On the one hand, music lessons seem like an outward thing, as they deal with reading sheet music and using an instrument (or the voice) to make music out loud. But on the other hand, the person who’s making that music (that’s you!) is a complex being with all kinds of inner workings going on at the same time. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re 6 years old or 96 years old; sometimes that inner person (or the teacher!) discovers that his or her inner workings are getting in the way of the outward musical goals.
In my experience, three particular inner struggles seem to be the most common in music lessons. So I wanted to mention them here for your consideration.
1. Personal Discipline / Self Control
Probably the most common way that music students learn they need to grow is in the very practical matter of personal discipline and self control. Will you practice as often as you planned to do? Will you repeat an exercise mindfully until you can play it right? These are very simple questions, of course—very simple matters. But even so, your musical success hinges on how good you are at this self discipline—or better yet, on how good you can become at it. It’s a learned skill, and our success with it comes into play every day in many ways. Even if we’re great at it in one area, we may not yet have learned to be great at it in another. So we’ll see how well the student does it at when it comes to music lessons.
2. Paying Attention
Especially for younger students, this may come into play even in the matter of paying attention during the lesson, and in paying attention when you practice at home. That is, in having the mind engaged in what you’re doing, as opposed to just “going through the motions”. This is a learned skill, of course, and it’s not surprising if younger students, especially, still need some help with it. Students will vary greatly with this, and that’s OK. It’s just how it is. So when it comes up, we deal with it.
This is a good place to say that I see no point in being in a lesson if the student is not going to pay attention. But this is not me going off on a rant about it! On the contrary, this is me telling you what I do about it: When attention is drifting, I don’t just let it drift, because that does not help the drifting student in the least. Rather, I shift my attention—and the student’s—to the fact that he or she isn’t doing very well at that moment when it comes to paying attention. And this way, they get the kind of natural practice they need at it, rather than just being allowed to drift—which does them zero good!
The training in how to pay attention in real-time (“right now”, that is) becomes just as necessary a part of the music lesson as are executing good posture, how to finger a C chord, or how to provide proper breath support. And paying attention happens to be a fantastic life skill with tons of applications outside of music! So I think it’s very rewarding to get to be there when a student is learning this crucial life skill!
3. Invasive Thoughts
Some students discover that in the natural business of taking music lessons, they are faced with distracting invasive thoughts, usually about not “being good enough”, or about their failures, or about their fears of failing, or of performing in front of others. Facing all this can range from a gut-wrenching experience for some, to a low-level bother for others, and it frequently comes up in the studio as the student mentions something as matter-of-fact as being bothered by nervousness, or something deeper like being discouraged that their musical dreams are going to fail, and that it’s not worth going on.
Interestingly, this sort of problem seems to be the opposite of the #2 problem above. Where the one student needs to learn the skill of paying attention to what he’s doing, the student with invasive thoughts needs to learn the skill of not paying attention to those bothersome thoughts and feelings when they come up. It’s not uncommon at all for us to talk in a lesson about the value of “decoupling” from those thoughts and feelings, and continuing with the exercises—toward the goal of musicianship.
And I find it very rewarding to provide a “safe” atmosphere for students as they acquire this crucial mental/emotional skill. There’s a huge pay-off when you see the student realize that they’re actually succeeding at the very thing they were so afraid they would fail at doing!
This Is the Good Stuff!
Obviously, music lessons aren’t really supposed to be cognitive therapy sessions, but it’s not uncommon for us to brush up against our inner challenges in these three particular ways from time to time in the process of becoming good musicians (or athletes or parents or math students). I think this is just part of being human. So it’s rewarding for me to be there for a student who is working his or her way through the personal challenges that come up, whether they’re the sort to want to discuss it or not.
And it’s always fun to watch the transition—that change of demeanor that happens when it begins to dawn on a student that they are indeed learning the very musical skills they had wanted to learn, even though they had to push through some difficulties in order to do it.
You Can Do It!
I try to make it a point to let students know that their normal struggles are indeed normal struggles. They need to know this. They may be feeling insecure about it, and uncertain as to whether they should expect to succeed in this or not. After a first voice lesson, for example, if it’s true that their voice seems to be normal (and most everybody’s is), and the challenges before them normal (and most everybody’s are), I’m sure to tell them that. And it seems that many are relieved to hear it—which goes to show that they had indeed been feeling some trepidation about the question.
What You Are Doing
What you are doing in your music lessons is this: You are deciding to subject yourself to a course of study that millions before you have done. (And hopefully, the method your teacher is using is an effective and efficient one!) So no matter how great your dreams for it all, there is the very practical matter of training your body and mind in the various skills that make up the art you are wanting to learn.
I find that the students who seem to have the best time of it are those who can take a step back and watch themselves experience it as a student, and who can give themselves some slack as such. If we’re not too uptight about ourselves, it can actually be quite a fun and rewarding experience, and we can see some progress normally at every lesson. And while that progress might be small, we should certainly be able to see some quite obvious improvements with every month of lessons.
Give It Time!
For some, the biggest challenge will be not to decide immediately that “this isn’t going to work”, but to make themselves give it some time. Music lessons aren’t something that can be finished in one day. No, it’s not a short game, but a long game. And the successful musicians are those humans who learn to embrace the long game, and to keep at it. It’s a way of life. And even if music turns out to be “not your gift”, as some might decide, I do hope you’ll embrace the philosophy of playing the long game in some other pursuit.
You’ll have to set the number yourself, but it’s a very good idea to decide in advance that you’re going to take a certain number of lessons before you make any long-term decisions about your future as a musician. Zero lessons is certainly not enough, and 1,000 is certainly more than you’ll need to know how it’s going to go. But a semester or a year seems to make a reasonable milepost for measuring your potential.