Ten Ways To Be a Better Student

With so much attention these days given to evaluating teachers, teaching methods and the education system as a whole, I wanted to devote this month’s blog post to the other side of the educational process: learning. From time to time I will receive a call from a current or former student to complain about how someone else has been teaching them. Out of frustration they might say something like, “why does [insert name] insist on teaching this way?!” Anyone who has ever said anything like this to me has always gotten the same reply: “I sympathize with you, but what are you doing in this situation to be a better student?”

It is such a simple yet empowering question that too rarely gets asked. While it is always easier to see ourselves as the victims of circumstance, this type of thinking limits us. An empowered student can always find ways to learn and grow in even the worst teaching environments. This month I have put together a list of ten ways for any student to free themselves from the shackles of what they perceive as bad teaching. (Consequently, it can also be thought of as a list of ten ways to take full advantage of great teaching.)

1) Own your education. Education is liberating and powerful. It is what enables each successive generation to learn from the accumulated knowledge and experience of all previous generations. For most of us living today in developed nations, the majority of the world’s information lies just beyond our fingertips. No amount of bad teaching is capable of preventing a determined student from learning just about anything. There is no longer any excuse for not knowing something that takes less than a minute to look up.

2) Embrace confusion and frustration as part of the learning process. Do not expect everything to make sense right away. Sometimes new information requires a fundamental shift in your current thinking to make sense of it. That process can seem confusing when you are in the midst of it. Challenge yourself to see confusion as a sign that you are on the verge of a major breakthrough and frustration as evidence that you are trying too hard to hold onto an outmoded way of thinking.

3) Focus on process, not outcomes. We unfortunately live in a society that judges most things by what happens, not by how they are approached. For example, I remember attending many of my sister’s basketball games when she was in high school. During the games there was an almost constant stream of inane comments from fans. If a player on their team made a shot, they would cheer loudly in support. If they missed the shot, someone would usually scream some unsolicited advice—“ya gotta make those shots!” I remember asking myself what type of terrible basketball player tries to miss shots and would find that comment to actually be helpful—“thanks, I couldn’t remember if were were supposed to make them or miss them.” The problem with focusing on the outcome is that many aspects of it are often out of our control. Shots are missed because no one has a 100% shooting rate. It seems to me that it would be far more helpful to focus on what types of plays are being run to set up those shots and how well the team is executing those plays than to yell at players when they miss shots.

Similarly, I find myself telling students to just stop worrying altogether about missed notes. Instead, when a note is missed we should ask ourselves, “How was my posture, breathing, embouchure, hand position, concentration, preparation, etc.?” If everything is approached correctly to the best of our abilities, then there is no value in fretting over negative outcomes. In fact, fretting over the potential for a negative outcome often takes our focus away from the things we actually can control, which in turn makes those negative outcomes significantly more probable. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if we let ourselves think about it that way. It’s not that we want to make mistakes. It’s that we want to rid ourselves of the fear of making them.

4) Stay humble and always be respectful. As we begin to have early successes learning something it often becomes easy to forget how much we still do not know. It is natural to want to challenge your teacher when you believe they are wrong about something. In fact, differentiating what you have learned from what you are being told is very much a part of the learning process. However, it is important to always practice humility and respect when doing this. Allow for the possibility that you have misunderstood something. How would you want to be treated if the roles of teacher and student were reversed? If it is necessary to confront a teacher about something, always do so in private and be polite about it. Someday you might find yourself in their situation.

5) Always strive for a deeper understanding of the fundamentals. Citing an obscure piece of information or demonstrating a complex skill always impresses people who know very little about the subject at hand. However, these things are usually a poor indication of one’s overall competency because they can be easily learned at the exclusion of everything else. Anyone can memorize an isolated fact or learn a short extremely difficult passage. A serious student can always make better use of their study/practice time by focusing more time on fundamental information/skills. For musicians, it is better to devote more of our practice time to refining our overall approach to technique, mastering basic scales/arpeggios, or getting extremely picky about our overall approach to articulation than to practicing a few passages from a single piece of repertoire over and over again. The former will carry over into everything we do, while the latter will only help us in isolated ways.

