Until the Water Runs Clear…

closeup hand on piano keys

By Casey von Neumann

This article originally appeared on We Are Rulerless

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The secret of my success in my early days as a piano teacher was a simple tweak that motivated my students to practice more, made them sound great, and caused them to stick with the instrument instead of quitting.

On the strength of this basic framework, I built an entire music school.

This tweak can be applied to learning virtually anything, at any age, to create massive results in a short period of time. However, in order to accept it, we need to give up our desire to be the hero and resist the temptation to tell ourselves unhelpful stories about our progress.

Here we go: Once my student masters a piece of music, instead of giving them a harder one, I give them another one that’s very similar.

Instead of constantly moving forward, we move laterally. Instead of focusing on what we play, we pay attention to how well we can play it.

We want to make existing process easier before adding more of a challenge. We can level up not only by doing harder things, but also by doing easy things better.

Imagine that you have spent the morning exuberantly painting. You have paint all over your hands and brushes. When you rinse, how do you know that all the paint is gone?

You wait till the water runs clear. Only then do you tackle the next brush.

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SIRMA working on music

When a student starts a new piano piece, things sound a little lumpy and bumpy at first. The harder the piece, the more lumps and bumps. So I should offer something in the indigo ring, making sure that the piece contains mostly familiar elements even though they are arranged in a new configuration.

The student will stick with that piece until the water runs clear, so to speak. But that should not take months or weeks. In fact, for very new beginners, I want to see them master something new within minutes.

Then, instead of sending a student home to practice one challenging piece, I will send them home with five or six easier pieces, all with about the same level of difficulty.

The individual pieces will become smooth and confident, but we’re even more interested in the signs that the process of learning them is getting easier. The student is motivated to practice on her own, can correct her own mistakes, and sticks with her practice for longer periods. Not only have lumps and bumps been eliminated from each individual piece, they have been eliminated from the learning process itself.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Finding the Sweet Spot That Makes Learning Addictive.”

At this point, we can move to a piece that contains a new element. Building on recent successes, my student will tackle this fresh challenge enthusiastically, building a powerful momentum that makes quitting out of the question. This framework is sustainable for years.

  • As you read my words, what resistance comes up for you?
  • Does the process seem too slow?
  • Are you reluctant to stick with your own challenge until the water runs clear?

So many of us have absorbed the message that learning must be grueling to be effective and that we should be trying our hardest all the time. Even if that is not your conscious belief, it may be an unconscious one — and you will unconsciously pass it on to the next generation unless you take the time to examine it.

I’ve shared these ideas with many people, including lots of teachers, but few have implemented them in the long term. However, for those who do, the payoff is significant. When you build wins upon wins, learning is joyful and self-perpetuating.

Is there a process in your work or hobbies that could benefit from making the easy things better before addressing harder things? I invite you to unpack it in the comments.

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