Finding the Right Teacher-part 2, music

I have been a music teacher for decades now, and every day I learn something new about how to teach effectively.

My first instructors were in orchestra, as I started as a a classical musician. Ensemble teaching is very different from one on one teaching. It is valuable to learn to play in a group of course, but there is a more pointed focus to individual instruction.

My first one on one teacher was my mother. I don’t recommend learning from a close family member! However, she taught me quite a bit. It was bandmates however, that taught me the most.

When I was growing up, there weren’t many individual music teachers around. At least not for what I wanted to learn, which was the rock genre. Though it was heartbreaking for my mother for me to leave the classical world to be a rock musician, I was much more moved by this music than classical. I was also quite the rebel, which goes along with the genre’s attitude for sure!

I was lucky enough to be in many bands with very talented musicians. I would have learned even more had I had a private instructor for weekly lessons, but I was mostly on my own for continuing education. I took courses, and did much self study.

A lot of people these days believe you can learn just about anything from the internet, and there is a lot to learn there. I teach many students that started out with looking things up, or using a book, to teach themselves. Invariably they became frustrated or very limited with their skill set. There is also a lot of misinformation in random tutorials.

My main complaint about learning from videos or books, is that you miss a very important factor that you get with an instructor. We learn skills mainly by mirroring a teacher. The mirror neurons in the brain fire when you play along with your teacher. The interaction is a very important part of the learning process. This is exactly how I was able to learn so much from bandmates.

A good instructor will tailor each lesson to the student’s skill set, and music choice. There are some instructors who teach by rote, where everyone learns exactly the same thing in the same way. I disagree with that method as I have learned that individuals have different strengths and weaknesses. Getting to know how each person learns best is part of being a flexible teacher.

There is much beyond the scope of merely being a competent musician to teach well. You also have to be a good communicator, and be able to adjust the level of difficulty of each piece so that the student is neither overwhelmed, or unchallenged.

Beyond this there is also a personal component. I have had many students come to me that had teachers that were shaming and destructive to the student’s confidence. One student I had was so afraid to make a mistake, having come from a particularly insulting and impatient instructor, that she literally shook when I asked her to play the simplest thing.

I explained to this student that we all make mistakes, and it’s very important to be comfortable making them, especially in the beginning.

Regardless of my explanation, she was still physically shaking when she played. I had her make mistakes on purpose, which normally wouldn’t be a good thing for muscle memory. It seemed to me she needed to get over the psychological hurdle first, so I had her play as sloppy as she could. Once she was able to notice that nothing bad happened, she was not admonished, we could go about the business of learning.

I don’t believe people can learn when they are busy defending themselves, or are afraid of the teacher’s responses. If you are choosing a teacher, make sure they have respect for you, and you like their approach. You are the highest authority in what is right for you.

If you are a parent of a student, it’s a good idea to sit in on a lesson to evaluate the teacher and their relational skills with your child. It’s also important to notice if your child feels good and inspired after a lesson. They may or may not come out of the lesson beaming, depending on their personality, but they shouldn’t be worried, pressured, or despondent.

Teachers have a lot of impact on their student’s confidence, and it should be positive!

FINDING THE RIGHT TEACHER-Part 1, Horsemanship

I have had many teachers and many students over the years, and finding the right teacher can make a huge difference in your success in whatever field of study. This sounds obvious, but there are deeper aspects than one may think. 

I’ll start with my experience with horsemanship. I started like many, as a kid in hunter jumper camps. 

In my late twenties, I took some jumping lessons at another hunter jumper place. I had a lot of fun, and learned some basic things. 

Later in life when I reentered the horse world, I wanted to know how to do the deep work. I didn’t really know what to call it then, because I am sure I didn’t really know what it meant, and still don’t know the breadth of it. 

In searching for a teacher, I had to go through some that I knew weren’t right for me, or the horsemanship I wanted to learn. I knew this, but did not know exactly what I was looking for.

