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Thursday, June 29, 2017

How to Teach or Learn Any Physical Skill: Martial Arts and Drumming Part I

This is Part 1 of 3 in the Martial Arts and Drumming series.

This project started innocently enough.  I thought that in lieu of my 50 States Challenge, I'd try something I've never done before and see what I could learn from it as a martial artist.  My vision was distant and vague, but I thought I'd write a blog post for my students to illustrate the value in being open-minded to new experiences and willing to learn in any situation. 

Four months of drumming lessons, interviews and general pandemonium later, this sure has snowballed.  I'm honored that there has been so much interest in this project.  I have been very far outside of my comfort zone on this project, and it has been one crazy and awesome ride.  I hope you find something of value here, or at least that you enjoy it even half as much as I did.

Being a Terrible Drummer (or a terrible martial artist for that matter)

There is very little about drumming that I can speak to with any degree of authority, but one thing I can say is that being a terrible drummer is awesome.  It is so awesome that I almost feel sorry for people who are actually good at it.

As a beginner, I'm supposed to be a terrible drummer, but more importantly, I'm allowed to be a terrible drummer.  I can sit down to practice some simple rhythm and make a mistake in every single measure, and the worst thing that is going to happen is a big dopey grin.  The stick in my left hand can bounce so chaotically that you might think I have some serious medical condition, but that just makes two consecutive good strokes feel like a real victory.  Move over, Hercules—this legend just played a whole fill!  (Cue the cheers and ticker tape.)

I will never look this cool playing the drums.  Good thing
blogging is the ultimate form of artistic expression.  It is, right?

I don’t have that in martial arts anymore, and haven’t for a long time.  In martial arts, I have expectations on me.  If I do something badly, it reflects poorly on me, my school, and my instructors.  I have students who are counting on me to train them well, provide good information and set a great example.  Don't get me wrong—I love it.  It's still fun, but it's a very different kind of fun. 

As an instructor, I greatly enjoy seeing a struggling white belt who is having fun.  Here's the thing about people who do something badly and are still having fun:  if they're having fun, they're going to practice.  If they practice, they'll get better.  In my experience, the people who are having fun in martial arts go the farthest, regardless of whatever natural talent they may or may not have.  They're the ones who stick with it and persevere when things get tough.

So what that means for me as a terrible drummer is that it's just a matter of time before I'm merely a bad drummer.  If being a bad drummer is as much fun as being a terrible drummer, I'll someday be a mediocre drummer.  And if that's fun, well, by then I'll probably be 150 years old and my interest will probably have waned, but you get the idea.  When I started martial arts, I never thought I'd do any of the crazy things I did.  I was one of those picked-last-in-gym-class kids.  When I was a white belt, I had this lofty goal of being a green belt someday.  People who know me as a 4th degree black belt tend to find that pretty funny, but there's an important lesson there.  Please, if you take nothing else from this blog, just go do something fun.  Don't worry about whether or not you're good at it.

That said, let me set this straight now.  There will never be video evidence of me playing drums.  That would be ceaselessly vain.  (Would you keep reading if you knew that I was lying?)

I have no idea what I'm doing! Photo credit.

One caveat that instructors need to watch out for is that teaching your students to love an activity is a learning goal, not a retention goal.  Especially when it comes to teaching kids, sometimes the students' enjoyment of class is cynically filed under business goals, because if they're having fun their parents will keep paying.  There's some truth to that, but by thinking of fun as a retention mechanism and not a learning mechanism, you're doing your students a disservice.  Likewise, teaching your students to enjoy martial arts is not the same as teaching them to enjoy a class.  You can take a group of kids, play games with them for 90% of a class, and send them home happy.  They might have had fun, but they have not learned to enjoy martial arts.  As an instructor, your challenge is to make the 100th roundhouse kick of the day as fun and engaging as the 10th.  Then your students have learned their roundhouse kick lesson and also have developed a positive attitude toward roundhouse kicks.

Poison for Beginners

Being a beginner is a delicate time when you're deciding whether this new activity is for you.  The best thing a beginner can do is establish a positive relationship with whatever they're trying to learn, whether it's drumming or martial arts or anything else.  If you can love it, you're halfway there at least.  If that means skipping a day when you're not in the mood, that is completely fine for a beginner!  Having the discipline to practice when you're not in the mood comes later, after you have already decided that what you're doing is important enough to endure the grind.

I absolutely hate it when people advise beginners to practice every day.  No one gets good at anything because they decide they will practice every day.  They get good either because they are forced to practice, or because they love doing it.  If they are forced, they will resent the activity and quit as soon as they can.  It's the people who love it who go on to become great.  Look at any great achiever in any field.  They didn't get there without hard work, but the passion always comes first.  It's that passion that allowed them to do all that work.  You're no different, and your students are no different.

Let's not poison this eager learner.

Poison for beginners is anything that can damage the student's relationship with the activity.  It can come in a lot of forms, but the most common forms are frustration and boredom.  If you're the instructor, you need to read your beginners very well and steer them clear.  This is easier said than done of course, but a good teacher can do it by encouraging at the right times, pacing the lesson well, or scaling the difficulty of the practice.

