In a recent lesson with one of my students, we spent a great deal of time playing simple arpeggios followed by questioning:
"Did you notice what your cheeks felt like that time?"
"Is one side more tense than the other?"
When I first ask students questions of this nature, they sometimes smile and say, "What are you talking about?!"
Others feel discouraged that they aren't sure how to answer, since they've never been asked to consider such questions.
With this question, the student is given the opportunity to say "I don't know," free of judgement, to which I respond, "Great! Let's try it now!"
In our lesson, I asked the student to play her simple arpeggio as many times as needed to articulate a clear picture the shape and location of her tongue while slurring, and any tendencies to move during the arpeggio. Each time she played, she was able to add in more detail about the exact location and shape of the tongue in her mouth.
I asked her if she'd ever thought about it before and she said she had not.
This reminded me of several things.
First, not everyone has the same experience with self-perception. A similar exercise with another student, regardless of age or experience level, might look very different. The degree of detail and quickness to respond is not something available to everyone, but can improve with practice.
A Clearer Basis For Teaching
What else did I realize? As a teacher, I cannot see what is going on inside the mouth of another musician. We can see shifts visible on the outside and make assumptions about changes our student can make to improve, but asking the student what her current set-up is like before offering a suggestion for improvement can provide great clarity for both the student and teacher. We were both on the same page and speaking the same language. I could speak in very specific terms knowing the student would understand.
We Are Not Clones
I also tried to mimic her set-up myself to gain more insight into her experience, but the shape of our mouths are not the same. The size and width of our tongues and spacing of our teeth prevent us from creating the exact same experience. (Another important realization: our differences provide an even greater opportunity to express our individuality. No one else sounds or plays like you, and that is exciting to remember.)
Everyone is different. Guiding students to explore and patiently observe can lead to greater understanding from both parties.
Perhaps the inside of the mouth is difficult to perceive at first, but the fingers or the feet are easier for the student. Gauging self-perception in the student is key.
The student is an important part of the lesson! It's my job to help them improve. I always aim to lead my students to improve the foundations of their playing by finding easy, natural movement, but the specifics of this do not translate exactly from student to student. Once awareness is accessible, more is possible, and more exacting and specific instructions can replace vague ones. The entire experience is more vivid for the student, and exploration and experimentation become a tool available to them at any time.