It was simply knowing what I did not want that finally led me to what I did want.

One of my teachers seemed plenty nice and had many years of experience, and I was really interested in riding with her. I was doing my usual volunteering for chores around the farm, and noticed one of her students said her horse bit her while she was tacking up. She had tacked up at the barn, and it was at least 10 minutes later and several hundred feet away when she mentioned this to the teacher. 

I was very interested in what the teacher would say to this student, and to my dismay, she simply punched the horse in the face. Knowing what I know now, I know that not only was this brutal, but totally and completely ineffective. You would have to block the horse at the moment the bite happened, and preferably you would have seen it coming and changed the outcome. Then you would figure out why it happened and check physical issues, tack, etc.

Back then, I did not know this, but I did have a sick feeling in my stomach when I saw the teacher punch the horse. I decided if this was the horsemanship they were teaching, I did not want to learn it. I left for good that day.

I did end up finding a better teacher, and I am continuing on the path of being aware of what I’m seeing and feeling in each situation. 

My point is that if I had not followed my instincts, I might have never been introduced to what I really wanted to learn. I could have said « she is the expert, she must know what she’s doing, and what do I know anyway. » 

Anyone can hang their shingle up and call themselves a riding instructor. There are certification programs and the like, but that often means less than one would expect. Remember, the entire time you are learning from your teacher, you are also teaching the horse. This is what makes things a little different from some other areas of study that don’t involve a third sentient being (who happens to learn very quickly and be incredibly sensitive as well).

My criteria for choices start with these:

—Do I like the way the teacher’s horses move, feel, and handle. Is the horse running away from pressure or responding to a communicative feel? Does the horse seem happy and well cared for?

—Is the teacher open to questions, like « Why is it done that way? » or is the answer «Just do it because I said so. »     

—Is the teacher on the path to continued learning themselves? There is too much to learn in this art to ever be finished in the learning process. I am sure this is true of every art. Everyone I have studied with since getting on my path has continued their study with others. 

—Are you permitted to observe the teacher working with horses and/or people prior to signing on with them? 

There’s a lot more to think about after that of course, a lot of details to notice, and a lot to think about for yourself regarding how to be a good student! I have learned as much over the years about how to be a good student as I have how to be a good teacher. As that is much more than this little post covers, I will leave off with just one statement. 

Follow your intuition!

Experience, awareness, and great teachers

Today was the first day of the Buck Brannaman clinic in Sanford, NC. Watching Buck ride is a thing of beauty, and watching him work cows even more so. 

I saw so many changes in the horse’s faces and movement. This is only the first day of three, but the changes were really fascinating. 

I think I learned more about the horse’s mind during the cow work than I have to date. Watching those horses hook on, and discover their confidence, created such a big change in them. 

There is so much to learn, and every time I get a bit of awareness, I realize there is so much more to it! These masters see so much that the rest of us don’t see. I guess years of experience in doing the work has made them real experts in observation of horses and people. 

Buck was able to tell how each horse, and rider, would react to the cow work. Some of these horses had never even seen a cow, and yet, he could tell from observation what the reaction would be. That has got to be some pretty deep awareness.

The cows benefit too, from this calm and educated direction, and you can tell he really cares about their well being. 

I loved watching the horsemanship class too, as he talked about a lot of riders having trust issues. It was as though he was talking personally to me from my experience of last weekend’s clinic. I had felt pretty bad about that, and some of the folks may not have ever been bolted with, and were still uptight. It made me feel like this is a solvable problem. 

Brent gave me a big piece of the solution, and today, Buck added to it. I have helped my own music students get over their fears many times, and the solution is the same. Stretch the comfort zone a little bit, just as one does with a horse. Exposure, with direction. 

It is said the thing that kills fear is knowledge. The horses were able to explore the cows without tension, in a slow and measured way, that called up their curiosity. Observing how each horse and rider handled things, with Buck’s guidance, was real enlightening. 

