Learning, Kindness, & The French Horn


Learning, Kindness, and the French Horn




Me, learning

“Brian, do you know what you did well there?”

Jen perennially begins questions with my name.

“No, Jen,” I reply, playfully, into the zoom camera in my office. Rhetorical questions amuse me.

“Well, Brian, you have an intuitive sense of phrasing.”

I think back on the measures I have just played, exercise five on page 18 of the Pottag-Hovey Method for French Horn. I realize that, yes, indeed, I did intuitively figure out the musical phrasing.

Jen, always encouraging, is a great teacher.

Why the horn?

A few months before I turned 50, Jane observed that, as our kiddos no longer wanted to spend all their free time with us, I might reconsider hobbies. Accordingly,I commandeered space for an extra table in the garage where I could resume crafting unique stained glass lamps (see the image above, below my right cheek), and bought a French horn.

Why the French horn?

I learned that “It’s like Harry Potter’s world where the wand chooses the wizard” was enough of an answer to mollify most people who asked.

But there was another reason. Since 2009, when I learned about Lev Vygotsky’s theory of learning—the zone of proximal development—I had used the French horn as my go-to example of something that no one knew how to do.

Me, teaching learning

In every classroom, towards the beginning of our educational relationship, I taught my students about learning.

“You’ve been learning your whole life,” I began, “and, amazingly, you might not know the process by which you learn. That’s normal. Most people don’t. I’d like to explain the five stages to you. So let me start by asking you this question: Does anyone here play the French horn? No? Very well then, we would say our French horn playing ability is at a level one, we simply do not know how to play it.”

This, my unconscious choice of French horn—because of it being tied in absurdity with “Does anyone here play the flugelhorn?” but the more recognizable instrument—I believe might have been possibly why I took it up a year later.

“How about writing the letters of the English alphabet? Everyone here is competent at that? You can do it without thinking at all, yes? Then we would say our ability to write letters is at a level five—we can do it without even thinking about doing it. Level five is doing something so well that it is automatic, requiring no thought at all.”

“French horn playing, on the other hand, we are level one.”

“Learning, you see, is not binary. It’s not that you can or can’t do something. There are three stages between level one—can’t do it at all—and level five—can do it without even thinking about it. Let’s examine stages two, three, and four.”

Two, three, and four

Level two is that you can do it, but you require a lot of help.
Level three is that you can do it, but you require hints from someone else
Level four is that you can do it on your own, but you need to coach yourself through it

I work through each, using the French horn as an example.

“At your first French horn lesson, the teacher would explain how to hold the instrument, where to put your mouth, and that if you press keys one and two—and the thumb valve—you’ll be playing an A. To help you learn it, she extends her first two fingers towards the ground and says, ‘Do you see how those two fingers sorta look like the letter A?’”

“And, then, you make your first sound. An A. Voila, you are now at level two. You can play the French horn, horribly, and only with lots of help.”

“The teacher teaches you B, second finger—’like the second letter of the alphabet is a B, it’s just key number two.’”

“At the next week’s lesson, you remember how to hold the instrument—maybe you get a little help adjusting it—and the teacher asks you to play an A. You look up, see her two fingers. With this hint, you—now at stage three—play an A.”

“Learning involves gaining competence—requiring less and less assistance.”

“You go home and practice; remembering the teacher’s two fingers in the air, you are able to remind yourself how to play an A. This is level four.”

“After a few weeks of practice, you can play an A without having to see her fingers either in person or in your mind—you just play it. This is level five.”

Everything you learn follows those five stages.

If you want to learn to be kind to yourself, have hope, or stop drinking, you might work with an expert to help you go from stage to stage.

  1. You are unable to do the task
  2. You can do the task with great assistance
  3. You require external hints
  4. You hint to yourself
  5. You can do the thing seamlessly without even thinking about it

Pro-Tip: Practice

You want to move up in competence? Practice.

Shantideva wrote: There’s nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity.

If you want to get better at being a stressed-out, news junky, keep tuning into the news.

If you want to get better at unhealthy eating, eat unhealthy foods.

There is nothing that doesn’t get easier to do the more you do it.

If you want to get better at having hope, practice having hope.

If you want to get better at being compassionate, practice compassion.

There is nothing that doesn’t get easier to do the more you do it.

If you want to get better at playing the French Horn, practice playing the French horn.

User Notes: Stress and kindness


If you have ever been driving, almost been in an accident, pulled off the road, and found yourself talking to yourself about how to drive—”OK, put your foot on the brake, shift the car into drive, breathe”—then you’ve experienced how stress can demote you one capability level.

Driving—assumingly something you do without thought, level five—after the near accident, is now something you require yourself to talk yourself through, level four.

Students often see this as they know a concept at a level four and then the stress of the test causes them to need external hints: “Come on, Mr. Rabbi, I know this. I do. I just need a little hint.”

In times of stress, our ability slips back a stage.

(You can argue with this, but that’s only going to get you to be better at arguing with reality.)

This “stress-slip” is one of the reasons that our patience is so hard to master. Because even when we get ourselves to stage four—with techniques at the ready to remind ourselves not to get angry—we get triggered, which slips us to stage three, and—WHAMMO—we are not able to self-regulate!


My first French horn teacher, whose personality I might have surmised by his email—Sir_Richard@not-his-real-name.com—was exacting.

The breathing techniques he assigned after my second lesson were beyond my competence. At lesson three, did my best and laughed at my own inability.

(Sir) Richard was not amused.

In lesson four, I played a B for a whole note where the music called for a B flat.

(Sir) Richard told me I needed to try harder.

In lesson five, he told me that I kept playing ahead of the beat, explaining, “anxious people play like that and you don’t want to do that.”

We had no lesson six as I told (Sir) Richard, and he agreed, I might be better served by a different teacher.

Jen, my current teacher, praises me a lot.
She usually teaches middle school kids.
I’m her oldest student to date.

“Brian, your sound was very good on the first two lines. I’m liking how you are keeping your air going. You deserve extra credit.”

“You know I’m taking this pass/fail, right?”

We laugh a lot.

I find it much easier to learn this way.

In the words of Lao-Tzu: kindness in words creates confidence.

Going forward

I have a placard on my wall: “Where are we going if we’re not going to love?”

For us to grow—to make music together, if you will—let us practice encouraging one another. And being kind to ourselves.

Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box oldrotb.wpengine.com, an internet-based, global group of 3K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.

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