The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

It has to be painful. Does it?

Not too long ago I was invited to do some functional training with a personal trainer. She was learning the craft and started the session with “here’s our space for torture”. And that’s how she addressed the 30 minutes of workout.

I was reminded of this story while reading about teaching the piano. The standard solution for teaching the piano seems to be, to learn an easy piece of music and once the first one is mastered,  move to a more difficult one.

Teaching, in this case, is a process built on linear progress in difficulty. It’s built on the assumption that achieving a level of progress corresponds to knowing how to play at that level.

It also means that learning generates a sense of having to master something difficult. A joke among pianists describes this with: “If I can play this piece well, it must not be difficult enough!”

It’s measuring one’s progress with the difficulty felt. While it might lead to the motivation to learn to become better at one’s craft, it keeps the focus on becoming better. With the felt pressure to progress, the perception becomes “I’m not good enough”. It prevents from seeing one’s level of performance.

Similarly, the measurement for a successful workout becomes the pain during the training itself. Feeling muscle pain during the next few days is associated with successful training. Despite the story shared above, functional training taught me that pain isn’t the most effective measurement. Instead of trying to reach a better performance by powering through the exercise, I’ve learned to look for the underused muscle. When an exercise doesn’t work as expected, the solution regularly has been to do another exercise allowing to loosen or strengthen the muscle I hadn’t been using properly. Today, it’s my awareness for the parts of the body which aren’t supporting the effort as they could which is transforming the way I’m enhancing my performance. I had to learn to see and understand the foundational elements governing my stability and movements.

The way Casey teaches the piano is very similar to this approach. Instead of focusing on quick progress, she describes a lateral approach. Once students have mastered a piece, they are moving on to pieces with a similar level of difficulty. The lateral move helps them to learn to master that type of technique. In her teaching, progress becomes visible by measuring how the process of learning becomes easier for students.

I link much of this, with the work Josh Waitzkin has been doing and describing in the art of learning.

While learning chess, Waitzkin started with getting a feel for the relationship of the chess pieces to one another. He worked to understand how they can be used and what their strength is. Waitzkin thus developed ease of mind even when being surprised by a situation. A different way to learn chess is to learn it by starting with all the pieces on the board and learn to use the different openings. It’s starting a chess game with a plan and hoping to be able to follow through. Knowing the individual strength of the chess pieces gives Waitzkin the freedom to adapt his plan to the remaining chess pieces.

For Waitzkin the road to mastery starts with learning the fundamentals and seeking to understand the principles of the discipline one is learning. It’s an approach that does require a lot of practice and hard work. By establishing a learning process which is unhindered by internal conflict, there is space to sense progress and find motivation in it. Training for performance then starts with learning to flow with whatever comes.


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