Never, Ever Give Up- You Can Do It!

I watch my students struggle and stress and strain to learn a new idea or skill. Some will accomplish it- others will throw up their hands and cry, complain, get angry with me and finally quit. The ones that make it through those hard skills will likely continue on to be successful in many things. Those that quit will likely do well in some things but not many things. Granted, this is just my opinion (and years of teaching and observing students).

I am completely fascinated with seeing the progress of students and trying to figure out what might help them succeed in music. Why do some excel and others, as they say “pack it in?” I’ve been reading up on the four stages of competency- most of you teachers will have heard of this. Initially explained as the “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill,” it was developed in the Gordon Training Institute by an employee named Noel Burch in the 1970’s. So this is how it goes: Stage one- Unconscious incompetence. The student doesn’t know or understand how to do something and is blissfully unaware of that fact.
This is the stage I see a lot. “my mom wants me to take _______ lessons and I really just want to play video games!” Sometimes the person isn’t even aware that they don’t know what they think they know. One time I was looking for a new accompanist to play for a church choir and worship services. I put an ad in the newspaper and many people came to audition. I was amazed at the number of people who came that didn’t read music! I mean-not at all. Interesting…. Stage two- Conscious incompetence. The student doesn’t know how to do the thing but recognizes the value in learning it.
Most of my beginning students are at this stage. They really want to learn to play the ukulele, for instance, and they come to class ready with instrument in hand, but quickly learn how much they don’t know, that their fingers are going to be sore and that they are going to have to practice- every day.  This is especially hard for older adults who don’t learn as quickly as young students. And God bless them for sticking it out! These are the ones I admire the most. It isn’t easy but they are hanging in there. You know who you are, my friends, and let me just say:  Yay, you guys!
Stage three- Conscious competence. The student knows how to do the new skill and it requires a lot of concentration to accomplish it.
I can’t decide if I like this stage or dread it. The student knows how to do the thing you are teaching them and sometimes they think that’s good enough. It reminds me of the t-shirt that my son’s university swim team was wearing that said “When Good Enough Isn’t.” It requires so much concentration to accomplish the skill at this stage. Sometimes it’s good enough. I learned to play (Fill in the blank) and that’s all I needed to know. But if they could just can just hang in there a bit longer they can get to….
Stage four- Unconscious competence- through practice and much repetition the skill has become routine, a matter of course. This is the big pay off! When you can do the thing you’ve been learning without thinking of how to do it. You just hit that beautiful backhand down the line for a winner in tennis. You’ve played that concerto that you’ve been working on without mistakes for the first time from memory. You’ve driven mom’s car for the first time to the grocery store and back without shaking out of your skin that you’ll run into a tree. We call this “playing out of your mind.”

Absolutely everything we learn to do has to be funneled through this “system” of learning- we have to create the pathways in our brains or the muscle memories that make it happen and when it does- magic, grace, beauty, love, success! Maybe the rest of our lives are like this as well. I really don’t want to spend a ton of time in the Unconsciously Incompetent stage- I think this is the place where life happens to us and not the other way around.
I enjoy the work of the Russian composer, Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (November 12, 1833 – February 27, 1887), but what I think I like best about him is that he was a chemist, a physician, a woman’s rights activist, AND a composer. Some would say he was an over achiever. I would like to think that he wasn’t satisfied with Unconscious Incompetence.
Enjoy the music!
We’ll talk soon,

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