My language was not so reasonable. When I finished my outburst and settled down I found I was drawing the bow over the strings with an ease I could not imagine a few seconds earlier.

My outburst of anger apparently released my frustration at being in an awkward situation, feeling out of control, and feeling inferior. Having discharged that tension I was free to engage in the learning activity fully, without distraction. Rodger was a friend. I knew I could be angry with him. Had I been working with a regular teacher there would have been no such outburst. I would have been stuck with my anger and I would not have learned nearly as much. This is the position of most students of any age.

I have to confess, even with this illuminating and successful experience, I don't want another viola lesson. My resistance is no less now than it was when Rodger first suggested the idea. I seem not to be one of those adventurous students.

One of my students is a writer and Kate has written of her music study very honestly. She speaks for many adults when she says, "I am terrified of music. Without warning it can evoke a tidal wave of emotions. And that is just when I am listening. The performer in me is terrified both of the emotions and the sense that real musicians understand the music in ways I will never be able to."

She goes on, "I know my playing would be better if I would take more risks. It would be more like music if I could move past my preoccupation with playing the correct notes. But at heart I am a coward. I am too scared to have any idea of what the music would be like if I were to let go, just a little bit. Boring my teacher is better than the nagging fear of what would happen if I were to really let go. I have convinced myself that if I were to do that my playing would sound really embarrassing. Everyone would be horribly humiliated and I would never play again. I might not ever go outside again."

Kate says, "Music is about personal exposure. It is being willing to breathe while staring your worst fears in the face. Music is also very delicate. Too much attention and it evaporates. For me, any hope of creating true music - where you hear the music and not the playing - is dashed the minute I start to think about it.

"Yesterday, during my lesson I had a new thought. I was playing a Chopin Prelude. The Prelude is clearly bigger and better than I am. During my lesson, as I am playing it badly for the third time, the Times Square of my mind flashes in neon: I HATE THIS PIECE!.

"The fingers kept on going. I willed them forward because I was not going to let an uninvited neon sign keep me at this piece five more years. The rest of the piece sounded to me like cats mating. It wasn't pretty.

"But I kept on playing. I knew a small war was erupting in my mind. I wasn't making music exactly, but I remained committed to trying to make music. Some days, that is the best I can do. Some days it is more than I can do.

"So what keeps me coming back?"

Kate rejected the reasons of insanity and the need to fail. Kate felt piano lessons provided an inexhaustible opportunity for failure, she decided: "The explanation I like best is that I play for those moments when music plays me. It doesn't happen very often. It doesn't last more than a second or two. My playing may not even sound any better. But that moment when I am inside the music is about the sweetest feeling I have ever known and I will do anything to get back there. Even practice."

Kate was working on Chopin's 4th Prelude in E minor. She had not been studying long and her playing wasn't very good. The most obvious probli was her need to stop frequently, which kept the music from building any momentum. The sophistication of her writing vastly exceeded her musical skill and showed a remarkable understanding of music making not apparent in her playing.

This discrepancy between playing and the words of understanding is an enormous probli for adult students. They are painfully aware of what the words know to do in relation to the sound of their actual playing. This is especially so at lessons.

This discrepancy is a probli for teachers too. We listen to our students talk and it seems as if they understand so much more than they really do. I will get back to this point but first I want make sure you realize how vulnerable adult students feel. My adult students wanted me to emphasize to you that they need more tender loving care taking lessons now than they did as children. "Oh, do tell them," they say. "Actually, I need so much more as an adult than I did when I was a kid."

Teaching adults takes more compassion than teachers expect. Adults are not the hardened students we think they should be. Being a student is being vulnerable. Children are used to it for it's their way of life--whether they like it or not. Adults are not used to it. They don't like experiencing this vulnerability to teachers' whims and powers. They felt it as children and they don't like re-experiencing it as adults.

By compassion I certainly do not mean abandoning standards. Adults quickly realize when teachers aren't trying for them and they don't like it. I have gotten many students who have complained about this in their earlier teachers. They say, "I'd play a piece once or twice and the teacher would say it was fine and give me a new piece. I knew it wasn't fine and I had more to learn but for some reason they wouldn't teach me." Adults are astute enough to realize that these teachers don't know what they're doing, don't have any hope for the student, or are afraid to make demands on the adults.

My compassion for my students doesn't mean I don't expect anything of them. My students frequently moan and groan about what I want and expect them to do. I realize I am asking them to do difficult things and that they will have difficulty doing them. I realize they will be discouraged and embarrassed at their slowness and angry with themselves, the music, and even with me. By compassion I mean letting students complain about these things, allowing them to have difficulty without adding my reactions to their problis.

