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How to Use the 4 S.E.L.T. Practices to Ignite Student Learning 

Feb 09, 2023
by Michael Hanko


A few years ago, I received a text message from MBMS founder and longtime colleague Peter Jacobson in which he proposed that our organization's educational approach could be distilled down into two core practices: slowing down and listening. As I considered the accuracy of Peter’s suggestions, I wrote back and said there were two other practices core to our way of working: experimenting and trusting. He agreed and we soon realized that our 4 combined practices created a nice little acronym: S.E.L.T.

  • S is for Slowing Down
  • E is for Experiment
  • L is for Listening
  • T is for Trusting

In this article, I’d like to share how these 4 simple yet powerful practices can be used to increase the quality and effectiveness of your music teaching. (This material will be covered in greater detail in a class I’m teaching on this material in our winter teaching festival.)

Let’s get started with the first letter – S. 

In Slowing Down, we acknowledge that our habitual way of being in the world is not necessarily the state that will produce the best learning. We can literally slow down our movements, the tempo of our speech, the tempo of our music in order to connect more fully to ourselves and what we are working on. We can invoke pauses in our activity for reflection and for making non-habitual choices.

In a more metaphorical sense of Slowing Down, we can shift into a pattern of being gentler with ourselves and more patient with the process of learning, which happens according to its own unpredictable timeline. We can strategically simplify problems, gradually increasing the level of difficulty as students’ skill increases. We can hone our sensitivity to know when a student (or ourselves!) is becoming overwhelmed or when they are on the verge of a discovery and could use just an extra couple of moments for the “aha” to drop in. Our MBMS approach, in its dedication to Slowing Down, creates spaciousness around the act of learning. In this environment, more can be seen, experienced, understood, retained.

Experimenting is the basic raw material of a lesson: WHAT you do with your students to bring them to a higher level of artistry. Unlike a rote hashing-out of exercises or a mechanical run-through of a piece of music, an experiment arises out of a particular curiosity—what happens if…..? It invites paying attention to every subtle aspect of experience and builds up a vast store of understanding. Instead of simply repeating something mindlessly in the hopes that some magical improvement will happen, it encourages the student to bring a conscious shift in how they are bringing their energy into play. This empowers them to repeat successful strategies and build on them.

In the MBMS, our experiments often involve very simple shifts in a student’s approach to the act of performing. What happens if you pay attention to the contact of your feet on the ground when starting that phrase? What happens if you keep your peripheral vision activated as you approach that high note? What happens if you keep your knees soft when playing the accented beats?

Each phase of the lesson/experiment gives the student a new insight into how our thinking and our whole-body doing can cooperate to produce ease, skill, and joy in making music.

As we experiment, Listening in a state of non-judgment lets us perceive the process. Listening in the MBMS way involves all of our senses, not just our hearing. Here we are committed to getting beyond the right/wrong dichotomy so that we and our students can learn to hear (and see and feel and sense) what IS, unclouded by what we think something should be.

Most of us have been raised to listen purely aesthetically. We have been encouraged to decide what we like and dislike. And so, when we hear ourselves, we can’t accurately perceive it or notice what we are doing with our whole body in producing it. We are disposed to feeling bad about what we are hearing and thus about ourselves. In this state, learning can not happen.

We can, however, learn to get beyond these limitations and to be objective in hearing our own sound while perceiving our whole selves. At the MBMS, we have noticed that when students adopt a state of non-judgmental listening, they easily get out of their heads. Then the in-born wisdom of their systems kicks in to correct whatever is out of balance in their music-making. This seemingly magical improvement happens without the student even needing to try to bring about a change.

Trusting isn’t something that can be done; it’s an inevitable outcome of applying the learning framework of Slowing Down, Experimenting, and Listening. But there are some concepts you can keep in mind to help you “fake it till you make it” with authentic Trusting:

  • You can trust that each of us is a perfectly designed organism, created to learn and to make music.
  • You can trust that learning happens when a person pays attention in the moment.
  • You can trust that a constructive thought, repeated many times, will eventually create a profound and lasting change. (Just as a slow drip of water on a rock creates a deep groove over the years.)
  • You can trust that we can each access our full potential even when our thoughts are loudly proclaiming the lie of our inadequacy.

As you return to your teaching after taking the class, you will find that Trust begins to arrive for real as you experience the power of S.E.L.T. over and over again. You will relax into the Trust of the teaching process, the Trust of your students capacity to learn, the Trust of yourself as a teacher and as a human being. Then your students will be supported by your Trust as they develop their own S.E.L.T.-based trust.

(Editor's Note: Michael will be offering a class at our 2023 Winter Music Teaching Festival on this same content. Learn more here.)

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