Making it Through the Messy Middle: Music Learning Stage 2

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This is the second in this three-part series of posts on the Three Stages of Music Learning. This post is about the second stage: the Messy Middle. Here’s the previous post about Stage One.

“When will we get there?”

The traffic is backed up for miles on the interstate, or the flight is cancelled. Tempers are beginning to feel the strain, and the child picks this time to ask the question, “When we will get there?”

This is also how the middle stage of music learning can feel. We can be bored, restless and impatient. Even worse, we can feel frustrated believing that things should be better by now. We should have mastered that difficult passage or at least be able to play through the piece without stopping. But that level of proficiency still seems off in the distance.

Many people refer to this stage as “the messy middle.” There is a “messy middle” to most endeavors, not just music practice. And it’s the most difficult stage in the mastery of anything.

The initial stage, what I call “first sight” in music, usually passes quickly. And we usually come through that with a sense of optimism and determination.

And then the middle hits. Improvement happens slowly, in fits and starts. There are plateaus where no forward progress is discernible. We may even feel that things are getting worse. And we start asking the question, “When will we get there?”

We know we need to persevere and keep our eyes on the goal of finishing the piece, but this is still where many students give up and “put the piece away until later.” While taking a break from a piece can help us come back to it with renewed energy, how many times have you actually finished a piece that you promised to revisit?

Here are some hints for getting through the “messy middle:”

  1. Remember that one of the ingredients in preparing a confident musical performance is time. Give yourself time and allow it as long as it takes. Patience is a virtue, they say…

But if patience is not your style,

  1. Give yourself a deadline, not a deadline for putting the piece away, but for performing it. A little bit of pressure can often bring results.
  2.  If your practice doesn’t seem to be getting results, don’t keep doing it. I don’t mean that you should stop practicing. I mean you should practice differently. If practicing that passage one hundred times isn’t making it better, how can you practice it differently so that it IS better? Some ideas:
    Try rotating your practice techniques.
    Look at the piece from a different perspective.
    Work on the big picture rather than just the details
    .
  3.  Ask for an outside opinion. Sometimes we are just too close to the situation to assess it accurately. Ask a teacher or a colleague to listen to you and tell you if you are on the right track. You may be closer to finish than you thought.

Which leads us to the third stage with this question, “How can you tell it’s time to finish a piece?” Stay tuned for the next post.

A quick note: I am excited to announce the launch of my new Kindle book, workbook and video course based on my Kaleidoscope Practice system. As a “thank you” to my loyal email subscribers, I will be offering you some special offers and pricing. If you’re not an email subscriber, don’t miss out – sign up now!

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  • Carole Smith

    Hi Anne,

    I will return to the Kaleidoscope Challenge to try to fix my problem with a piece – Stuck in the Messy Middle. We had an ice skating coach at our rink who trained national and world-class competitors. One day a skater was having trouble with a jump. (His stars were in the wrong orbit that day.) She had him stop and work on something else because she didn’t want him to practice the jump incorrectly. It would become habit. Harp uses the same training principles as ice skating. At least my two passions have a common base.

    Reply

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