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Productive Struggle: Finding The Magic Outside Our Comfort Zone

For the last couple of months I've been studying guitar with my Passim School of Music colleague, Avi Salloway. He's helping me realize a long time dream of being able to play lead guitar. I've long been able to write a guitar solo in advance but haven't had the skills or confidence to improvise.

Each week Avi shows me a new scale, lick, technique and then we play a song, then he has me take that and try it out in the context of a song. When he looks at me and says, "Ok Janet, take one!" it's incredibly uncomfortable. I hear melodies in my head and sometimes my fingers can respond and sometimes they can't. Avi does his best to offer his encouragement which helps. Sometimes I find myself thinking, "oh, he's just saying that to be nice", which is something my students say they're thinking when I cheer them on. 

But even with my doubts, Avi's words help me press on through the stress, keep showing up and every now and again, I have a little breakthrough. For a moment, the melody in my head comes through my fingers and that feels like total magic. It's clear that I wouldn't have that experience unless I was willing to show up for practice and lessons along with my discomfort. 

I was describing this experience to my friend Ann who is a psychology professor and she said it's sometimes referred to as 'productive struggle'. I was intrigued by the phrase and looked it up. Here are a couple of relevant quotes that I found: 

“...productive struggle—effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching—that builds useful, lasting understanding and skill.” 
Heibert, J. & Grouws, D. (2007) 
The Effects of Classroom Mathematics Teaching on Students’ Learning 

“...students grapple with the issues and are able to come up with a solution themselves, developing persistence and resilience in pursuing and attaining the learning goal or understanding.”
Jackson, R., & Lambert, C. 
How to Support Struggling Students 

Pretty cool, eh? 

If you'd like to engage in productive struggle with your guitar and a group of like-minded souls, click here  to register for one of my classes at The Passim School of Music. We get started this week.

Peace, Janet

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