Experience coupled with awareness is key. It’s easy for me to ascertain where my students are because I’ve seen and done so much of it. I can’t mention every single thing as that would be overwhelming. I work on which is the most pertinent and salient subject to address. 

I suppose that’s what all my teachers in horsemanship and aikido are doing. I am very thankful that I have access to such great teachers!

Fighting mind

This was my sixth year of riding with Brent Graef at his yearly Virginia clinic. I learn so much from him each time, but this year was huge for me. I recently had a BIG setback in my horsemanship. It took me down to not being able to turn loose at all, to an humiliating degree. 

What stemmed from a terrifying horse bolting experience seemingly fused itself to some other non horse related terrifying experiences. I tried to solve it the usual way, by fighting myself. In ki aikido, this is called fighting mind, and I had a terrible case of it. This was not directed outwardly to the horse, or other people, but inside myself. However, a fight is a fight, and I’m sure the horses I ride, even good old solid horse Ben, interpreted it that way.

I expect I will be a beginner rider for the next couple of decades at least, and I know this because I have exposure to some really great riders. My teacher, and several others at the clinic this weekend are really good horsemen/women.  

I had noticed cantering in the field would start out okay, but lacked any degree of real quality. It was either slow and tight, or fast, unbalanced and undirected. Even when riding without reins, there was this energy deep down that held me, and the horses I rode, back. I do know to ask for help, but turns out I don’t have a lot of trust in life. It was hard to accept help from people well intentioned, but lacking in an empathic understanding of my experiences.

Brent, like any great horseman, has the ability to read the energy of horses and their humans. He looked at me and said « You might have trusted someone before and it didn’t work out so well, but you can trust me.» It was real hard, but all through the weekend we had some pretty deep conversations, and I knew that he had life experiences that could relate to mine. He counseled me better than any psychologist could. 

I wanted to get back the younger version of me when I would jump anything, and just ride out laughing and free. Here I was in the clinic unable to even trot out without tension. It was the most embarrassing experience of my life. I was thinking, this is just a friggin TROT for goodness sakes. How many years have I trotted around the arena, and out in the field? What the heck is wrong with me?!

This had been brewing, and gradually taking down my canter, my trot, even down to the walk, where everything starts (after leading and groundwork of course). 

Everyone was real supportive, and I became a clinic crier. Yes, I cried. I cried because I was embarrassed, I cried because I let myself and the horse down. I cried for that bolting horse and the punishment it received from an ignorant trainer. 

Brent told me that horses can have flashbacks too. I know that to soothe a frightened horse you have to direct with compassion, kindness, and respect for their self preservation. That’s the way you would work with the human as well. I wasn’t doing that with myself though. My solution was to admonish myself more and more.

The horse world can be kind of cliquish, and sometimes there are those in the stands watching that are critical. It’s easy to imagine working with a horse from a lawn chair it seems. When I was a kid I did jump courses and I certainly did not come from the same class as the fancy horse people in my group. I don’t participate in things like that anymore, but the social shame remained. One would think it’s a kid thing, but it remains in the adult world-both the horse and music world. 

The Wiseman Farms family, and the groups that show up at Brent’s clinic, are there for good horsemanship. Not only was there no judgment, but there was compassion, and several people shared their « riding and crying » experiences. My teacher told me not to be embarrassed. She said « it shows you’re doing the work. » 

As surprising and embarrassing as it was, It really brought home the saying that you’re not working on the horse, you are working on yourself. 

Getting a Grip

Today I attended a webinar of Feldenkrais awareness through movement. There was an interesting exploration anyone can quickly try for themselves. It’s often easier to be aware of the internal body if you close your eyes. 

Clench your fists, and feel what happens to your neck, your chest, your tongue, your breath. Many other parts of the body will become tight as well. What does this have to do with daily life? We often grip things too tightly; our cup of coffee, the guitar, our reins when we ride. Sometimes this is a habit of anxiety as well.

