Thursday, July 23, 2015

Learning to Fail

People often assume since I'm a violin teacher that I instruct my own kids, and are then surprised when I tell them I'm smart enough not to.  I already tell my kids how to do everything else, and violin is hard, and sometimes having mom criticize one more thing is too much.  There are meta-messages to overcome.  When I point out a mistake, that has a weight and a history that anyone else trying to say the same thing wouldn't be burdened with.  Criticism from mom can hurt no matter how well-meaning it is or how gently it's offered.  Because no one wants to let down mom.

But for various reasons my kids' violin instruction has fallen to me this summer.  It has been trying.  At first I was kind of excited, because I love to teach violin and have lots of ideas and materials I want to share, and I've kept my distance for many years so as to not step on another teacher's toes.  This would be a chance to be involved in a way I haven't been.  I even found pieces the three of them could learn to play together.  I couldn't wait.  Unfortunately, however, most of the lessons end in tears.

I'm a fairly patient teacher, and have often been told I'm a good one, but my kids are terrified of disappointing me, so it gets complicated quickly.  I can instruct them in other things, like cooking or archery, or almost anything else, frankly.  But violin is different.  It's at the center of most of what I do, and playing in front of me makes them nervous.  It doesn't matter how often I reassure them, or praise their efforts, or tell them hearing them play always brings me joy.  When I attempt to correct an error or push them to try something harder, they fall to pieces.  It breaks my heart.

This week's lesson with Quinn, though, we had a talk about it, and it was interesting.

The lesson started off with Quinn barreling badly through the song Long, Long Ago.  I've worked with him for the past couple of years on his piano assignments, and know from that experience that he doesn't like to be interrupted during a piece.  I let him get to the end of Long, Long Ago and then pointed out a few general places where he needed to pay better attention to what was written in the music.  I reminded him about what he needed to do to stay in tune, and where he needed to keep his bow.

I had him start again, and when he made mistakes I would explain what was wrong and have him back up a little and try to correct them.  After a few minutes of this he was sobbing.  I wiped the tears off his violin before it could corrode the varnish and asked him what he would like me to do differently so that correcting his errors wouldn't be so upsetting.  He said he didn't want to be stopped at every error, he wanted to go straight through the piece every time.

I thought about it for a second, because I often try to be accommodating to my kids requests when I can, but I had to reject this one and I told him why.  I explained that if there were a dozen errors in the piece, and we had to go straight through it over and over to address each one, not only was that inefficient, it was detrimental, because he would be actively practicing the mistakes rather than learning it the right way.  I was sorry if my way was making him unhappy, but that he needed to learn to accept it and deal.  I told him eight was too old to not be able to adapt to something so straightforward.

I asked him what made him cry when I corrected him.  He claimed it felt like I was yelling at him.  I reminded Quinn that I never yell at him.  I never yell at Mona either.  I yell at Aden from time to time because occasionally it's the only thing that gets her attention (which is maddening and frustrating), but yelling at Quinn or Mona is completely counter-productive because it renders them useless.  Yelling at Quinn to speed up, for instance, only slows him down, so we never do it.  Nonetheless, my simply pointing out that a note or a rhythm was wrong felt like yelling to Quinn because it hurt him so.  He doesn't want to disappoint me, and progress in violin is so incremental that he feels as if he's incapable of improving fast enough to please me.

I decided there were a couple of things I wanted to try to get him to understand.  The first was that if I gave him an assignment and he could do it perfectly the first time, it was the wrong assignment.  The point was to learn something new, something harder, something different, in order to add to his skill set and open him up to even more things to play.  If all we did was repeat the same easy things we'd never get anywhere.  It's supposed to be a struggle.  Not an impossible one (that would be the wrong assignment, too), but enough of one that it takes some work and gets you someplace better for having made the effort.

It seemed to relieve Quinn to hear that he wasn't expected to be good at the new songs right away.  (We've had this discussion about his piano pieces too, when he started getting frustrated that he couldn't finish them in just a week as he did at the beginning when they were simpler, but somehow this concept hadn't made its way over to violin yet.)  This got him smiling again.

The second thing I wanted him to understand was trickier.  I wanted him to know that we learn by failing.  Success feels great, but when you ask people when they really learned important lessons in life they never say it was that moment when they accepted an award or when things went smoothly.  They immediately recount some dark moment when they were tested, where things went wrong, when they were forced to confront limitations and figure out how to rise above.  We learn through struggle and hardship and mistakes.  We learn through failure.