I was very lucky to have a drum instructor who excelled at this, and I'll share a story about that later, but first I need to introduce one more concept...

The Uncomfortable Place of Growth

The "uncomfortable place" is practice that is at the optimal challenge level.  It is right at the very limit of your skill where you are working very hard.  Being there gets you the most efficient growth but is exhausting.  If it's too hard, you'll get very little out of it.  If it's too easy, you'll get even less.  It's that sweet spot in between where the growth happens, but it is by nature uncomfortable.  That's why it's called "being out of your comfort zone."

How much time you should spend in that uncomfortable place depends on a lot of things.  Beginners should keep their time in that zone short.  Too much time in the uncomfortable place can make them learn to dislike the activity because practicing that way is decidedly not fun.  They might approach that place with enthusiasm, but staying there too long without breaks will wear anyone down.  Age matters, but not as much as temperament.  Reading the student(s) is paramount.

Adults often (but not always) have more patience for
the uncomfortable place than young kids do.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are two ways out of the uncomfortable place.  A good teacher knows how and when to manage both of them.  The first is when the student gets better.  Suppose you're working on some detail of your technique--let's say keeping the spine straight and relaxed during a front kick.  Let's say you get it right 10% of the time, so you practice for half an hour until you get it right 90% of the time.  By the end of that half hour, you are no longer in the uncomfortable place.  You are enjoying a high success rate, and you are still improving, but not as much or as quickly as you were before.  If you want to stay in the uncomfortable place, you need to increase the difficulty, for example by increasing the speed.

The second way out of the uncomfortable place is when you dial back the difficulty of the practice.  Let's go back to the front kick spine example.  Let's say the student is getting it right 10% of the time, and after half an hour of practice he's getting it right 15% of the time.  This student is absolutely still in the uncomfortable place.  However, this student is also getting poison.  Veteran martial artists (or substitute any skill you like) have already made a commitment to their art, and can endure a little poison.  But the beginner who is still deciding whether they like this crazy martial arts thing is not likely to respond well to the frustration.  Even if they're not frustrated, they are most likely not having fun.

I've seen instructors who are very good at reading their students, and others who are completely oblivious.  I've seen my drum instructor spin on a dime when he suspected I was getting frustrated, changing gears so fast it was almost comical.  It's exactly what I would have done--it's better to overreact than underreact with beginners.  On the other extreme, I once saw a martial arts instructor bombard a beginner with a dozen details on one movement for a full hour with no breaks from being in the uncomfortable place.  This usually does not end well.

It doesn't always end badly, though.  It all comes down to reading the student, and as promised I have a story about my drum instructor doing this to me successfully.  One day I wondered if my instructor (Kai Andersen, who I will introduce properly in Part II of this series) might be a bit perplexed because most of the music I listen to doesn't lend itself to beginner drum lessons.  So I suggested a song that was slow and repetitive enough that I might be able to play it.  At my next lesson, he listened to the song for the first time.  He penciled some changes to a couple exercises in my lesson book so that I essentially had sheet music for the song.  But since what he had written was still too advanced for me, he scaled it back and built a challenge-appropriate lesson on the fly using that song as a guide, and I spent the entire time in the uncomfortable place, making good progress.  I was mentally exhausted by the end of it, and also really impressed with Kai.

Can You Even Teach Art?

A while back, Barry Eisler did an interview with Kris Wilder (the entire interview is here, and well worth your time) and had this to say on the topic of teaching art:

"There's this stupid meme that goes around in the writing world which is... 'You can't teach writing and you can't teach art.'  This is a dumb thing to say, and here's why.  It's true that you can't teach art directly, but art is built on craft. ... You can't express yourself as an artist if you don't have a deep understanding of craft, and craft can be taught."

This reminded me greatly of something Grandmaster Park used to talk about.  He didn't call it craft; he called it steps.  He would say that learning steps was easy, but making art was very hard.  One day after watching my Jang Kwon he told me that my steps were as technically correct as they could be, and now I have to make art.  He said that only comes after years and years of practice.  Back then I didn't really understand what he was saying, and certainly it's possible that I still don't.  In the wake of this project, I think I understand him better now.  At the time, I was saddened thinking that he didn't want to teach me anymore.  In retrospect, that was ridiculous and I feel awfully foolish even typing that out.  Now I think that he was telling me that he had taught me the craft to the limit of what can be taught, and any improvement from there would have to be my own expression.

The difference between art and craft: Picasso's
TĂȘte was made by cutting and pasting paper, not
because that was the limit of his craft, but
because that was his artistic choice.

Eisler goes on to say, "One of the ways that craft should be and can be taught and learned is pay attention to the art.  Experience it, enjoy it...  If you read a passage in a book and it blows you away for some reason... If you're just a reader, ... why would you want to pause to say 'why did this blow me away so much?'  But if you are a writer and you are trying to become a better writer, you might pause and say, '...this passage had a magical effect on me, but it's not real magic.'  There must be something that the writer is doing that created that effect, and there is.  There always is. ... You can definitely extract certain techniques by watching and thinking about what the other person is doing."  He goes into specific examples like appealing to multiple senses and juxtaposing nearby details against a wider view of the scene.  

