Sunday, October 2, 2011


Nothing brings out the inner blogger in me like Atul Gawande. I just finished his latest New Yorker piece on expertise and coaching, and as usual, it was illuminating and extremely relevant! Its lesson is one that is all-too-easily ignored: even true experts in a field are easily blinded to their own shortcomings. Even after eight years as a surgeon, Gawande needed a "coach" to point out his weaknesses and help him improve, even if he could spot the very same weaknesses in other people. People are so invested and so involved that when it comes to our own weaknesses, we lose perspective, and the ability of unbiased judgment along with it.

The article talked a lot about schoolteachers and musicians, of which I am now both. Both examples are interesting for me in very different ways. No one will admit more quickly than I will to the value of having a coach for schoolteaching, and yet, teacher coaches are relatively rare.

My feeling about musical coaching is more nuanced.
Music teachers so often fail to draw on their students' own inspiration and creativity, and even unwittingly kill said creativity altogether. Many of them are classic over-coachers, using their teaching to enforce their views of performance practice, no matter how standard or idiosyncratic, rather than giving students the tools to display their own ideas.

I don't mean to say I think I'm too good for my own coach. The New Yorker piece reminded me of an experience I had last spring in music school. A fellow pianist-student of mine performed in a chamber music master class for Menahem Pressler. As I think she would be the first to admit, she wasn't quite herself in the performance. But there were also aspects of the performance that she didn't even realize weren't up to her standard. She just didn't seem to be listening closely enough. I smugly made mental notes of things that I thought she could improve upon, and Pressler himself talked about many of them in his critique.

Not more than a week later, I was preparing my own performance for the school piano competition. As we often did before performances, I played for her as a practice run-through and to elicit comments or suggestions. One of the movements I was playing was one that I knew extraordinarily well, by the same composer as her performance the previous week. I had performed the piece and listened to my recordings countless times the year before. I thought I finally had it damn near perfect, and hadn't even bothered bringing it back to my teacher again. But when I played it for my friend, her suggestions for me were nearly identical to everything I would've said to her about her masterclass performance. My first reaction was along the lines of: "No, that can't be, I know how to avoid those mistakes! I listen for them so expertly!" But little by little I realized she was right about everything. I thought I had easily taken care of all the nuances that I heard in my head, when in fact it was all happening only in my head. My playing may have been good, but it wasn't what I had imagined at all. We could each hear the flaws perfectly in each others' playing, and advise the other so well, while we struggled to hear the very same problems in our own.

Part of being a good music student, then, is being able to tell the difference between a teacher's dislike of your interpretation and their assessment that you're not properly expressing, and reacting accordingly. Most criticism comes in a confusing combination. And it's nearly impossible to tell shades of the two categories apart when you don't trust your teacher or coach to distinguish them him or herself. A huge part of being a good teacher is being able to hear the difference between playing that's personally disagreeable and that which lacks the student's own intention.

1 comment:

  1. Great article by Gawande. Great post by Post. I have one child who is a teacher and musician, one who is a doctor-to-be, and one who is a teacher coach (sort of, I think), or maybe a coach of the principal. ..or the principal and teachers. . . .I think working in a think tank guarantees informal coaching from colleagues . . indeed that is the point. But teaching and music are tough and I imagine can be isolating.