Tuesday, July 07, 2020

An answer to Aline’s “Fur Elise” problem

by Rick Blechta

Having made a life in music — as well as writing — I read Aline’s blog post yesterday with a lot of sadness.

I’ll say it right up front, Aline, you unfortunately suffered from a common malady, but not the one you might expect. Yes, you might have been a difficult student, but I feel you had two not-very-good teachers.

There are a lot of them out there, people who just don’t get how to teach — especially youngsters. Learning an instrument is difficult, even if one is a genius at a Mozart level. There’s no way around it, you have to put in the hours. Not only that, a lot of the things you’re asked to do can be pretty BORING. But if one perseveres, it’s possible to become a decent player.

Here’s the place where your teachers fell down on the job. They didn’t give you meaningful practising techniques. When I was teaching, I called it a student’s “toolbox”. These tools were helpful tips on why things are going wrong, and specific techniques to fix them. I also had to guide my students to be able to recognize the stumbling blocks. 

The first tool was always “play only as fast as you can handle what you’re practising. Slow and steady will win this race every time. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, that’s not particularly fun. A good teacher will explain that, show the student how well it works to go slowly and give them longer range hope for seeing success at the end of what might be a long road.

I suspect my second tool would have really helped you, Aline. That’s the one where you learn that when you make a mistake, it is a total waste of your practicing effort to go back to the beginning of the piece — especially when the same mistake keeps happening in the same place.

Everyone, but especially children, needs to see success in order to want to do something. Dealing with the stumbling block (more tools!) will get rid of it so the result will be quickly obvious and self-reinforcing. There's no better feeling that being able to play through a piece, no matter how slowly, and get to the end successfully. It certainly make me want to play more!

How does all this fit into writing (since this is a blog dedicated to writing)? 

Learning to play an instrument, like writing a novel, is a marathon, not a sprint. Patience here is a very great virtue. You need to have a long-range vision and realize you need to take steps every day towards your goal. This is going to sound simplistically obvious but “you can’t get there until you get there.” The critical thing is to keep working, stay within your story. Same thing with practising: you’ve got to do it every day. I used to tell my school students: “If you have to average 20 minutes of practice every day, it won’t do you any good to do 140 minutes one day each week. Nothing good will happen and you know how much I hate to see you waste your time. Practise a little every day and you’ll get great results in less time.”

All writers — if they have any chance of success — realize this pretty quickly. It’s exceptionally difficult to write like crazy one day a week and keep things in order in your brain. My feeling is it will take you longer to complete the project since you constantly have to “reload” the story into your brain each time you work. That means a lot of time wasting “wheel spinning” each time you sit down to work.

I could go on and on about the similarities between mastering an instrument and completing a novel.

There is a well-regarded truism about learning to play an instrument: you must put in 10,000 hours of practise to master it. I suspect this might be true in writing as well. In order to become really good at it, you must put in the hours, do the self-examination, and get help where you need it in order to master this craft.

I sure hope that it doesn’t mean writing 10,000 pages! On second thought, if that’s what it is, maybe I just have to be more patient and keep plodding along. It’s not as if I haven’t done that before.
And if you want a good chuckle, look closely at the above photo of someone named Boris showing off his prowess on guitar. I don’t believe he’s put in his requisite 10,000 hours to master it…


Aline Templeton said...

Thanks, Rick. I just wish you'd been one of my early teachers!

Rick Blechta said...

So do I. I really hate hearing these stories and I hear them far too much.