Learning an Instrument – Leaving the Inner Teacher Behind

When I was a child, I had a bike with a handle at the back. Dad and I would go up the road to the shops: me on my bike, him walking behind, holding the handle. One day, he let go and I rode home, not realising that he was no longer with me until I reached our gate.

If Dad had let go before I was ready, I could have crashed to the pavement and possibly ended up too traumatised to get back on a bike again. If he’d not let go when I was ready, I could have become dependent on him for balance and never risked riding off on my own. Luckily for me, he let go at just the right time.

Learning an instrument is like this. Regardless of whether we have a human teacher or not, we all have an inner teacher inside us, reminding us of what we need to put into practice as we develop on our instrument. If we have a human teacher, our inner teacher repeats our teacher’s instructions as we practice. We need our inner teacher’s instructions. Without them, we just hope for the best, tra-la-la-ing along in a willy nilly fashion, never developing a solid enough technique to allow us the freedom eventually to play what we want. To mix metaphors, with one hand on the bike handle, our inner teacher keep us moving forward.

But there comes a time when our technique is solid, we are ready, and our inner teacher must let go. Otherwise, the helpful, nurturing voice, becomes the repressive, critical voice that holds us back.

Unlike me on my bike, the musician doesn’t have a Dad who knows when to let go. We have to pick the moment to say goodbye to our inner teacher ourselves. How do you know when its time to let go of your inner teacher? When you feel like you are 90% where you want to be with your instrument. You can play it fine, the notes are there, but you listen to recordings of yourself playing and there’s something missing that you can’t put your finger on. Then its time.

How do you let go of your inner teacher? Thank them for their help and explain that from now on you are going to play without regard to your technique, trusting that it is within you and you no longer need to think about it. Perhaps you might ask your inner teacher’s help if you are studying a tricky new passage or if there is some technical difficulty that you need to analyse before you can play. But once that is under the fingers, it is time for them to go back into retirement.

This is scary stuff. Having your inner teacher’s voice nearby – by which I mean continuing to play while thinking about technique – feels safe. To play a difficult passage without thinking about the notes is scary. To sing without any attempt to control your pitch is scary. To expose your heart and soul and play from a place of total freedom is scary.

Think of my Dad again. When he let me go, he was 90% confident that I was able to ride on my own: the final 10% was trust in a universal grace that would keep me upright. No doubt he was scared too.

Go on. Do it. Now there’s no one holding you upright, but there’s no one holding you back. Once you realise that you are riding your own bike through a combination of 90% innate technique and 10% universal grace, the fear turns into exhilaration. You will also come to know the nature of the 10% that you were missing before you left your inner teacher behind – and you will be missing it no longer.