Now, Quinn is unusually smart.  There are challenges associated with this that are hard to describe without being accused of "humble bragging", so I try to avoid it, but his test scores have alerted the school system to his abilities and we get lots of things in the mail trying to help us with our "gifted child."  One of the problems that comes with being that smart is that Quinn is not used to failing.  You show him something once and he gets it.  He's an excellent speller in a way I never was.  He's enjoying Latin.  He'll happily plug away at pages of math problems any time you hand him one.

Other kids for whom addition or division took practice know what it's like to fail at it for a while before finally having it click.  Quinn doesn't have much experience with that.  In his mixed age classroom they have spelling tests for first, second, and third graders, and he has always taken all three.  I asked him once how the teacher marked the paper when something was spelled wrong, and he didn't know, because it's never happened to him.  His classroom life has been all reward stickers and success in all subjects.

But the lessons are getting harder.  I told him we're getting past the point of all the basic things that can be grasped right away.  He's going to have to learn to deal with the discomfort of not being good at things immediately.  The downside of being smart is learning that particular lesson later than almost everyone else.  He gets told he's smart too often by people, and that puts him in a position of feeling like he shouldn't fail lest he lose part of his identity or that he may be disappointing others.  I tried to explain to him that that isn't true.

Then I told him about a test I failed recently, and what I learned from it.  My brother forwarded me what looked like a basic puzzle from the New York Times.  There were three numbers in a row (2, 4, and 8) and you were supposed run tests in order to figure out the rule that the numbers followed.  The obvious answer was that each number was doubled from the one before it, so I tried a couple of rows that fit that pattern and was told "Yes!" they worked, so I went ahead and typed in what I thought the rule was, only to find out that not only was I wrong, I was guilty of confirmation bias.  We like to hear "Yes!" so many of us unconsciously find ways to avoid hearing "No!"

Both my brothers, being talented scientists with exceptional minds, made certain to get several "No!" responses before they wrote down any sort of rule.  (Arno told me he hit 9 "No" responses before he felt comfortable offering up a theory.)  That's what you do in good science: You try to disprove what you are aiming for, and then if you can't you know you are on the possible right track.

I was embarrassed that I jumped to a conclusion so quickly and didn't seek out a "No" myself.  The interesting thing is that I do tend to do that when it comes to behavioral experiments.  I look for exceptions to the rule or alternative explanations all the time, but apparently not with numbers.  (For instance, whenever I hear another study about how children grow up to be more successful in some manner if they do sports or play music or eat dinner with their family every night, I immediately think it probably has more to do with the kinds of resources and environment that makes those things possible than the activities themselves.  Correlation does not prove causation--basic Psych 101.)  I think I may have been distracted by the similarity of the puzzle to the kinds of patterns you're expected to find quickly in basic number games.  Or maybe I'm simply not playful with numbers in that way--I find them daunting much of the time.

Whatever the case, this was something about myself I did not know before, and if I'd gotten it right I probably would have dismissed it as something anyone would do and not thought about it again.  But I failed, so I learned instead.  That's useful.

Quinn was intrigued by the idea of having to seek a negative response to something in order to get where you needed to go.  He marveled at his uncles going out of their way to get a "No!" in order to learn.  It takes courage to do that.  Avoiding failure is not something to aspire to because it means you are never doing something new.  You are never out of your comfort zone and are simply repeating yourself.  Learning to take lessons from failure can be painful, but that's the only way to truly accomplish anything.

This was a long discussion, and one that seemed to give Quinn a lot to ponder.  The tears were done and he was my bright smiley boy again.

I handed him back his violin.  We went through the piece in small sections, discussing where he usually got confused.  I showed him again how holding his hands the proper way would improve his intonation and overall sound.  He looked encouraged rather than frustrated for a change.

Quinn then ran through Long, Long Ago the best he's ever played it by far.  No real mistakes, good intonation, nice bowing.

I have no idea if any of this will stick or if we will be starting from square one (and tear central) the next lesson, but for one night we made actual progress.  It was great.  Maybe if I fail enough with teaching my own kids violin I will learn enough to be a really good teacher.  The challenge with my own kids as my students, however, is to get through their lessons in a meaningful way without their doubting my love.  I will keep trying.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Escape to the Cottage

Mona at the cottage
We got a little time up at our cottage in Michigan right after 4th of July.  Ian, the kids, and the dog all headed out first, and I followed a few days later on the ferry because I had a concert to play, but it worked out well.  With everyone gone I was able to clean areas of the house and enjoy that they actually stayed clean when I walked away from them.  (Proof I am old that that made me so happy.)

