Are You Ready?

While attending my 10 year old twin boy’s Music Institute this summer we had a class with one Master Class instructor that required each student to begin their lesson by saying “I am ready to learn” and conclude with, “Thank you for teaching me.”  The interesting thing was the majority of the work with the students centered on getting them to break bad habits or make structural and/or foundational adjustments rather than learning exciting, new techniques or pieces. This required the student to tolerate close scrutiny followed by a range of often times minuscule adjustments, upending their long established and deeply ingrained playing process. Now most of us grown-ups don’t really embrace close scrutiny, especially in front of newly met peers, but probably are even more uncomfortable with having all our bad habits revealed then having to relearn basic skills followed by endless and often tedious repetition and practice, yet these children did just that with grace, humor, unbroken concentration and authentic gratitude! That even includes one of my twins, an avowed and committed curmudgeon.

It got me wondering about attitude and outlook and how it affects our willingness to look at ourselves and  our tendencies as well as life’s challenges, complications and crises. Imagine creating an approach to life events that typically are categorized as bad,  such as conflict with a friendship, a partnership break up or even job loss, with a true sense of curiosity and exploration. Shifting attention away from labels and judgments, self recrimination, blame and maintaining that shift by continually cultivating curiosity, as a way to achieve detachment, one of the key elements for emotional equanimity and stability. Our minds can only think about one thing at a time so when we are consumed with curiosity and in the flow state of discovery around a situation, we can’t simultaneously be perseverating on the injustices and difficulties of the same situation. We are much less likely to become overwhelmed with unproductive emotions or be at their mercy.

In the example of the violin students, at no point was any blame assigned by teacher or student, no emotional response provoked, simply thorough and penetrating questioning of what was occurring and why, then applied knowledge, experimentation for problem solving, followed by ongoing support and reinforcement. At no juncture was there a drop in interest, change in affect or resistance. One of my sons has a skeletal abnormality with his left (violin arm) arm and his week was spent making hand rotation and thumb height adjustments involving close examination by multiple instructors and a ton of experimentation with positioning to arrive at a functional alternative and compensation for this physical limitation. There was never a sense of being picked on or at, he never felt sorry for himself or even disadvantaged. There was simply acceptance for the reality of “what is” and a willingness to learn how to adapt and improve. Obviously the learning environment was conducive to the process by the exceptionally experienced, highly trained and deeply devoted faculty, but the population of children was pretty typical and normal; no extraordinarily enlightened kiddos here. Yet what resulted was a range  of adjustments from big to relatively subtle, reduction in strain, effort and physical discomfort but never an “easy” fix. The improvements were, without exception, substantial but all would require a long, mindful, tenacious journey of various exercises, drills and endless repetitions of early pieces to fully integrate the changes. With a different outlook the response to this process could easily have been negative, instead, it was embraced and acknowledged simply with “Thank you for teaching me.”