I teach my vocal students that about 90 per cent of vocal problems come from poor use of the breath. After that, it is tightening of the jaw, tongue and throat. The tongue is connected to the hyoid bone, and these connections move all over the body. One tiny contraction affects all of you.

In Ki Aikido, one of the four ki principles is relax completely. This does not mean the kind of slumped on the couch relaxation, but allowing the skeleton to support you, and releasing any unnecessary muscle contraction. You are stronger and more effective in movement when you do this.

In horsemanship, it is often pointed out that the horse feels everything so acutely. You can tighten your pinky toe and it will affect your horse. Our hands are particularly prone to over gripping. As the reins connect to the bit, and directly to the horses tongue, on to the hyoid, and throughout the whole horse, one can easily imagine how hand gripping affects the horse. 

I have been practicing martial arts and Feldenkrais for years now, and I still have habituated movement. I can only imagine how tight and constricted I was before I started these practices!

Another Ki Aikido principle is that the mind leads the body. This makes me ponder how I grip mentally; holding onto certain beliefs, dogmas, or opinions. 

Lately I’ve experimented with talking to people or reading posts of people who have a different paradigm than myself. It’s interesting to notice my mind, and then my body, tighten up as a natural tendency we have of wanting to be right and convince others they are wrong. It has been enlightening to simply listen and be aware of what is happening in the body-mind. It can be a challenge, but I think it will make me more open minded, and thus, freer in my movement. 

Try the clenched fists exploration and notice what you feel!

Verbal language vs body language

Many years ago I was advised by a martial arts teacher to pay a lot more attention to what people do, rather than what they say. This advice was given to me as I was having difficulties with one of my teachers. My teacher at that time appeared rather cold and unfriendly towards me. I didn’t understand it. I knew the teacher had a bit of social anxiety, but still I took things personally, particularly because I was an incredibly hard working student. 

My martial arts teacher asked me many questions about our interactions, and during the discussion I realized that though this teacher was not « warm and fuzzy, » she had gone out of her way to create opportunities for me. I was astounded at how I did not realize or fully appreciate the great opportunities she provided me with, but was only looking for words.

I love words, and have more than once fallen for relationships with those with a « silver tongue. » There are some who are congruent in both word and deed, or course, but it is most interesting to notice when someone, or we ourselves, are not. In aikido, we call this mind/body unification (or lack thereof). 

I have always been interested in body language, and took courses in micro expressions for a time (as taught by Paul Eckman). Given that over ninety per cent of our communications are non verbal, it seemed like a great tool to understand others better.

Horses, and all animals, read our true intent by our body, expression, and energy. It is interesting to watch videos of public figures, and try to ascertain their true expression. Is what they say and present congruent? I suppose it would take an enormous amount of expertise to really read this well, so while I wouldn’t recommend a flippant conclusion, it is an interesting experiment. 

In regards to my previous blog, I mentioned I was listening a whole lot more, and learning a lot in the process. A whole day may go by with me not speaking a word, if I am working with horses and not my music students. I wonder how much the horses and other animals around me are noticing about my body language. You can’t fake your state of mind.

Horses will read the truth about us, and probably in a subconscious manner, so do other humans. I will never be an expert in body language in comparison with a horse, and I shudder to think what they know about me that I don’t know myself. 

If you feel like you are bummed out, tired, or ineffective, which in this crazy time we are all going through, try imagining yourself as your favorite athlete or teacher-someone really effective and pro at what they do. For me, it might be my aikido sensei’s or one of my horsemanship teachers. Imagine them, and try on what you imagine is their body language. It might just change your emotions. 

Listening (like the wise old owl)

Listening

I started and stopped several blog post ideas since my last one. Not for lack of material, but actually too much material. 

Everything seems to be amping up in the world right now, and I’m sure everybody feels pulled in many directions. When I start to feel that way, I tend to resort to my somewhat hermit tendencies.

