After climbing for hours in the thin air of Colorado my son and I reached what we thought was the summit of our first 14'er. Descending climbers quashed our hopes by informing us that we had only reached the first of a series of false summits. To reach the true summit, it would take bursts of effort to power us over these little peaks. Finally, at the summit we were greeted by incomparable vistas and a sense of accomplishment that made the extra effort worthwhile.
One of the things that I came to appreciate about the dreaded false summits in mountain climbing is that they give you a chance to break an otherwise continuous climb into shorter segments. You can catch your breath. And appreciate take in the views.
My climb this summer was not unlike one of the most difficult tasks for Suzuki parents in the practice room. When children face a difficult spot in a new piece, it can seem like trying to make it to the peak in one push. The key is to put our own false summits along the way. Find the tough spots and break them into smaller tasks.
A philosophical perspective
Q: How small do you make the task? A: As small as needed to give the child a sense of accomplishment while still making progress toward a bigger goal. That's it.
How to find the trouble spots
Undoubtedly the teacher will have pointed these out already. But these are also the spots that end up causing frustration and fatigue. When the child starts kvetching about more repetitions and pleading to move onto something else, that's a sign not just to move on, but to re-think the process for tomorrow. Instead of plowing straight into that same spot tomorrow, think about how to restructure the task to make it more successful.
Dissecting complex tasks
There are lots of ways to break apart a complex task:
- Do fewer measures. Maybe it's a passage that just needs measure-to-measure work.
- For string players, figure out whether it's a bow problem or a left hand problem.
- Are there back-to-back problems that just need to be tackled one at a time? I'm thinking of some of the double-stop work in La Folia, for example. There's the issue of tuning the double stop. Then the hand frame has to shift to 2nd position, then next chord has to interdigitate into the existing frame, and so forth. Even the most patient child will give up before all those tasks are done. It's better to just tune the first position double stop on day 1 and celebrate an accomplishment. Then work on the next sub-task the following day.
- Would it benefit from slower practice? (Hint: the answer is always 'yes') Use the metronome to coax it into progress.
- How's the fingering? Is the fingering efficient and well though-out? Maybe today's goal is just to find the best fingering.
Mountain climbing and learning a musical instrument have a lot in common. (Well, except for the element of risk...) By consciously breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks, we can reinforce a growth mindset that says "Progress is possible through deliberate effort." Even if it's a false summit, it's movement toward a bigger goal.