6) Be more skeptical. Not everything you hear from your classmates, teachers, or read on internet forums is true or going to be helpful to your progress. I constantly encourage all of my students to be skeptical of everything they hear—even the things I tell them! Being skeptical of course does not mean to automatically reject everything. In fact, it often means precisely the opposite. A true skeptic will put everything they are told to the test. If a teacher says to practice a particular technique for a few weeks, always try it. Make careful observations about what affects it has been having for you. A lot of my own approach to playing music has been greatly influenced by my teachers, conductors, colleagues, favorite recordings, outstanding live performances, my students, and yes even a few crazy things I have read online. I try to absorb as much information from as many sources as I can, but I am always careful to reject anything that has simply not worked. Never put too much faith in something that is not working for you, no matter who said it.

7) Put in the time. It takes a certain amount of time, focus and intensity to succeed at something. There is absolutely no substitute for that. Yes we can all become more efficient practicers. There are many ways to learn more quickly and dynamically. I believe wholeheartedly in working smarter not harder and write about it all the time on this blog. However, all of these things will never be enough if we are not willing to devote the necessary time to honing our craft. The most common complaint I hear from students about why they do not spend enough time practicing is that they find practicing to be boring. Let me state this emphatically: boredom is mostly self imposed. We make certain activities boring, so we can also make them more fun. Practice time should never be boring. For me it is one of the most exhilarating and meditative parts of my day. I always look forward to it. There is nothing I enjoy more than combing through my playing and finding more things to improve. My advice to all of my students: make practicing/studying so much fun that you completely lose track of the time.

8) Open yourself to new possibilities and perspectives based on your learning. The world is an enormous place completely seething with lessons to teach us. We each have very limited time on this planet to let just a little bit of it soak in. The more we learn, the more we become aware of how little we actually understand in the greater scheme of things. No matter how concrete something might seem to us at any given time, always keep your mind open enough that it can be changed with the right experiences. I once thought I completely understood every aspect of the mechanics of piano technique until I attended a masterclass that completely and forever changed my mind on the subject. I realized on that day that I actually understood very little about how to play the piano. Over the following few weeks I had a major breakthrough with my playing that would never have been possible with my former rigid thinking about it. Always be open to having your mind changed.

9) Be more patient. Within a few short minutes I can download an app that can make my smartphone do just about anything imaginable. If I want to watch the newest episode of my favorite TV show, I can probably access it within seconds. If I need to know the gross domestic product of Belgium in 1978, I can do a simple web search and find the answer in a fraction of a second. This is the world in which we all now live. Unfortunately, we are still endowed with the same brains as our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors. For humans, learning just takes a certain amount of time. Most of us have very unrealistic expectations for how long it should actually take for us to be able to achieve something. I had a student recently who could not figure out why, after a few days worth of intense practice, he still could not play a note that was almost an octave out of his current range. Some goals are reached within seconds, some within minutes, some within hours, some within days, some within weeks, some within months, some within years, some within decades, some within lifetimes, and some are never likely to be reached at all. Always make sure you have a realistic set of time expectations for whatever it is you are attempting to learn how to do. Trying to rush that process is the surest way to never reach your goals.

10) Always stay positive. Constantly beating ourselves up about what we cannot do is the best way to die young and never do the things we really want to be able to do in our lives. Instead, always bring as much positive energy to what you do as you can muster. Focus on everything that is going well and find ways to build on that. Do not dwell on your mistakes. Simply ignore them. Instead of trying to eradicate everything that is bad about what we are trying to do, try to grow all of the good things. That change in perspective can pay dividends in the long run. There is a difference between critically looking to find new ways to improve and needlessly beating ourselves up. In the end, it is those who approach everything that they do with love and positivity who ultimately get what they want. There is no virtue in making yourself feel miserable. Life is just too short.

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