Self-delusion: the act of deluding oneself or the state of being deluded by oneself especially concerning one’s true nature, abilities, feelings, etc. “They know what they are doing is wrong. And it’s our job to remind them of it. Because when we don’t continually remind them, people devolve into self-delusion.” ¹
Doesn’t that sound like a perfect description of a violin teacher’s job?
As discussed in Part 1 of this post, self delusion is common to the whole human race. Some of us are more aware, or less self-deluded, than others. For example, there are people who sit on mediation cushions eight hours a day to see through the illusion that is life in general. Although a worthy occupation, most of us don’t, thank heavens, or very little would get done.
In fact, most of us can go through life very nicely without ever confronting our self-deluding optimism (see the previous post). But the study of the violin means we have to come face to face with and conquer this tendency if we want to learn to play well.
In the course of the study of the violin (or any musical instrument) there many concrete common misconceptions that lead to self delusion. And these are problems that we teachers can actively do something about without sending our students into the black hole of despair.
Here are a few of them:
TIME IS A CONSTANT
No it isn’t. Even physicists will tell you that time can be slowed down and sped up, if you’re going at the speed of light or close to it. But for our purposes, we’re talking about the clock ticking time we’re all used to. Even then time is a perception, not a reality – unless you’re looking at said clock. For example, when you’re having fun, time flies. When you’re not, any little thing seems to take forever. That’s proof enough. Same thing for when a student is playing – he may be convinced that he is not rushing when in fact he is. That is why teachers inflict metronomes on their students. It isn’t that students can’t count or don’t have a good sense of rhythm. It’s because they are doing something so complicated that involves total mental and body involvement, their perception of time is altered. (See Mount Rush-no-more…And How to Get There) So a student may think, or want to think, he is playing perfectly in time when in fact, he is constantly rushing. Self-delusion.
WHAT WE THINK WE HEAR IN PLAYING IS IN EFFECT WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING
Have you ever recorded yourself talking and then listened to the recording? Quite a shock, isn’t it? We hear our own voices when we talk from inside our heads but it’s quite a surprise to realize that others don’t hear what we hear. This is an understandable self-delusion that music students suffer from. That’s why we need teachers – and sometimes recording devices. The problem with playing the violin, or any instrument, is that we have to listen to what we want to do while actually listening to what we are actually doing. That means you’re doing two things at once, you might say. No, you’re doing one thing at a time but very quickly. We just have to realize that:.
- You have to know what you want to hear – most students don’t and we have to help them with this and
- You have to listen to hear if you are actually accomplishing it. This means training the brain to work even faster than usual – again they need our help.
In my opinion, the most difficult thing to teach students (I’m talking about beginners but lots of advanced students need help with this, too), is to listen to themselves. They can’t correct what they can’t or don’t want to hear. This is the biggest cause of self-delusion as far as I’m concerned. They don’t know how to listen to themselves, and/or they don’t care to. In the first case, the teacher bears some measure of responsibility. In the second, it’s much easier to think you’re doing fine instead of bothering to listen and correct.
I have a theory about prodigious children. The difference between them and others is not a good ear (intonation), sense of rhythm, or intelligence – or even facility. Someone is bound to disagree with me, but I have taught my fair share of them and this is what I have noticed:
- They know what they want to hear.
- They get incredibly frustrated when they don’t hear it (I’m talking about very young ones) which means they’re listening to themselves.
- This means they self correct, with the help of an understanding teacher, much faster than other even very talented and more intelligent students. If you hear your mistake, you can fix it – no self-delusion here. If you don’t, you won’t.
- This lack of self-delusion means they develop good practice habits much faster than others, always helped by a very understanding teacher.
YOUR STUDENT IS LAZY
You’re right about this. Your student is indeed lazy – and so are you and I. Or rather our brains are. (See Getting Our Children to Reason Before Reacting) Why is the brain lazy? it consumes 25% of what we eat and 20% of what we breathe. It wants to work as little as possible so we have enough energy left over to walk down the street and do the dishes. This contributes to self-delusion. The brain says, “you didn’t really play that note out of tune – it’s good enough, just go on…” We have to fight with this tendency to laziness we all have and overcome our own egos which always want to present ourselves in the best possible light to ourselves, forgetting that other people see through it. Other people meaning, in this case, us benighted violin teachers who are in the forefront of making our students self-aware, whether we realize it or not.
