Connecting, allowing, and learning

Over the past month I have had the privilege of going to both the University East Anglia and the University of the West of England to speak and give people the experience of learning through doing something new – playing music. The f2f interaction and the tactile experience is magic. I love it and would go anywhere to share this with people, as the smiles and laughter that follow the initial reactions of ‘I can’t do that’ ‘I’ve never done that’ ‘I don’t do that’ make it all worth while.Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 10.33.04

It still amazes me how people say these things and effectively, not purposefully, qualify themselves as failures before they have begun, and this is not just in music but in anything that is new or perceived as daunting. In learning, having a fixed conception of ability is so limiting, (see the difference between ‘ability’ and ‘capability’ by Frank Pajares here) and if our students thought in this limiting way then what a battle we would have! We must not allow that unbounded sense of growth and achievement that allows a young child to really believe they can do anything – touch the moon and change the world- to disappear completely. I am not advocating that we all become completely unrealistic, but as Tali Sharot says in her TED talk on optimism,

“to make any kind of progress we need to be able to imagine a different reality, and then we need to believe that reality is possible.”

I work to keep that tethered to the ground, but I like to fly like a helium balloon with my dreams.

Music is my way in to share that feeling of you can in a way that people can accept it, where are neither expecting it nor resisting it. With so many new (and even developing) pursuits there are barriers, both external and that we place for ourselves. Sometimes these are in reaction to assumed societal norms, social groups, or even just a sense of self-doubt. I find that being given permission is liberating and sometimes that is all people need to take that first step. That permission can come in various forms, whether a comment on a blog, a telephone call, or a reassuring glance from someone you trust and believe in. I am certainly not immune. Even in typing this, it has taken me several revisions and thoughts of doubt kicking around before I dared to press ‘publish’.

…back to the story….

Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 10.22.51When I visit people and bring my car or van-load of instruments, I tell them at the start – this is not about the music. (I am not sure if at that point they realise what it is about, but that is for another time) It is not until afterwards that they realise they have accomplished things – both musical and extra-musical, and I love that. Permission to experience, permission to do, permission to learn, and permission to be. They don’t even notice that they are problem solving and making all sorts of mistakes – in public, and without fear – because, like I said, it’s not about the music.

Recently there have been a few posts in unconnected places about failure and how that leads to learning, on Flickr by Sheri Edwards and on a blog by a former schoolmate of mine Lisa Chu who went full circle from classical musician, to Harvard graduate, to MD, to partner in a venture-capitolist firm, to improvising/art-making/people-connecting coach. Again, we don’t all want to go out there and fail, but it takes a lot of falling down before a baby walks, and I hope that my not-about-music sessions show people that they don’t need to get in their own way and that they are allowed, certainly in my learning environments- to fall down, and I will be there to pick them up.

What’s the down side? I don’t really know. I guess it’s the traffic in getting from A to B, and I really wish I had a transporter to avoid that. Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 10.22.38


  1. Lisa

    Yes! Thank you for this post! As babies learning to walk, we had full audiences applauding, taking pictures (and maybe even video) every time we fell down, because they just KNEW we would one day walk if we just kept at it.

    Thank you for being a fellow human being on this planet who is providing that container of support and encouragement for adults who are learning to walk again…exploring the new and unfamiliar territory of learning something truly brand new.

    Yes let’s find a way for you and I to do this together somewhere in the world! 🙂

    1. Post

      Thank you Lisa. After our talk, the next day I taught a 13 year old and as she played her scale… I noodled within the key – making intervals and bits of tunes, and her serious, lip-biting face turned into smiles and laughs, and we had so much fun…
      I cannot wait to plan something with you!

  2. Maha Bali

    Sooooo good, Laura. I just tweeted out 3 quotes I loved from here. What a beautiful post. I’d love to now more about what you do, how you make it work, how participants feel.

    And i wish i had still been living in Norwich when u were at UEA!

    1. Post

      Like I commented on one of your posts, that cup of tea… one day I hope we’ll meet and then you can sing and I will play and hopefully our students (and some strangers too) will join in. You are very inspiring and I am not sure how you manage to do all that you do!

  3. Susan Watson

    Great post….but I think that if we skipped the traffic, we probably wouldn’t learn as much! 🙂

    Whenever we do PD sessions with staff that include anything even vaguely “artistic,” I am always amazed at the anxiety it provokes. “I am not artistic, I can’t do this, Oh I am horrible, I am not creative,” etc. Like you said, we ask our students to go out on creative limbs all the time, not always realizing it’s also hard for THEM to realize their capability.

    1. Post

      Agree completely! It is easy to see with arts things, because we often spotlight professionals – and so don’t see the intermediary stages so much, but it is also so true with any discipline… and it’s not just them, it’s us – well at least me! I’m thinking of my own limited experience in the realm of #ccourses and the steep learning curve. Gotta keep reminding myself, it’s ok to go for it 🙂

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