How to Know Who’s Right

One of the most frustrating things about studying music is hearing such completely different advice from so many different people. Your private teacher will tell you one thing, but a highly esteemed judge from a competition will tell you the complete opposite. A great player you admire will tell you something, but a conductor you regularly work with will adamantly disagree. How are any of us to ever know who is right?

This problem is not just exclusive to musicians. We live in the information age and are constantly flooded with an unending stream of advice about practically everything. There are seemingly infinite articles online about how to eat, how to exercise, what type of sleep schedule to keep, how to save money with home insulation, how to invest, how we should fix the global economy, which smartphone to buy, and etc. Even more frustrating, many of these articles directly contradict others of these articles. Obviously they cannot all be true.

In school we were all taught to “consider the source.” If the advice was written by a teenager on an anonymous online forum, it is probably bogus. If it comes from a well known professor at a major university, it is probably good advice. However, this is unfortunately not always a reliable way to tell who is right. The “experts” are often wrong while unsuspecting sources can sometimes be surprisingly correct.

This same issue puzzled many ancient philosophers. Eventually, the ancients devised the most fool-proof way to determine truth from fantasy ever imagined . . . the scientific method. When many of us think about science, we imagine people standing in laboratories filled with test tubes of multicolored fluids boiling away while wearing white lab-coats and carefully looking at slides under a microscope. We might also remember learning about the planets and how cells work in our science classes in school. However, science is not a culture or a body of knowledge to memorize—it is a process.

Science is a process by which we force the natural world to give up its secrets. Scientists pursue this by developing theories and always comparing them to objectively gathered evidence. The scientific community is a very skeptical bunch, constantly reproducing the experiments of others to test and verify the results. It does not matter whether a particular theory was devised by an esteemed professor at a major university or an 8-year old living in poverty. All that matters is how well the theory fits the evidence upon repeated testing. (Important to note: many of the most important scientists in history have come from all walks of life.)

So how does science apply to music-making? After all, aren’t the arts something entirely different from the sciences? The answer to this is quite simply “no.” There is no rational reason why the act of music-making cannot be examined by the scientific method just as easily as anything else. As I understand things, music functions to humans very similarly to how language functions, and the scientific method has often been successfully applied to the study of human language.

When a teacher/friend/colleague/student provides a piece of musical advice, they are really proposing a theory about how some aspect of music works. If they tell you to hold your hand a certain way, they are essentially claiming that holding your hand that way will help to more efficiently produce a desired musical outcome. However, you do not ever have to simply take their word for it. You can run your own experiments. Experiment with the new hand position in your daily practice for a period of time. If it does in fact increase efficiency, keep it. If it fails to do this and some other approach seems to work better, go with the other approach. It does not matter who said it. All that matters is if it is actually working.

This applies to questions of interpretation as well. When someone instructs you to not clip the end of a phrase, what they are really saying is “I am noticing a short and accented note at the end of this phrase that I don’t think that you want.” You do not have to blindly trust them. You can record yourself, see if the clipped note is audible, and then decide for yourself whether or not you really want to be doing that. In many cases you are probably getting good advice, but in some instances you might not be.

When preparing for an audition, a teacher might say “this section needs to be a lot slower.” What they are saying is that they believe the audition committee will expect to hear this section slower than you are playing it. Again, you are not required to simply believe them. Record yourself and measure the tempo. Go listen to a random sample of recordings (particularly of people who have recently won their positions) and compare those tempi to your own.

In the end it does not matter where good or bad advice originates. I have stolen many fantastic ideas from some of my most inexperienced students while having to ignore some terrible advice from certain famous teachers/players. I experiment with every new piece of advice I receive, but always reserve the right to reject anything that does not produce the results I want/need/expect. I even encourage my students to be skeptical of the things I tell them in their lessons.

This all came as a painful realization to me many years ago when I learned that my teachers were often telling me to do things at my lessons that they did not ever do themselves in their own practicing/performing. In many instances they were teaching as they were taught, not teaching what they themselves did. This explains why they sounded so great doing what they did while I struggled so much attempting to do what they advised.

I have too often witnessed students completely ruining themselves by taking bad advice (or misinterpreting good advice) from a well-respected teacher too seriously. I have also watched many students refuse to listen to good advice because it didn’t come from a source they respected. The beauty of the scientific method is that the source of the theory does not really matter. All that matters is whether or not the theory fits the evidence.

Being able to separate good advice from bad advice requires constant skepticism and experimentation. In addition, skepticism and experimentation help us to refine and clarify our understanding of how music-making works. Ultimately, it enables us to become our own best teachers. Don’t ever take anyone’s word for it—demand proof that whatever advice you are currently receiving is good advice!

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