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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Solving Problems with Bicycle Tires

Last Monday I talked about some guidelines for making decisions. Today I would like to talk about solving problems. With my older students, I frequently explain the problem-solving steps by using the analogy of changing a bicycle (or car) tire, assuming that the student is familiar with the process of changing a flat tire and checking for repairable leaks. I use the music practice or lesson situation to demonstrate appropriate problem-solving skills to students as well as to the observing parent. Let us look closer at the tire changing process and then relate it to the problem-solving steps.

First, we notice that a tire is flat. With a car, there is a blowout if you are unfortunate, or otherwise you notice that the car lists somewhat to one side or another. With a bicycle it is more obvious, as the bicycle does not move very well.

Next we remove the tire or bike tire tube and check for leaks. This step uses bubbling water to find the air hole or leak. After we have located the leak, we then make the necessary repairs or patches.

We replace the tire back onto the vehicle, pump it full of air again to make it strong, and then test drive it to see if the repair will hold.

Looking at the steps described above and summarizing, the steps involved in problem-solving the flat tire are:

  • identify the problem
  • come up with solutions to solve the problem
  • pick a solution and try it out
  • evaluate the solution and determine whether it solved the problem

Those are the same steps we use to solve other problems, whether in a life circumstance or in a music practice session. Since this is a blog about teaching music, I will focus on the music practice session for an example of putting these steps into practice.

Before I continue, I would like to put in a plug for a skill that I think is more important than any other -- awareness. I use the term of "awareness," but I have heard other words used in a similar context to refer to the same skill: mindfulness, mental presence, focus, concentration, thoughtfulness, reflection, in the moment, paying attention. Without our being aware of what we are doing, we are unlikely to be able to identify a problem accurately.

It sounds silly for me to say this, but I am amazed at the number of students, teachers, and even professional musicians who play without seeming to actually hear what they are playing. I am frequently fond of asking my students how they can expect others to listen to their playing when they themselves are not listening. When I ask my students to really focus on what they are doing, they are themselves startled to hear how many extraneous noises are coming out the instrument and that escaped their notice. It is an interesting phenomenon, and I also work hard to improve this skill in my own playing.

This awareness, or lack of it, shows up in professional situations too, such as symphony orchestra rehearsals and performances. It puzzles me when a player hangs onto notes longer than anyone else in the entire orchestra or plays notes in a different style (or intonation) than the other players. This is a blatant example of lack of awareness. This type of musician (or student) just does not "get it." This laziness of paying attention stems from such a person's general malaise of not engaging in their own life very well. As a teacher I spend the time necessary to build up this awareness skill in my students. I ask a lot of questions rather than give the student many answers. I use a lot of open-ended questions (they generally start with "what" or "how") in order to engage the student in conversation of more than a few words.

So first, there must be an awareness of what is happening. The student then identifies the problem. I find this step to be quite difficult for many students. They think they understand where the difficulty is, but frequently the students are off the mark. I recall listening to an interview given by the wonderful singer Julie Andrews ("Mary Poppins" and other wonderful films), where she recalled the best and most useful advice she had received from her singing instructor. When she missed a note, her instructor helped her to understand that it was generally right before the note that was the problem. If a basketball player misses a shot, it usually is not because they missed the actual shot. The missed hoop is generally due to a faulty layup preceding the actual shot.

Students are quick to identify the problem: missed shift, faulty intonation, bow slipping off the note, missed slur. However, it takes my guidance in general to help the student discover that the actual problem is the anticipatory note before the missed shift, intonation, slipped bow, or missed slur. Once we figure this out, I guide my students to narrow down the problem area to two notes, because I believe that every faulty musical area can be distilled down into two notes: a shift, an interval between two notes, or a string crossing between two notes.

After correctly identifying the problem area, I guide the student into thinking about possible practice ideas to address and correct the problem or to make the passage easier. Then the student selects an option and puts it into play. When the student decides that enough practice has been done to correct the problem, the student then test drives the problem area by putting it into context. This means that the student goes back earlier in the material and plays an entire passage to see if the problem has actually been corrected or eliminated.

So, to recap the problem-solving steps:

  • identify the problem
  • come up with solutions to solve the problem
  • pick a solution and try it out
  • evaluate the solution and determine whether it solved the problem


Next time you encounter a problem or difficulty in your life or your music practice, try out these steps. If you have trouble solving problems effectively, spend a bit more time working on your skill of awareness and make sure that you are identifying the actual problem. If you need help in this area, then visit with a teacher, read some teaching materials, or leave me a comment or question.

Have a great week!

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