The Google-ization of Music Students

Many of you know that I’ve moved to the Atlanta area for some exciting teaching and performing opportunities, but many probably don’t know that I’m commuting to Pennsylvania twice per month for other exciting work. As a consequence of my commute, I have a lot of time to myself in planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ve spent much of this time listening to some wonderful audiobooks (send suggestions; I’m running out of things to listen to!) to both stay awake and broaden my horizons at the same time. One of the books I’ve recently “read” (and we’ll just allow the word “read” from now on, even though my “reading” is really just “listening”) is Malcolm Gladwell’s pretty cool book, Outliers. The book jacket blurb says: 

There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them-at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. And in revealing that hidden logic, Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential.

Human potential is really quite fascinating, especially when one views it from a music teacher standpoint, even as a performer. One concept stood out to me, and it came toward the end of the book. First, let me say that I’ve had some trouble convincing students to practice. The idea that success (or getting better) is a reward unto itself seems to be lost on middle school students, and barely registers in the minds of older students. I’ve taken to bribing students to practice. Just practice. Not even get better; just to practice! Whether I give out stickers to an elementary school-aged student or a fancy Rubix cube to a middle school-aged student, nothing better promotes practicing than a tangible reward.

Why is it that my students don’t wish to practice? Do they not want to get better? No, that couldn’t be it. Do they not know how to practice? Well, that’s certainly a possibility, but one that I try to help them with. I think it’s simpler - and simultaneously much more complex - than any of that. I think that students, especially high-performing students, are taught to be “lazy,” and don’t know how to work hard.

This brings me to the Gladwellian concept I mentioned above:

"You master mathematics if you are willing to try. Success is a function of persistence and doggedness." (emphasis mine)

It’s as simple as that. If you try, if you contemplate a problem and work through solutions, if you are tenacious, if you first fail - then try again! - and subsequently learn from your failures, you will eventually succeed. With my students, I find that the “eventually” part of that statement is where the problem lies. My students aren’t willing to wait for “eventually.” They want it now. And I think that this “laziness” is a product of the education system in America, the “Google-ization” of the world, and most don’t even realize they fall into the “lazy” category. There are some things left that just take time. Some things are just hard and require tedious work. Music is one of those things. (The fact that being interested or - gasp! - partaking in some of these time consuming things affords one the moniker of an "elitist" is insulting, but that's another blog.)

I am honestly not sure if the education system in the U.S. is teaching students to work through problems, to struggle to find solutions. My guess - based entirely upon anecdotal evidence seen on Facebook - is that my parents and their contemporaries were never really taught to struggle through hard things, and they (logically) passed that on to their children. Since every generation is supposed to have it better than their parents, one can conclude that parents who didn’t struggle through problems would hope that their children would struggle even less than they did.

My anecdotal Facebook evidence comes from the minor uproar over new Common Core math standards, in particular one subtraction problem and the method suggested to students to find the answer. Here’s a picture:


The “new” method is process based. The “old fashioned” method that so many are calling “more logical” is answer-based. The end, in the old case, justified the means. Students don’t learnhow to subtract, or even what subtraction is, they only learn to find the answer in the simplest way possible. While this may seem like semantics, it’s incredibly important. And this is where music comes in: students are only worried about the solution, the end, the final product. They aren’t interested in the process, and why should they be?! They’ve never had to care about the process before! I have one student who plays scales for me, ending each scale by flipping the bow off the string in a dramatic conclusion, with a little flourish of (not-so-great-stop-doing-that) vibrato. This student is only interested in ending the scale and looking fancy while doing it. The process, the means, of playing and practicing the scale are not interesting. So while the last note might sound nice (even this is not a guarantee), the rest of the scale is out of tune, with bad tone, and really poor bow control. If this student can’t even focus on fixing a scale, how will that difficult section in the assigned repertory - that isn’t getting better, week after week - get any better?

So, in short, students want to be great performers, they want to enjoy the inherent applause after the performance, but they don’t know how to work through a problem, nor do they really care to do so even if they did know how! High-performers, gifted students, and their ilk (it should be said that I think most, if not all, of my students fall into this category) have an even harder time tackling a problem in their practicing. My guess is that they’ve never been presented with a problem that they couldn’t immediately decipher, and if they have been presented with one of these difficult problems, they didn’t spend that much time on it. In Outliers, Gladwell states that American students spend significantly (I can’t remember the numbers exactly; this is the downfall of an audiobook versus physical copy: I can’t just look it up) less time working on a difficult problem before giving up and moving on to something else than their worldly counterparts.

Solutions to this problem? Perhaps it’s a matter of insisting that students work on only one thing until they get it right: If any of my students are reading this, they’ll be (mostly) unhappy to learn that I’ll be requiring a different type of practice from here on: process-oriented, detailed, small-scale, intelligent practice. This means that one or two small problem spots will be identified; solutions will be sought out in the lesson; methods of practicing will be suggested; and those few, small problem spots will be the only thing to be practiced during the week. In other words, small-picture, slow-moving practicing. There is nothing wrong with spending 45 minutes working through a difficult measure of music, or perfecting a problem shift, or even going over a particularly tricky string crossing. It is my hope that students will realize that the time spent to fix a small problem once leads to faster practicing later (when the original problem is sure to reoccur, this time with the solution at hand)!

It should be noted that I don't think the "small-picture" approach to practice is the ONLY thing, rather, it is one important thing that students and practicers should focus on when practicing. If the “system” doesn’t already encourage such detailed work in the classroom, I think that it should.