It was wonderful to be at the cottage.  It's the one place where I don't feel obligated to really do anything most of the time, and I need that periodically.  It's a place to just kind of be. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lots of Noise, Lots of Bouncing, Lots of Quiet

I hope everyone had a good 4th of July!  We certainly did.  And we took note of what things have changed and what things have stayed the same.

We went, as we do every year, to the parade in our nearby park.  Some things about it are always the same: Politicians throwing candy, antique cars blowing funny horns, the lazy band on the flatbed truck, Polish dancers, accordion players, baton twirlers, Elvis....  Missing this year were the racing sausages, and there seemed to be fewer dogs.

Elvis always brings it to the very end!

Aden and her dad

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Inside Out: The Parents' Heads

The kids and I saw the new Pixar movie Inside Out last night.  It's as good as everyone has been saying, and I agree with a lot that has been written about what an important movie this is for kids.  To have a representation of what it means for memories to be lost or viewed differently as you grow up is complicated fare for children, but it rings true, and may give many a better perspective on those ideas as they grapple with them in their own lives.  Plus, just being a good Pixar movie, it's clever and visually rich and has many jokes aimed squarely at adults that kids will grow to understand later which keeps it entertaining for everyone.  This movie will also provide you with a good cry.  (Only Mona didn't cry, but she almost never cries during movies.  She also roots for the raptors and the snakes over the bunnies, etc., during the nature shows we watch because "they have to eat too," so she's got a realistic streak that keeps her on an even keel when it comes to entertainment.  I cry at everything.)

In any case, without risking any real spoilers, I wanted to share my thoughts on one small segment of the film that I've been pondering since we left the theater: The scenes from inside the parents' heads.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Day Is It?

I was checking Facebook this morning before heading out to swim and was reminded it's the birthday of my cousin's daughter.  She's five today, which is exciting, but then I remembered that her birthday is the same day as our wedding anniversary

I kind of forgot we even have an anniversary.  I looked at Ian and said, "Hey!  Happy Anniversary!" and he looked surprised and then smiled and said, "Oh yeah!" 

Then we took a moment to do the math and realized it's been 18 years.  We are a whole-legal-to-vote-person-amount of married.  Kind of cool! 

I remember years ago in college my family threw me a surprise birthday party one year, but since I obviously didn't know about it I started the day feeling disappointed that nothing special was happening.  I was just going with Ian to my grandma's house for dinner the way we did every Sunday.  But then I realized that what was an ordinary kind of day for me was better than what many people get for a special occasion, and I had a lot to be happy about on my birthday.  And then, of course, I got to be super extra happy anyway when we pulled up to grandma's and realized everyone had gathered there. 

But I never forgot that genuine sense of contentment and joy that I came to just thinking about how good I have it in my day to day life.  Today's anniversary is like that.  I love my marriage.  I like it just the way it is day to day.  I don't need the super extra happy to enjoy it.  Big gestures and special things can be fun and exciting from time to time, but I wouldn't trade that for how nice my life is in general at its most ordinary. 

My husband spent the day doing all manner of things to keep our household running smoothly and to make our lives better.  I hope I was as helpful to him.  I think we're a good team.  (Even if we're not good at remembering to, you know, check the calendar sometimes.)

Monday, June 15, 2015

On Not Drinking

I don't drink.  I've never had a drink.  I have no interest in drinking.

This is just a regular fact of my life, so I don't give it much thought, but a little while back on a long drive with a cousin she asked me "Why not?" and I had to provide an answer.  It's interesting to try to explain something about yourself that you don't usually articulate, and it's easy to forget that something that is normal for you is different for other people.  I forget that drinking for many people is a common experience, so in case anyone is curious about a slightly different perspective, here's mine.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Latin Lessons

After almost four years we are finally getting around to Latin lessons for Quinn.

Quinn, age 4, excited about his new book
I'm not sure why he's always wanted to learn Latin, but back in 2011 to distract him from his impending tonsillectomy, I ordered him a copy of Latin is Fun online and he was really excited.

The problem was I didn't know Latin, and I wasn't qualified to teach him.  We got him other materials (he even has a copy of The Cat in the Hat in Latin), but without someone to guide us with accepted pronunciation we were kind of lost.  Latin wound up on the back burner, and there is always so much else to do it was easy to keep it there.

But I recently had a conversation with a friend who has a son the same age as Quinn who is learning ancient Greek, and he recommended we contact the Classics Department at the local university in order to find a tutor.  Turns out the same man teaches both Greek and Latin and was happy to fit in Quinn for lessons.  We've had two lessons so far and it's been a lot of fun.