I wrote this essay in March of 1996 at a time when I was writing monthly articles about playing the cello for my students and their families. The topic was suggested by the parent of a student who wanted me to discuss how to help a child who was discouraged while practicing.
Learning to play an instrument is challenging in many ways, including emotionally. Dealing with one’s emotions, both positive and negative, is part of any process of learning, so it’s worth thinking about it and cultivating emotional support systems of all kinds.
Emotional skills are to musical study as yeast is to making bread – without it, no matter how fine the rest of the ingredients, the result will fall flat.
I hope you will find my views on this subject encouraging!
Learning takes time. Everyone repeat after me: Learning takes time. Now, if only it were as easy to accept this fact as it is to say it, there would be far less discouragement in the world of music students!
Everyone knows that it takes time for a baby to grow into an adult. There are no shortcuts, nor would shortcuts be desirable. Each stage is necessary and valuable. The same is true for learning to play the cello – it takes time to grow from a baby into an adult. This has always been true, but accepting this can be difficult in our speeded-up age when everyone seems so busy, in a hurry and overwhelmed.
Furthermore, we live in a tremendously competitive society focused on who wins who loses, who is better, who is worse. For all our “individualism,” individuals have an uphill battle to be accepted for themselves, rather than for how they compare to other people.
Now we arrive at the music student in the early 21st Century, endeavoring to learn to play an instrument which will take many years of effort, who is ingrained with the notion that things “should” happen quickly, and that he/she has got to do at least as well as the “better” students to be worth anything at all. Is it any wonder that students get discouraged? Our whole society conspires to inculcate attitudes which will inevitably create discouragement.
How many people could honestly say the following?:
“Whatever amount of time this learning process takes is okay with me,” or “However well I ultimately succeed with this, it’s okay with me.”
These attitudes would require self-acceptance of an unusual sort and a deep belief in the value of musical activity for its own sake, regardless of the outcome. How un-American!
People today desire specific results for their troubles, and the sooner the better! Unfortunately, there is no way to rush some things. Even for a person who works very hard, there will be times that no progress seems to be happening, or worse, the person may feel he or she is actually going backwards.
Presumably, adults understand that learning takes time, but it is not necessarily easier for adult students to tolerate the frustrations and discouragement they inevitably encounter when studying. Adults also have the added handicap of seeing more clearly how far they have to go to become expert, where children are more ignorant of how far they are from mastery of what they’re learning.
I remember a music student at Yale who said that the reason he chose the cello when he was little was because he figured it had only four notes! Some naiveté might be helpful, but children can also suffer pretty badly from time to time with frustration and discouragement.
The fact is, we can not promptly solve all our musical problems and become a master any more than we can instantly grow wise, calm and mature. So how can we deal with our feelings of discouragement when they occur?
- Expect to feel discouraged from time to time. We should not be amazed to find ourselves feeling discouraged. Becoming discouraged is predictable, like hitting the wall at a certain point when running a marathon (not that I have done this myself!)
2. Acknowledge – “I feel discouraged.” Don’t ignore the feeling and pretend it is not there.
3. After recognizing that you feel discouraged, behave very kindly to yourself! Don’t add abuse to discouragement!
4. Talk to yourself like a kind friend to put the situation into perspective. “Well, I feel discouraged. I’ve been working on this passage for some time now and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. I do deserve a lot of credit for all my hard work, though, and I’m going to do this well eventually! It’s just a question of time, I’ve been through this before. It doesn’t usually last too long and then I break through. This will probably turn out the same way.”
5. Turn to a kind friend or family member for support. Someone else can help comfort you, and it’s great to feel loved and cared for. It compensates a little for the discouragement also.
6. Look for other solutions to your problem Is it possible your method of practicing is counterproductive for the results you have in mind? Is there some flaw in what you are doing, a bad fingering or bowing which is sabotaging your success? Are you practicing slowly enough? Are your expectations realistic? Is the piece actually too difficult for your current level of advancement? Consult with your teacher, other musicians, your friends. Do they have any ideas which might help?