Not in the sense of holing up at home. 

I am out and about every day working with horses, whether riding or bodywork. I have a full roster of virtual guitar, bass, and vocal students. We are also having virtual aikido classes, not only from my dojo, but the Ki dojos in South Carolina, and Hawaii. In some ways, things are busier than ever.

It’s more like being a hermit in my communications. I have noticed I am even more quiet than I have ever been. I’ve never been fond of small talk, but now more than ever I am really just trying to listen.

Whether listening to my own mind chatter and practicing not reacting to it, or listening to students, I’m finding it quite refreshing to have very little to say. 

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and while you are talking you can tell they are just waiting to interject something and weren’t listening at all? I think we’ve all been on both sides of that coin.

No one likes to feel unheard, and many of those are our animals. Being mostly non verbal, the only way they have to communicate with us is with their body language. 

When a horse or other animal is trying to communicate we are sometimes so much in our own thoughts that we don’t hear the subtle signals. They feel they have to practically scream to get our attention.

With bodywork, I notice that if I will let the horse or dog tell me where I need to be working, rather than go to the spot that is « the problem » they will guide me to do what’s best for them. They are more in touch with their bodies than most humans.

With students, I have noticed a similar thing-they will teach me how to teach them. I suppose it’s the same when working with anyone. If we can be present enough to listen, we will learn the best way to respond.  

There’s a fun poem that the late great horseman Tom Dorrance recited:

A wise old owl lived in an oak

The more he saw the less he spoke

The less he spoke the more he heard

Why can’t I be like that wise old bird

Something to ponder. I hope everyone that reads this is well and happy!

RESILIENCY

There are two definitions for resiliency:

1-the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

2-the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity

In this very difficult time in our society, one has to tap into every bit of this quality. It is very interesting to me the incredible recovery of much of nature; from the canals in Italy clearing up and fish appearing in just weeks-to the incredible lack of air pollution. There is much to learn from nature!

I am seeing and feeling a lot of fear in myself, and others. I think this is a natural reaction. Some of my music students, too young to really understand what is going on, are having a very difficult time understanding why they can’t see their friends and participate in their usual activities. I am hoping my virtual lessons with them will give them some respite and expression for their feelings.

Others in the world are merely trying to survive, and though some people have a much less desperate situation, all of our feelings should be validated and acknowledged.

That said, there is a bigger picture. Much is coming out about the horrific wild animal markets, in addition to other areas where humans have dominated and misused the earth. We are all connected, we are part of nature, and anything that happens in one small part, affects the whole. 

It is hard to see the big picture, and what the earth is trying to say to us, when we are worried and concerned about how we will fare in all this. Yet, we must take care of ourselves first and foremost, in order to be of help to others.

I am reminded often when I work with horses, how quickly they recover from their fear. Being a flight animal, fear has been their survival tactic. They recover quickly. Fear is wired into us also, but we seem to have lost the skill to recover quickly. 

When in the midst of intense anxiety, our bodies contract, our breathing gets shallow, and our vision narrows. I think this cuts down on the ability to see the big picture, not just what is happening around the globe, but solutions to our own difficulties. 

I think the more we can learn to acknowledge our fear, and recover quickly, the more we can influence what seems to have become a fear based society. As one of my favorite horsemen says « the answer is forward and calm. »

Fear, Teaching, and Learning in this Age of Uncertainty and the « What Ifs ».

Today I taught many virtual music lessons. Some kids, some adults. Nearly everybody was wanting to express themselves, via songwriting, or just playing. There were bits on the news with residents of Italy singing and playing on their balconies. It felt kind of the same today with many of my students. Which felt to me, like hope. 

Seems we all need to express ourselves and connect. At the same time, we have to distance and hunker down for what certainly appears to be some sort of end of the world scenario. It is SO scary!

In all of this, we are all trying to do the best we can to keep ourselves sane, safe, and still connected.

