This is Your Own Foot, In Which You Have Just Shot Yourself — or, Why TEFL Teachers Should Read The Inner Game of Music

Not long ago, I was riding the escalator up to the local subway station when I saw an ironic — but not very surprising — sight. I don’t know if it’s common outside of Korea, but around here, women who are wearing skirts — not even necessarily short ones — tend to hold their purse behind their legs, to hold the skirt down and, presumably, to fend off perverts trying to shoot upskirt images. (Yeah, it’s an issue here.)

Well, on this particular day, a young woman doubtless acting on habit did exactly this. She slipped her purse behind her, but her skirt was kind of poofy and the purse somehow got hooked onto it, so that when she unconsciously raised the purse up, she unintentionally hoisted the skirt up and gave everyone on the escalator a look at her polka-dot underwear.

(I was too far away to say something, and I guess the other three people on the escalator figured she was better off not knowing, because nobody said anything.)

How often does this happen? Not wardrobe malfunctions, mind you: I mean someone trying so hard to prevent something from happening, that instead they make the one thing they’re trying to avoid become inevitable.

That’s fascinating. Or at least, I find it endlessly interesting how people are able to shoot themselves in the foot. On that subject, last summer I reread an interesting book by Barry Green and Tim Gallwey, titled The Inner Game of Music, which a musician named Doug Gilmour — my saxophone instructor for the first two years of my undergrad studies in music — recommended to me many years ago. I read it carefully then, but rereading it, I found just how applicable it was to some of the things I was teaching and will be teaching again this semester, like Public Speaking.

The Inner Game series is a line of books that have been around since the 80s, and which focus on a simple idea: that when we learn things in the “normal” way, by being give guidelines and rules, we develop a split within ourselves: the part of us that is able to learn to do things naturally, organically, as an extension of things we already can do and know how to do and as a natural experience, versus the side of us that clings to the the rules and guidelines and injunctions.

The big idea — and I’d call it in insight, really, is that the side of oneself that is capable of organic learning, of performance, of building on natural experiences and abilities, is capable of amazing things because many of the things we do, no matter how difficult-seeming, are essentially human activities: skiing depends on human physiology, playing the contrabass is a very human activity, singing is someone built on human anatomy and physicality, tennis is a sport designed for humans to play — if only they would listen to their own muscles and joints and their own sense of rhythm and movement. The other big insight is that the side of us that clings to the rules and guidelines and injunctions tends to be the side to which teaching caters; it is the side through which people are encouraged to learn, in ways that specifically privilege intellectualization and demote intuition, feeling, and awareness of one’s own body and emotions.

That is to say, when we learn to do things like play tennis, or the contrabass, or ski, or play saxophone, we’re taught to focus on “how to do X” rather than to focus on “how doing X feels and sounds.” Since we’re focusing on a set of rules, a set of algorithms, we’re more easily distracted from the innate physicality of performance, and this leads to us shooting ourselves in the foot — or, as Tim Gallwey calls it, self-sabotage.

One example is when you are learning to bow a violin. You get told all kinds of things, such as at which angle to hold the bow, which fingers to use to balance the bow, how hard to press (or not to press) the bow against the strings of the violin, how quickly or slowly to move our bowing arm, and so on. The problem is, bowing a violin is an extremely physical experience, and the truth is that if you truly want to bow a violin well, you need to be aware of how it feels, of which muscles you’re using, how how relaxed those muscles are (or aren’t), and so on. Because of the way most of us learn, we over-focus on the external “knowledge” and forget to pay attention to the inner experience.

The (for some, somewhat cheesy, but quite useful) analogy used to describe these states in the Inner Game books is of Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the part of you that is focused on the externalities and goals and timetable, and reprimands, directs, or constrains your action and performance: the part of you caught up in the intellectualized rules you’ve learned. Self 2 is the part of you that knows how a violin should feel in your hands, how the pressure of bow on string should feel, how the sound should resonate in your arms and chest, how it ought to sound in the air, as well as your inner motivation to express yourself, and your natural ability to grasp and internalize the same things that have been concatenated and collated into the “rules of thumb” and “guidelines” that constitute the content of pedagogy.

When you’re busy listening to Self 1, what happens is that this voice crowds out the simpler, quieter voice of Self 2. You don’t relax and concentrate. You hold back, you shoot yourself in the foot, and then you wonder how you could be so unaware of what you’ve already learned.

Those who teach English in Korea probably are nodding their heads, as this is obviously applicable to language learning and language pedagogy; Korean students have long been overloaded with grammar in the primary and secondary education levels, mostly because plenty of Korean instructors can’t teach them anything else. Grammar is important, but grammar can be internalized in many ways, and unfortunately if you’re just drilling people on it in the abstract, what you’re going to do is build up an immense capacity for self-sabotage. This is why, when they are in the middle of a conversation, plenty of Korean English professors I know can speak pretty flawlessly, but when they are constructing examinations, they have to come to people like me to confirm where this or that little grammar point is correct… even when it’s a point they themselves have mastered in conversational contexts.

Anyway, since I don’t really teach so much TEFL these days, I haven’t done any work on integrating these concepts into conversational English courses, or reading & writing courses; but I have done some work integrating it into my Public Speaking course, where it works wonders. (There’s an especially useful insight into anxiety and nervousness, stage fright, in The Inner Game of Music — which is, to get students to confront, talk about, confront, and work through their anxiety consciously. I’ve had slightly less success with it in my conversational English course, but then, I only tried it the last time around, and a lot of those students were at an advanced level, and beyond the anxiety issues I’m talking about. I think this would be much more applicable at the beginner or low-intermediate level.)

If you’d like to try some of these techniques out, and see how they help students in their mastery of the performance of English speaking, I highly recommend The Inner Game of Music.

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