By Penny Wayne-Shapiro
The student attempted the passage several times, growing increasingly frustrated. "But I could do it yesterday!" he protested.
I bet he could, too. But there was a missing piece in his practice, and it was time for me to introduce him to the four stages of learning.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence (you don't even know that this skill exists)
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence (now you know about it, but you can't do it yet)
Stage 3: Conscious Competence (you can do it, but only by concentrating and trying really hard)
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence (you can do it without even thinking about it)
Here's what these stages of learning might look like from a musical point of view for a beginner, an early intermediate student, and an advanced student.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
Our beginner has just arrived for her first lesson. She has as yet no idea that the violin is supported with the left shoulder and the head, rather than hanging down in front and resting on the palm of the hand....
Our intermediate student tried out a new piece that caught his eye. Unfortunately he forgot to check the key signature first, and is unaware that for the past week he's been merrily playing a minor key piece in a major key. Very cheerful, but not quite what the composer intended....
Our advanced student has already mastered several 3-octave scales. She is currently unaware (although only for another minute or two) that her teacher is about to introduce her to the ear-bending challenges of a diminished 7th chord sequence....
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
The beginner's teacher helps her to position the violin on her shoulder, then turn her head and bring her chin down into the chinrest for the "Lion Hold". She tries to hold the violin steady for 10 seconds, and makes it to 7 seconds before it slips. "That's really hard!" she exclaims.
The intermediate student's teacher gently suggests that he check the key signature. Uh-oh! Now he realizes he has some re-training work to do on this piece.
The advanced student is half-way up the diminished 7th sequence and is already lost. What key is this again? Where did the tonal center go? How will she ever learn this thing?
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
A week later, our beginner can manage a 30 second Lion Hold very well - as long as she remembers to go through the set-up steps beforehand, so the violin is positioned correctly to start with.
The intermediate student has had some trouble adjusting to the correct key for his piece, because he had already spent a week playing and hearing the piece in a major key. With his teacher's help, he circles the notes that are different in the minor key. He stops for a moment before each one so he can deliberately play them correctly, re-training his fingers and his ear as he does so. He will repeat this process during his practice at home.
The advanced student is finding the chord sequence very challenging, but she finds that if she plays through the notes several times on a keyboard first, it helps her to stay on track.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
No longer a complete beginner, our young student now automatically places the violin correctly on her left shoulder.
Having successfully retrained his fingers and his ear, the intermediate student confidently plays the piece as the composer wrote it, without a second thought.
And our advanced student feels a sense of satisfaction in a job well done, as she zips masterfully through her diminished 7th sequence.
The answer is yes - if, and ONLY IF, they've spent enough time repeating stage 3, Conscious Competence.
One of the most common pitfalls for students - and even for us professionals sometimes! - is practicing something UNTIL we get it right. "Great, I did it!" we think, and move on to something else. But if we stop there, having played it correctly just once or twice, it won't stick but will fade away like a dusting of spring snow.
Learning a new skill, including a musical one, is not like solving a math problem: do it once and you're done. It requires many correct repetitions of the skill - a long enough stay in stage 3, Conscious Competence, for intention, muscle memory and ears to start working together reliably and consistently. That's the route that will bring us - slowly but surely - to stage 4, Unconscious Competence.
When we've achieved Unconscious Competence, permanent changes in the brain (caused by neurons firing together over and over, developing stronger and stronger networks in response to the repeated task we've set them) have led to permanent skill acquisition. Now we can say, "I can do it!" - and know that we really can, every time.
Years ago I watched a very young student perform at a master-class. While playing, he was also happily chatting to the instructor about his upcoming birthday party and a variety of other topics. Towards the end he observed, "By the way, this is my 'polished piece'." The clearly amused instructor said, "Yes, I can tell - you've just had an entire conversation with me while you were playing it."
Now that's Unconscious Competence!
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