Before teaching, I drove the hour and some to see my horse, and give him a cranio sacral session. He really enjoyed it-he let out a lot of stress. I thought to myself, no matter what else happens, I am going to be present with him and ask what he is feeling. He had a lot of releases, and I really think our beautiful animals are sensing the stress the whole human populace is feeling. 

There are many things going through my mind-many different scenarios, and imaginings. It’s only when I can be truly present (which hasn’t been easy!) that I can be effective. 

Only a week or so ago I was concerned-so concerned!-about the various challenges with my horsemanship with various horses. This week, it is mere survival. 

Will my student’s be able to still take lessons from me next month? Will everyone be completely broke and unable to do music lessons, equine bodywork, and the things I can offer? I certainly hope not. The only thing I CAN do NOW is just be the best I can at whatever I am doing. 

My aikido sensei’s sent out a mail after the dojo had to close-it was that we train to be calm and effective in normal times so that we can be calm and effective in crazy times like these. The last seminar was from a sensei who had been in very extreme circumstances, and had to learn how to not only survive, but thrive, in those circumstances. 

Now I find myself in the same place. Little bits of presence and calm are appearing, here and there. With my horse today, and with my students today. The woods were magnificently showing signs of spring. I enjoyed them, but with a little bit of « what if » thinking creeping in. 

Doing virtual lessons with students I often heard a bird outside their house, coming through via our virtual connection-birdsongs of mockingbirds, pileated woodpeckers, and robins. Several times the family dog had a voice in everything going on around the house.

So, while I am very concerned about what the future may hold, I am taking some solace in hearing the birds, signs of spring, the may apples blooming in my yard, and the inexhaustible expression of creativity and life. 

Many thanks to the kids I taught today who are undeniable in their joy of just being, and the horses in their amazing ability to teach us to be present in the moment!

I wish for all of us to be healthy, happy, and full of wonderful insights once this time has evolved into something (hopefully) much better!

‘Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty’-Mark Twain

Today I read this quote:

Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.’-Mark Twain

It is humorous because it is true! It seems the more I know the more I realize I don’t know. It can indeed, be miserable in the moment.

While working with a horse today, I was having difficulty doing some things under saddle which I felt « should » (a terrible word in and of itself) be easy. We had done the movements many times before.

I know what to do in those instances, first check for pain or physical discomfort. I did that. Then check how I’m asking, what he’s telling me. All the various things to assess the problem. Checked all the boxes. 

Still having the issue, I thought well, how about the opposite of what I had asked for. Lets go to square one. It kind of worked, but by then I’d gotten myself in a mental knot. I was able to end our time on a good note, but the feeling of discomfort with my solutions stayed with me. 

Fast forward to the end of a long day and one of my most challenged human students. She’s a wonderful little kiddo, who has ADHD. She does really well with the physical process of playing and singing, but focusing for the music theory part is a huge challenge for her. 

I can’t just avoid teaching music theory and be a good teacher, so I started out with it. We did well but it was a little stressful, and I can’t help thinking there could have been an easier way to go about things. 

Once I got home, and had some quiet time to reflect I noticed that my jaw was tight, and my shoulders were raised. 

All I have learned in Ki Aikido and in Feldenkrais Awareness lessons tell me that the mind is reflected in the body. As horses and humans are responsive to one’s body language more so than any verbal language, it caused me pause to wonder. 

Could the « miserable uncertainty » to which the quote refers reflect our trying too hard-getting over focused and overly analytical? Could trying to analyze all the options when something is not working actually decrease intuitive awareness of undiscovered options? 

I don’t have the answer yet, but I think I have a hint that becoming more comfortable with uncertainty might open up new possibilities. 

The next time I find myself getting uptight in teaching and learning situations, I hope I remember this lesson.

What works for us at one time and situation may not work in another. Or as I’ve heard from my own teacher so often, « adjust, adjust, adjust. »