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.


  1. Full(er) disclosure: While I sought a negative response to the NYX number test, my brother Arno did so to an extent that led him to the correct rule. I did not and learned from this failure. I learned as a result that I needed to avoid jumping prematurely to a conclusion. As a scientist, I work with probabilities. If I expected absolutes, I would never publish on any perceived patterns. If I did not doubt my work and the explication of that work, I would not seek review and my work would be worse off because of it. Critiques are essential and pointing out failure a difficult, but necessary component to moving in a more honest and effective direction. Learning to embrace failure as a learning tool is important and something I need to remind myself to do more often.

    1. You'd have probably gotten the right rule if you'd looked at your notes. How come you never think to look at your notes? Arno probably looked at your notes.

      I think it's interesting the way some fields overlap and how they differ. There is constant "peer review" in a sense in music every time you play a note, and we strive to get better but the "truths" we are seeking are incredibly subjective.

      Success in anything, however, is more satisfying when it is hard won, after a lot of trial and error and sacrifice. I often tell students when they are frustrated on their violin or viola that it takes hard work, which is why anyone is impressed when they finally do it well. There is seldom reason to be impressed by people playing the kazoo.

    2. I should have looked at my notes.

    3. Yeah. It's all in your notes.

    4. Next time I'll look at my notes.

  2. This is an excellent blog entry, Kory!

    I am reminded of the New York magazine article "How not to talk to your kids," which recommends praising effort over accomplishment or trait.

  3. Gosh, you are a wonderful teacher. I teach English as a second language and always tell my students that a mistake is an oportunity to learn and not the end of the world. I completely understand you. Learning can be a struggle and it is so good when you can make students understand that this is part of the process rather than a hindrance.

  4. I can't teach my kids much of anything (whether it's a skill I have or not!) so I identify with your not automatically being their violin teacher. That being said, it sounds like you are doing a great job, and have a good perspective. Like someone said above, I am also reminded of the New York Times article about how we praise kids and how they learn to handle failure. My kids haven't shown any indicators of giftedness (unless you count excessive knowledge of Mars Rovers as gifted, ha!) but I'm still trying to focus my praise on their efforts rather than their innate skills. It's hard!!