We mistakenly expect adults to come to lessons with firm motivation. We don't expect their conflict. After all, they signed up for lessons. Why don't they practice more; why don't they be more consistent; why don't they try harder? Because they are like us. When we go on diets, give up smoking or try to exercise more, we don't do these things perfectly all the time. We get angry about having to be responsible for our commitment. Sometimes we fail; so do our students.

One student told me, "You give us enormous space to whine and get all that junk out of our head and you keep pushing. I completely do and do not want to do just about everything you have asked of me. You do not engage in or resist my verbal stomping of feet and that frees me to whine and still commit to doing what you ask."

I want to repeat one line in there. "I completely do and do not want to do just about everything you have asked of me." This is such an honest statement about the internal conflicts of being taught either as a child or an adult except we rarely honor it in children. To have compassion for students of any age is to give them room to find this place of conflict inside themselves, to let them be free to make their own decision as to whether they want to do what is being asked.

Please understand. It's not that I don't have my own anger and frustration as a teacher but it is recognizing that the expression of that is rarely a useful teaching tool.

Doing it to please the teacher or parents is obviously more common for children but accepting it is poor teaching. My adult students who were good as children usually ended up trying to please or appease their teachers and parents and they were successful. Now, as adults, there is no one to give that adulation when they do it right. Actually, they don't want it anymore. It does, however, leave a huge void for these students. They have no trust of their own musical intuition for they were only taught to do what they were told. No one taught them to play for themselves or to make their own musical decisions. It takes these students a long time to trust my statements that there are many convincing ways to play a piece of music and that great artists are great because they are unique, not because they're playing "the right way."

As you teach your young students, think of what kind of adult students your work is preparing. Music learning can be a joy for a lifetime, as we all know because that's what we ourselves do. In 20 years, what problis will the kids you teach have because of your teaching now? It's a sobering question.

It is vital for me to have sympathy for my students because my students have none for themselves. Adults are terribly unforgiving of themselves. They are impatient; they call themselves names; they even bonk themselves on the head. They don't need me to do more of the same. On a good day I see myself as a model of how they might learn to treat themselves; gently pushing themselves with patience, kindness, and respect without being distracted by the turmoil of emotions that come up about learning.

Kate mentions that any hope of creating true music is dashed the minute she starts to think about it. It is a crucial point. We adults think too much. To us, thinking is a verbal process, words, endless words. In fact, there is an endless chattering voice inside our heads most of the time. It creates expectations, it reacts, it judges, it's always busy and it's never very charitable. It's a big probli for adults because it keeps them, or rather us, from being aware and present to what is actually happening. We talk about smelling the roses instead of actually smelling them. We think about our playing instead of doing our playing.

This is not a probli for most children. They do not inhabit the self-conscious world of words the way adults do. They have not yet become so verbally intoxicated with themselves.

To most adults, education is a verbal process. Our schooling has made it so. To be successful in school one must be successful with words. From taking tests, to writing papers, to taking comprehensives, to writing dissertations, education is about words. In our culture, the verbal process is so associated with learning that the arts and even athletics have to defend themselves as worthwhile educational endeavors. The Greeks of Athens would have found this uncivilized.

What is true in education is also true in the work place. Over half my students have PhD's or are lawyers. I can assure you they do not consider their car mechanics or carpenters their equals when the latters' skill with their hands excels the more "learned" ones'. Even my phrasing reflects the bias of which I speak.

So adults come to their lessons expecting their music education to be with words. They think of music learning as another verbal process rather than the physical, kinesthetic process that it is. I am always surprised when new students ask, "Is there a book I can read to learn this stuff?" Like college, they want a book to go along with the lectures. Of course, it doesn't work that way.

Children, on the other hand, learn with their bodies. Early childhood is all about control of the body. From learning to walk, to going to the bathroom, to controlling the vocal muscles, to using eating utensils, pencils and crayons, children find learning a physical process.

In the literature of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, I came across an item about the kindergarten student who could walk to school but was clueless about telling anyone else the directions to get there. He could take your hand and lead you there but he could not put it into words. Words are not knowledge to children the way they are to adults. Actions and sensations are knowledge to children.

I think children use our words as a guide to their actions and sensations so their bodies can learn how to do what we are asking. I think adults take our words as an end product. I think children have no choice but to convert our words to physical processes while adults have forgotten the possibility of doing so.

The probli of words is one for teachers, for we are adults, also. I don't think we appreciate the way we use our words in teaching. When we teachers use our words we are using them as references to skills that we know as physical entities full of complex memories of kinesthetic sense. When our adult students use our words we tend to assume they're speaking from the same referents. They are not. To them our words are concepts. To them the words are a thing of the mind with no connection to the body.