He even ties it back specifically to martial arts, saying, "When you start asking yourself those questions, then you can start to see the craft behind the art, and the more conscious you become of craft, the more you can duplicate it yourself.  And it's true for anything.  It's true in martial arts, self defense… The first time someone does something to you, it feels like magic.  Like, 'Oh my God, how did you do that?  I'm on my butt!'"  Of course, it's not magic.  It's applied movement and biomechanics--things that can be learned.

I'm going to take it a step farther than he did, though. I'm going to claim that you can't teach art, and really you can't teach craft either. Even if you're the best martial arts instructor in the world, you can't really teach martial arts. All you can do is make it easy for someone to learn. Kris Wilder once told me that teaching is about helping people find something inside them that was already there, and he was so right. The student is the one who has to make the learning happen. The instructor can and should be a big part of that, but ultimately you can't make students learn, you can only let them learn.

That doesn't mean that if your students aren't learning it's not your fault.  It means that your job is a lot harder than it seems on the surface.

So how do you make something easy to learn? Of course you must have the skill you hope to impart, but mostly it comes down to creating the right experience for the students. A great instructor can optimize your training time, motivate you to push yourself, make it easy to grasp difficult concepts, keep you focused, balance the time you spend in the uncomfortable place, and make practice enjoyable enough to be continued. That is how craft is "taught," by effectively creating experiences that allow the students to learn.

Eisler's idea of analyzing art to learn craft has been at the front of the chaos in my mind over the course of this project. One thing that struck me is the thought that like writers, drummers and martial arts instructors are in the business of creating experiences.

Engaging Crowds, Classes and Individuals

First let's take a little break and watch Casey Grillo do a drum solo.  I interviewed him for this project and I'll introduce him properly in Part II, but for now just enjoy...

That was fun, but why? What exactly was he doing that got the audience to respond the way they did? These questions are perhaps too advanced for me. I'm at the level where any day that I don't hit myself with my sticks is a good day, so some things under the sun just aren't going to be understood. This video was taken at a Kamelot concert, in front of his own fans, and that probably meant the crowd was especially receptive to what he was doing. But I saw him subbing for another drummer in another band, and he got similar reactions out of Scott Rockenfield's fans.

Since I'm so far out of my depth on this one, I'm going to break this down in terms of what I already know about engaging people. I have taught martial art classes of a wide range of ages and experience levels, with students of varying degrees of physical wellness--sometimes all at once. I've also taught English as a second language to all ages and skill levels, and to several different languages of origin. That may seem like it requires a huge set of diverse skills (and in a way, it does) but ultimately it still comes down to reading the class and giving students the right experience so they can learn.

It's only a little different with a single student. Private lessons that are run like group classes tend to be awkward affairs. I like to allow for a more casual back-and-forth experience when I teach a single student, as that tends to be a great opportunity to create a very directed experience for exactly what that student needs. Certainly Kai teaches my drumming lessons that way as well.

When I create experiences, it's with fairly small groups. The biggest class I ever taught had about 45 people in it. That's small enough that I can speak loudly and clearly and be heard just fine. And that's good, because most of the tools in my bag rely on the spoken word. In the video, Casey is creating an experience for a much larger group using only percussive sounds and nonverbal cues. That's practically magic to me because the techniques are so different, but some of the broader ideas are the same.

Looking at these three scenarios, I notice four things in the video that are relevant to creating engaging experiences for crowds, classes and individuals. There may be others, but as I see it, an experience is most engaging when:

1. It is interactive. Getting people involved, whether they're clapping along with your drum solo, or seeing how hard they can kick a target, or bringing in their own songs to a drumming lesson, makes for a more engaging experience.

2. The pacing is good. One thing I notice about that drum solo is that he changes up what he's doing fairly often. It might be more impressive to pick the most challenging part and just do that continuously for four minutes, but that wouldn't be as engaging. Changing up the activity is extremely important in teaching as well. Not only does it keep people from getting bored, but it also makes it easier to learn because lessons sink in better if you break up your explanations with practice and vice versa.

3. It ends when it should. Grandmaster Park told me once that beginners' classes should be no more than 50 minutes. Any longer than that, and the training begins to drain on people and novices can leave with a sour taste in their mouths. But a 50-minute drum solo would probably be too long to be enjoyable. Likewise, a 4-minute martial arts class would be ridiculous.

4. It's about them. This might be my biggest pet peeve in martial arts. I've seen instructors who are incredible martial artists, but they fail as teachers because they don't make the classes about the students. They like being in charge, they like being the center of attention, or they like showing off--all of which are fine to enjoy, but if any one of those things is your priority, you will never be a good instructor. As an instructor, the only measure of your success is your students' success. Their experience. Not yours. I'll bet that a drummer who is focused on his own experience would also fall short of one who puts his audience first.


This series will be continued with 11 Ways Drumming Can Help Your Training: Martial Arts and Drumming Part II.