Overthinking It

Teaching adult students always creates a completely different teaching experience than teaching children. They like to chat a lot more and almost always struggle to find time to practise. It’s hard to know if it’s this lack of practise that make progress difficult for them or if it’s because as adults, who may have never played music before (or may only rudimentary musical skills) struggle to grasp such a completely new and unique challenge.

I’d like to think it’s the former. I think an adult learner sometimes forgets that the reason kids progress so much is not so much because their brains are like information sponges, it’s because they actually collate 20 minutes a day’s worth of information to fill their brain with in the first place.

Well, that’s what I keep telling myself because I don’t want to get old and lose the ability to learn new things.

Too much abstraction

My most recent adult saxophone student is in his 50s and has adopted a learning style where he first tries to figure out what note letter he’s playing then tries to convert that into a finger position. He goes from reading the stave and the note head, spotting an A (for example), then gets his two fingers in place.

“No, you’re creating extra effort for yourself,” I say. “You’re doing two levels of conversion. Use the visual clues of the notes on the stave. That line equals this many fingers, this line equals that many fingers. As the notes ascend, take fingers off, descending, put fingers on again.”

This student was basically over thinking it. Normally I want students to think more and be less impulsive but this was the other end of the spectrum that was bordering on paralysis. What was needed was to forget about notes for a moment and just get used to the fingers moving.

Going with the flow

For all the struggles though, this student can actually pull off an entire one octave C major scale, which is a fantastic achievement in itself. It also affords an opportunity to wean him off the overthinking and more into the flow of just moving the fingers. I’ve been making it part of the lessons to make sure that he’s getting used to ascending and descending through the keys without thinking about it so much. The main stumbling block is getting the middle finger C, which breaks the pattern. Gosh, that’s proven a struggle but as I said to him, he’s trying to do something with his fingers that’s completely new to him and that’s why its so important to keep at it.

Ultimately the goal is to see a note on the stave, recognise it as being x number of fingers (not so much about what letter it is, because it doesn’t matter), observe the general shape of the music (is it going up or down) and then move the fingers accordingly.

Ah, but even then, he really, really wants to work out the note. “That’s ahhh, that’s a B.” He then plays a C. I smile and say. “See, it’s not helping you much. Even if you know what letter it is, it’s not where your fingers instinctively want to go. Just know that that middle line is going to be one finger and then add or remove fingers as the music goes up and down.”

Adult students are a stubborn bunch. Trying to convince them of these ideas take a little while but I’ll wear him down.


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