Let's take an example, the B major scale. A child can skillfully play the scale before he can understand what's involved. He doesn't need to think about the fingering because he feels it. He doesn't need to think about the five sharps because he feels the sensations of the black and white keys. He doesn't have to know the whole and half steps because he feels and hears them. He doesn't need to know the place of B Major in the circle of fifths because it won't make his playing any better. When he plays he doesn't think about this stuff.

Then again, neither do you nor do I. We may know all these things but we don't think about them while we play the scale. To us the words are back-up knowledge, or they are part of our understanding of tonal theory or, more often, they are part of our teaching vocabulary.

One of the things we teachers do with great skill and subtlety is to convert our kinesthetic understanding into words. Children convert our words back into sensation fairly quickly. Adults do not. They don't know they're supposed to. They don't remember their bodies can learn and they certainly don't trust their bodies to learn.

To me, the biggest issue of teaching adults is how to get them to re-engage their body in the learning process. It is every bit as long and tedious a process as teaching children how to conceptualize their musical knowledge.

I would like to examine three areas of teaching in light of re-engaging body learning. The issue in each area is how to get adults to perceive the issues physically, in terms of kinesthetic sensations, and not just words.

Counting out loud is a wonderful example of the conflict between words and the body.

George Moore is a neuroscientist who spoke at the last Biology of Music Making Conference at Eastman. He had presented a paper about how musicians use the information gained from the metronome. In the question and answer session afterwards someone asked about the value of tapping the foot to keep track of the pulse. He adamantly replied that such an activity would degrade the primary task of playing the instrument; it would be a distraction. The audience was stunned. Another asked about counting out loud and his reply was the same, it was an additional activity that would make the primary activity less effective. The body language of the audience was such that George knew he had taken a big step into troubled waters. He said, "Obviously, I've said something terribly wrong from your perspective; but from the neurological perspective, what I'm saying is totally correct."

I could not dismiss his point because it's exactly what so many of my students say to me. "Do I have to count out loud, it's just one more thing to do when I can't seem to handle all the other things." When counting out loud is a strictly verbal task it is intrusive. When I have my students walk around the room and count one beat for each step they take, it is not a probli. It feels quite different. That difference is that the body and mind are working as one. My students are attempting to count using only their minds when they must learn rhythm is a complex dialogue between the mind and the large muscles of their arms, shoulders, and trunk.

Usually the self-portrait of the adult piano student is a head and a pair of hands. There is no bodily connection between the two, no arms, no shoulder; no torso nor trunk supporting the mechanism. The head just sits in space complaining about what the hands are doing. There virtually is no body to feel the rhythm. There is no body to facilitate exchanges between the mind and the fingers. There is just empty space.

Much of my work with adults is trying to get them to fill in this empty space. It is getting them to learn they have a body and to learn that awareness of the sensations of the body is how the mind communicates with the body. They need to learn to remember that body knowledge is highly reliable. They use it every time they walk, climb stairs, or drive their cars.

The first probli in teaching body awareness is that most people don't want to admit they have a musical body. That people are willing to dance with these bodies but not make music with the bodies always surprises me. To be perfectly honest though, I do not think most of my students do dance. Even the few who do don't make the connection.

I go about teaching students that they have a body by first working with the arms. Lateral motion of the arms is just as important as the up and down motion of the fingers. One can get the feeling of the musical pulse in lateral motions of the arms. Arm motion is usually un-rhythmic in adults. When they land on a right chord they hold on it to make sure its right and if it's wrong, that holding motion gives them the impression they can go back and correct it. This leads to a constant set of stop-start motions.

Conductors do not conduct with stop-start motions. This kind of motion takes too much energy and is too unpredictable for the orchestra to follow. The same is true of motions at the piano. The flowing sense of the body that comes with continuous motion physically mirrors the flow of the music. That's why great conducting can be so effective.

Rather than continuing in this nature, let me refer you to books by Seymore Fink and Seymore Bernstein on the use of arm motions and gestures in playing the piano. They do a wonderful job presenting this information.

Adults are embarrassed about these movements. They really don't want to do them. They will try to do as I ask and feel they are making fairly large motions of which I can perceive virtually none. One woman said to me, "It makes me feel like I think I'm 'Miss Piano' or something. It makes me feel like I'm pretentious, trying to act like I'm Andre Watts." The point she made is "I have no right to move until I know what I'm doing." I reply to this "you will never know what you're doing until you feel free to move, not necessarily as much as Andre Watts." Actually the amount of motion need not be large at all; it only needs to be large enough to carry the feeling of the pulse. In the beginning, however, it frequently needs to be exaggerated.