And then my violin teacher friend asked one last question:
“Also, there must be a fundamental confusion in students regarding ‘How do I feel playing the violin vs. how well am I playing objectively.’ If somehow that confusion of feeling could be separated from the judgment of “how well am I doing?,” I wonder if many of our teacher-student struggles would be easier to manage.” Yes, indeed.
THE STUDENT IS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT HOW HE FEELS WHEN HE’S PLAYING INSTEAD OF ABOUT WHAT HE HEARS
This means the student is listening subjectively, instead of objectively, and thus doesn’t pay the proper attention to his mistakes. His physical comfort, or rather what he’s used to feeling, both physically and/or emotionally, precludes his listening objectively to what he’s doing and also saves him the trouble of fixing whatever problem he hears. It’s a two for one bargain. Of course, he should ask himself, “How should I get this to feel to make it sound better, be in tune, etc.?” Again, the body and the brain like what they’re used to and it really does take an almost superhuman effort to overcome bad habits – even at an advanced level. Again, teachers can help to help students reverse this process.
I can give a perfect example of these last two “delusions” working together. I recently saw a video of a well known pedagogue teaching a 2nd year university violin major. They were working on a high level sonata. When he asked her to play the melody (a few simple notes) in a certain phrase, she played one of the five notes out of tune. He stopped her, asked her if there wasn’t something there that bothered her and she replied that it was choppy. The teacher said, “No, didn’t you notice that there was a note out of tune?” She tried out the phrase on the fingerboard without the bow and said, “Oh that one.” “Why?” he asked. The answer: “Because I don’t have the right shape in my 4th finger.” This is an answer I would expect from my middle school (at the latest and even then) students, but certainly not from someone studying a very difficult sonata with a famous pedagogue while only playing five notes slowly. How much self-delusion was there here?
- It’s not important enough to fix
- The teacher won’t notice (this is my favorite delusion)
- That note wasn’t really out of tune
- It doesn’t matter
- I can’t fix it
All to avoid changing how her fourth finger felt to get that note in tune! A classic case of lazy brain plus having her focus in the wrong place – or order: how her finger feels first and intonation second. She was accepting the wrong position of her 4th finger because she was comfortable with it and then also accepting the consequences, instead of thinking about what she has to do to get the note in tune and then practicing it so that the correct position becomes the new normal, the new comfort zone. Was this “delusion” her previous teachers’ fault? Perhaps. Did her parents constantly telling her how wonderful she is (if they indeed did) contribute? It’s a possibility. But couldn’t we say that she is far enough along in her studies to realize the importance of good technique? I mean a 4th finger problem at this stage in her career???!!! This is self-delusion and avoidance at a very high level. Needless to say, well-known pedagogue didn’t let her get away with it. But the question is, will she buckle down and take his advice or will she continue to deceive herself? The choice is hers to make. Will she? Stay tuned…
So it all comes down to choices, informed choices that our students must continually make. It’s up to us to give them the information to help them become aware that they are consciously or unconsciously making choices every time they take their instruments in their hands. What do they prefer: to take charge of the situation or let their various bits make decisions for them? This means becoming aware that they have the choice not to be victims of their biology. The student above, for example, can choose good playing over her comfort, as her teacher rightly pointed out to her, and take the appropriate steps. Students can choose good playing by practicing as instructed instead of taking short cuts. They can choose good playing by learning to listen to themselves and even making a recording to learn the awful truth (this is something I inflict on my students only when I have tried everything else as it’s too painful). Students can choose good playing by understanding how their perception of time can alter their playing and counteract it. Students must be made aware that it comes naturally to our brains and personalities to pick the easiest route, i.e., make the wrong choice while practicing. But every time they make the wrong choice, consciously or not, there will be consequences – sometimes immediate and sometimes not to be felt until it’s too late.
Above all, they do have a choice not to fall victim to self-delusion, self-deceit and avoidance in order to be happy, or maintain the status quo. Instead by constantly and consciously stretching beyond their natural inclinations and defense mechanisms, they can find happiness and satisfaction in a job well done.
Yes, awareness is the first step. But like any first step, it’s also the most important one.
Post author: Eloise Hellyer
With many thanks to David Russell and Matthew Zerweck who both keep my feeble brain in overdrive.
¹Jessica Valenti. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/self-delusion).