On Progress and Getting Stuck

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redqueenA few months ago, my friend Sarra sent me a link to an interesting post on The Fluent Self blog about different phases of skill level. It is worth reading in its entirety, but the executive summary is as follows:

Beginners don’t need to be given challenges because everything is challenging.

In an advanced practice, you find challenges, because you have a conscious, intentional relationship with yourself and the world around you.
It’s the middle you want to watch out for. When you need other people to create challenges for you.

Most people think the middle is where you are until you get good, but the middle is where you stay until you decide it’s time to be conscious.

This is an intriguing observation, and I’m finding it resonates in all kinds of ways with my observations of how people develop musically.

First, it recalled an anecdote I read in Heinrich Neuhaus’s The Art of Piano Playing, about someone overhearing a pianist practising single notes very slowly, and asking who the student was – but in fact it was one of the major soloists of the day. (I forget who – I borrowed the book from my piano teacher in 1990 and the details are getting fuzzy now).

Then I wondered whether the traditional conservatoire model of music education risks keeping people in the middle. The primary relationship with your first-study teacher encourages a degree of dependency, and the structure of the programmes encourages a focus on progressively harder music, faster technical exercises, longer practice sessions.

Having said that, the old-fashioned culture of the dictatorial professor laying down what a student should do in every detail is largely a thing of the past. These days students typically have more than one instrumental/vocal teacher, which pretty much guarantees they’re going to encounter differences of opinion and thus start doing some thinking for themselves. But still, it’s useful to think about the shape of the model and the dangers it may pose.

And there are plenty of people in that world living in the middle for at least some of the time. And the problem with this is, I think, not just that people are looking outside themselves to make progress, but that in this mode progress gradually stalls. It’s when you’re driven by external structures rather than internal desires that you find yourself pushing up against a glass ceiling of possibility. You get like the Red Queen, so that running as fast as you can just about keeps you in the same place.

And it’s interesting to note that this can happen at any stage of development. For me, as a pianist, it happened when I was 18 as I over-practised myself into failing an ARCM diploma with a grim inevitability from which it never occurred to me to try and escape. I’ve also seen it happen in different students at just past beginner level, at grade 7, and at postgraduate level. It is indeed a function of your relationship with what you do, not of your current skill level.

So the middle is a state of mind rather than a stage of development – even though the idea is presented in developmental terms. And I suspect we may hop in and out of the middle as we develop over time, and as our attention wanders.

Sometimes, developing an advanced practice is central to your life. You’re mindful and focused, deep in flow. Other times, other aspects of your life intrude and demand the cream of your attention, and you put your practice into a holding pattern. It’s difficult to do your most innovative work at the same time as moving house, for instance. At these points, having a set of routines to keep you connected to the practice while your attention is elsewhere is no bad thing.

And indeed, The Fluent Self is a kindly blog, and frequently re-iterates the importance of not beating ourselves up over, say, finding ourselves in the middle. It’s just a useful way of looking at the world that can give a little insight into how we’re getting on, and what might need to happen to make it more satisfying.

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