How You Learn

In a flute lesson with a student recently, we were working on a section of music that involved a lot of long notes tied together. At a fast tempo, it was challenging to count and stay on track simultaneously.

So, we tried it a few different ways. First, she counted out loud while I played the passage. This way she could see where the notes changed, and on what beats.

Then, we switched roles – she played while I counted out loud. When she was still stumbling a little bit, we repeated this process, but we replaced playing with singing. Things were improving slightly, but we weren’t out of the woods yet.

So, we took a pencil and wrote in slash marks where the big beats were. We zoomed in on the specific spots where the notes changed, and then wrote in the beat numbers on top of the notes.

It went much better! Just one more thing.

“Don’t play that note so long,” I pointed out. She nodded vigorously.

She tried it again, but made the same mistake, and we both laughed. Then, I tried putting it in a different way.

“Play that note a little shorter,” I said.


Things were improving, but there was still a little uncertainty. Each time we repeated this process, we took a little step forward and a little step back. I could see her mixed emotions. Frustration and clarity. Self-doubt with understanding. Her energy was palpable. Being the good student that she is, she wanted to get it, and get it as quickly as possible.

With a couple more tweaks, she finally got it!

Then, I told her to do it two more times “for good luck”. The first time was good.

“Great,” I said. “You’re doing it. One last time and then you’ll be golden.”

I knew I was putting the pressure on now. Predictably, she stumbled again on that second try.

We both laughed, and then we started talking really fast at the same time. I stopped and let her go first. She took a deep breath.

“I will just work really, really hard on this on my own, and it’ll be fine,” she said triumphantly.

I took a moment to think. Then, the whole situation hit me in a different way.

“You know what?” I said. “No. Working really, really hard on this is not what you need. I know you can do it. You know you can do it. You just did it. This is just a matter of relaxing, trusting yourself, and letting yourself count. That’s all this is.”

“Oh,” she said.

“Shake it off and try it again. Just play.”

Success. Then, I told her to leave it, and come back to it another time, remembering the place she left it today.

In the end, giving her permission to see through the anxiety and find herself was what made all the difference.

Do you have a story about learning? I’d love to hear it. Leave it in the comment section.

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