I was reading a new book, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, Atomic Habits by James Clear, tonight. After reading a couple of pages, I found my thoughts wandering and—surprise, surprise—comparing what I read to teaching and playing the violin.
When the author talked about a paramedic being able to predict a heart attack or a military strategist being able to identify an enemy ship despite every sign pointing to the ship being one of their own (at least to a less-expert observer), or a hairdresser being able to guess at pregnancy based solely on the feel of a female client's hair, my thoughts turned to my studio. I realized that my training from teaching for over 20 years typically enables me to predict a beginning transfer student's current level of ability, even after simply asking them to play eight notes of a D Major scale, knowing very little of their previous background, or if they'd played for three months or two years.
In fact, I was willing to bet on it recently, by assigning such a student two pieces for an upcoming studio recital and typing it up in the program, even before informing the student, and before we had a second lesson. Luckily, I don’t make a habit of doing that, but this was a biweekly student, and I was under a time crunch to get the recital music to the accompanist. I think he'll be able to do a good job on the songs I assigned without feeling like his ability is insulted. We'll see if I'm right. If not, thank goodness we have the benefit of word processors rather than typewriters, and I can edit the program later if I have to, LOL!
But this ability of quickly assessing violin skill has come through study and experience. I can predict from a student’s current posture habits—which influence technique—how easy it will be for them to achieve certain outcomes on the violin, and how quickly; whereas a non-musician parent might not even know if something is out of tune or why.
Clear's point in his book was that becoming an expert means getting to the point where critical decisions are made subconsciously, almost imperceptibly. Similarly, according to Clear, creating habits is helpful, and the less we have to think about making the same decisions over and over again, the more brain cells we have at our disposal.
From Atomic Habits: "We underestimate how much our brains and bodies can do without thinking. You do not tell your hair to grow, your heart to pump, your lungs to breathe, or your stomach to digest. And yet your body handles all this and more on autopilot. You are much more than your conscious self." (p. 61)
Clearly, an application of this "autopilot" principle can be made in learning the violin. In fact, the only point I remember disagreeing with my first violin teacher on (internally, of course), was when she reprimanded me once for playing on autopilot.
I can’t blame her for being frustrated. Of course, my teacher’s point was likely that I was missing a critical detail due to lack of focus, or that it sounded expressionless because my mind wasn’t thinking about the notes I was playing. Since I had practiced the notes so many times, I didn’t have to.
But I actually tend to think of accurate autopilot as a good thing. Starting with "playing on autopilot" is more of a foundation you can build on. And it means you’ve put in your practice time.
When I notice a student automatically playing a song well, even if their mind is clearly elsewhere, I point out their good habit and celebrate it with them! I might say, "See? You didn’t even have to think about what your fingers were doing. They knew exactly what they were supposed to do. That’s great!” Then I’ll add, “Now that you don’t have to worry about them, can you add more expression to this passage?" Or I might say, "Good for you. You know this song so well, playing the notes is an automatic habit for you. But instead of looking around the room while you play, if you look at your left hand, you’ll help guide the audience to know where to look, too. Let’s try that. Can you start it again?"