7. Wait it out. Feeling discouraged can be like having a virus. It may take a few days to get over it and until then, we just endure as well as possible while our immune system takes care of it. Very often when something discourages us, we get over it just as mysteriously as a virus and suddenly find that we’re playing better than ever.
Self-talk is an important tool for managing one’s feelings. Unfortunately, many people allow their self-talk to run amok. Here is an example:
“I just can’t get my bow to stay straight! This is so maddening! it’s killing me! I don’t think I’ll ever get it to stay straight! I might as well quit right now!”
Imagine, for contrast, Henry, a hero of useful self-talk: “My bow is still going crooked! Boy is this frustrating, but let me see what I’m doing wrong. I know I can correct this problem. It’s just a matter of time.”
It is a parent’s job to help a child learn to have comforting self-talk. What could a parent say to a young child who is feeling discouraged? “I know you’re feeling discouraged, but even though you don’t feel like it right now, I think you’re doing great! Just think of how much you’ve already learned and how well you’ve been working! I’m very proud of you! Everybody gets discouraged now and then. We just have to give it time. Let’s see how it goes tomorrow.”
If a child is discouraged for a long time, at what point should a parent say, “Enough. I think it’s time to quit!”
While I believe that quitting musical study may well make sense for other reasons, the way I see it, permitting a child to quit because he/she is discouraged is dangerous. It could easily teach a child the following lessons:
- You shouldn’t have a hard time learning to do anything.
- You shouldn’t have to endure unpleasant emotions.
- When the going gets rough, it’s time to quit.
How could someone with those beliefs ever accomplish anything? In addition, by allowing a child to quit because of discouragement, the parent communicates another message to the child: “I agree with you. You are not capable of learning to play the cello.” And the child who quits will join the legions of adults who say, “I took lessons for a while, but I had no talent.”
It’s very important to understand what is causing the child’s discouragement and what can constructively be done about it.
Some students are chronic perfectionists who accept nothing less than perfect results for their troubles. This is very difficult for everyone involved. Perfectionism is a poisonous, negative attitude which masquerades as high standards and makes even modest satisfaction with oneself nearly impossible. It surfaces to sabotage every endeavor and spoil every pleasure. I think a student’s perfectionism should be vigorously disputed, if necessary, with professional help. No one needs to be perfect or close to perfect, to be good enough.
Needless to say, no parent should pressure a child or attempt to motivate him/her by making comparisons to other children. When I was in college, I happened to meet a former junior high school classmate who had studied with the same cello teacher. He told me that his father (a psychiatrist) made him miserable by constantly comparing the two of us. One would assume this father meant well, but he caused damage and made his son a long-term client of his own profession.
If a parent believes that his or her child’s discouragement is being caused by the choice of music the child has been assigned, I believe the parent should call and talk to the teacher privately to discuss the situation. I know that my judgment is imperfect and on occasion some of my assignments to children turn out to be unsatisfactory. Teaching, like playing the cello, is an art, not a science, and for teachers too, learning takes time.
No parent should hesitate to voice concerns they may have regarding the teacher’s assignments or manner of relating to the child, even though it may not feel easy to bring it up. The parent knows the child best and can see the results of the teacher’s assignments and expectations on the child at home. Every teacher has fallible judgment and only partial knowledge of their students, and can be helped by having a parent’s insights brought to their attention.
If a teacher is not responsive or has grossly different values than the parent, it is probably an excellent idea to look for another teacher. Why permit a child to remain in any environment which is not supportive or healthy? After all, the point is not to force a child to become a brilliant musician, but to become a healthy, whole human being, with self-respect, competence, and love for music.
Any person studying the cello will have to learn to nurture him/herself through the good and the bad times because there will be plenty of both! Someone who does not learn to endure and eventually overcome feelings of discouragement is truly handicapped in life because nothing worthwhile can be achieved without overcoming obstacles. In this way, musical study provides a life lesson of the greatest possible value: one can overcome discouraging obstacles and, given time, become a master of something difficult, beautiful, and life-enriching!