I use many different approaches to convey this rhythm-in-motion sensation. Clapping is certainly one. I have students play with one hand and conduct a simple pattern to mark the pulse with the other hand. I use a djembe drum to teach students the physical feel in the arms of duple and triple rhythm.

The adults resist all this, especially the drumming. They never want to do it. Sometimes they don't think I am serious but just threatening them. On man got angry with me when I wanted him to use the drum and said. "I pay you for piano lessons not drum lessons." I asked him if he noticed how much better he played now than when he first started lessons with me and maybe that meant I knew what I was doing. He relented and went through his awkward moments with the drum and then got the feel of the rhythm in his arms and he became quite excited. "You really do know what you're doing, don't you?" he said. I think he meant to compliment me even though he was merely awarding me competence.

Another physical connection adult students don't make is the relation of body sensation to wrong notes. Again the words are a probli and again they don't acknowledge the body's part in their playing. Adults keep saying to themselves, "It's A-flat" while they continue to play A natural. They don't understand that they need to change the feel in their hands and arms. They don't understand they just need to move a different distance and feel for a black note. The difference is a kinesthetic sensation not words; it's sound, not verbal concept. Most notes are wrong because we don't feel the motion to the next note or we misperceive it. The hand has gone too far or not far enough. That is all. Contrary to the feelings of most adults, it's not a moral issue, it's not an intellectual issue, it's not even a mental competency issue. It's just a physical issue, an issue of the body that has moved too far or nor far enough.

The same thing is true about controlling the tone of the instrument. Pianists need to get to know the instrument in a very physical way. They need to know the resistance of the keys and to understand the relationship between what their fingers feel and their ear hears. There is not much use for words. It's like melody. Amidst all the books about harmony and counterpoint there are few indeed about melody. There is not much to say. How do you make a beautiful phrase? You start, you end, you have a climatic point. That's about it. You can say that one is born with a melodic sense; which may be true or it may be a cop-out. Note, however, how many sketches Beethoven made of some of his melodies before he arrived at the simplicity he wanted.

Tone is elusive in the same kind of way. One can talk about not pounding the key or about using the weight of the arm but that doesn't necessarily make a good tone. People need to sense a oneness between themselves and the instrument, as some say, a feeling of the key as an extension of the finger.

Adult students tend to see the instrument as something to be overcome; sometimes even an enemy out to get them. It is hard, indeed, to get adults to relax into feeling the decent of the key rather than just pushing it down. This takes a kind of leisure adults don't think they have. They've got 30 minutes and they have a lot to get done. What I'm talking about seems like a waste of time to them. When I'm in a bad mood I suggest they waste a lot of time in their practice anyway and suggest this might be a better way to waste time. It's hard for adults to understand. The results aren't immediate; they certainly are un-quantifyable, and there is no verbal thinking involved.

Sometimes I will tell my students to feel the keys as if feeling the body of a member of the opposite sex. The difference is amazing. They always astound me. I think the students are embarrassed but they note how different the sound is too. I leave the experience thinking they've finally understood. They seem to leave the experience thinking I'm not gonna do that again. They lose the understanding so fast. They are afraid of it, they don't trust it, they don't like being this exposed, especially in front of another person.

My talk has been more of a rhapsody than a developed theme. I did this to give as broad a view of my concerns as possible. There are many issues I've raised and not pressed and many implications not stated. The probli with this approach is it's hard to remember what was said. In closing, I want you to remember:

  • The question is not why can't adults learn but rather why can't we teach adults. We must take the efforts of adult students seriously and honor their desire to truly learn to play a musical instrument.
  • Being a student is being vulnerable. Most of us had enough of being a student when we were growing up and adults who take lessons demonstrate rare courage.
  • Adults carry a lot of baggage with them when they walk into your studio. Some is cultural, some is educational, some is cognitive and some is personal.
  • Adults beat themselves down with the distilled fury of all their past teachers and parents. They need us to be sympathetic, compassionate and supportive.
  • The adult mind is verbal and conceptual. It is disengaged from the body, embarrassed by the body, and cognitively untrusting of the body.
  • We play the piano with the body. We teachers know this and speak from this kinesthetic frame of reference but our adults don't have this frame of reference. We have to work to re-integrate their bodies into their learning.

Adults can learn to play and they can learn to play with freedom, speed, and expression but not unless the body is made the vital part of the learning experience. Someone has said true learning does not take place unless the mind, the body and the emotions are all involved. This could not be truer of learning to play the piano.

Copyright 1998 Matthew Harre


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