If one thing is clear, after all this time, it’s that the cello is hard enough as it is- and that people will do all kinds of stuff to make it much harder or even impossible to get to the point of mastery. The root cause of most trouble comes down to ego and self-concept: either the student feels a desperate need to be seen as competent and in control, or the student lives in fear of being seen as unaware of their most minute flaw and sets out on the impossible quest to be the perfect pupil, subservient to the task rather than equal to it.
It’s nearly impossible to teach these students, because learning is at its heart, an admission of ignorance, an investigation into wrong assumptions, maladaptive patterns of thought, a willingness to be molded by a trusted guide. Trust never happens when the ego steers the lesson, because everything is done as defense. The teacher cannot even get close to the white-hot sensitivity surrounding the delicate edifice of pride. Change is impossible. Critical reflection, a sham. Vulnerability, an absurdity. Everything just bounces, and students tend to double down on negative associations with anything that might make them feel clueless or on the back foot.
I say all of this as someone who has been utterly guilty of ascribing to this system of belief. I say it because I know it too well, and have more sympathy than you might think for people who do everything they can to rebuff my suggestions and belittle my expertise (implicitly or explicitly). It can be terrifying to acknowledge the unknown- and our culture glorifies a certain veneer of offhanded cockiness that only fools…fools. Those of us who have braved the harrowing journey through ignorance, past ego, into the realm of permanent study and eternal curiosity see this and as professionals either avoid it for its toxicity or work to fix it. I have perhaps converted two or three of the several dozen students who have come to me in this state, and although that stat wouldn’t stand in sports, I consider it a blistering success. It’s not nearly as hard for me as it is for the student, and I appreciate even the failed attempts for their resilience, coming back week after week to have their deeply-held beliefs challenged.
This is not the opposite of ego: it is ego, coming from a different source: the idea that confidence is arrogance, that acknowledgement of accomplishment prevents learning, that one could never be good enough to allow for any satisfaction. The ego feeds on a sense of self-punishment and critique, but it’s still ego. It’s still a façade.
Zeno’s paradox haunts these students: the idea that one can never reach the finish line in something like music because the intermediate goals have a way of splitting the distance to the promised land in half infinite times…just when you think you’re where you should be, you realize how much better you could be, how much more work there is to do.
The book Zen Guitar talks about putting on the white belt (the belt of a novice) every day, regardless of your level of achievement. There is an equal footing for all on the path to mastery, one that does not attach ego to achievement because we are all on the same road, and all have work to do. There is never a time when we do not need to work on ourselves, whether gnarled professional or first time student, so why bother with self-punishment? It distracts from the work. Comparison is odious, after all.
There’s another saying that I hear frequently in my arts circles: While good is the enemy of great, perfect is the enemy of finished. I’ve seen many attributions, but I keep hoping it’s Voltaire because he’s such a wonderful mischief maker. These words are a balm for the never-content, as is Thom Yorke’s (of Radiohead) quip that an album is never finished, only abandoned. His music has been some of the most acclaimed art of the past two decades, and he, too, understands that it’s just an offering. A best effort that has to be considered good enough, at some point.
The most trying thing about working with people who refuse to objectively acknowledge progress is that, like the arrogant student, trust is never built. My word is never good enough, there must be some other explanation for my praise…maybe I am beholden to them as a function of our financial arrangement. Maybe I’m just trying to keep them going. Perhaps I didn’t hear accurately. Students who truly know me will attest: I am not shy about honest critique and will be the first to offer hard-to-hear advice. It’s never done with glee or meant to injure, but I have had difficult, heart-rending conversations with people who don’t seem capable of or available for the work the cello requires. I am not in the business of lying or flattery.
I say all of this as someone who was never this way with the cello, but hooooo boy am I fighting not to be this way with my hockey lessons. It’s even worse because I know it doesn’t serve me, but it creeps in anyway. I fight the good fight, though, for the most part. Compounding things further: this mindset has a way of becoming exponentially more burdensome the more progress you make. And without the ability to register what is improving, it is impossible to direct your energies towards the stuff that needs work.
The ideal student is open and curious. They assume the entire process has root in a benevolent place. They see the instrument as a way to serve the music, not as a tool to prove their worth. They are not worried that the path is long, or that it winds, or that they cannot see what lies around the bend. The practice is the reward, and the performance is an offering: not of perfection, but of the best you can do, whatever that is. Some people practice so long and with such curiosity that that result is very fine indeed, but it is not worth less than the scrapings of a beginner whose efforts are a hundred times as concentrated and just as sincere. Muster your cheerful relentlessness, and be forgiving of yourself, and of others who are struggling.
It’s never just about the cello, after all. All of this is a reflection of your relationship with yourself. Be brave, be kind, be willing to work. See you tomorrow. I’ll be the one with the white belt.