The Scheherazade Principle

or How I Learned to Learn

My first bass teacher was a retired musician. He was tall, very old (from the perspective of a 13-year old girl), and very friendly. He showed his affection for us students in many ways. He smiled at us. He showed that he cared about us by extending our lessons almost every time. And he found reasons that our young, small hands were just not strong and big enough to stretch all the way to play in tune. He was forgiving and felt his job was not to burden us with too many challenges. After taking lessons from him for one year he retired.

My new teacher thought it was BS that our hands were too small. Playing out of tune wasn’t an option anymore. And while our ears had gotten used to following the lead of our small hands, he expressed vividly how this made him suffer. Listening to my unpolished scales was like eating dirt to him. So, he started to clean up. He told me when to stretch my 2nd finger to keep my scales in tune. “Good. No. Correct. Wrong. Lift your wrist, round your finger, slide your thumb….” He was the judge, and he explained what had to change to get the right results.

When I practiced by myself I used the same strategy. I played, listened, and analyzed what I could change technically to improve. And yes, my fingers hadn’t been too small, my ears hadn’t been too young. I learned to listen, to play in tune. I was the player and the judge.  This dual approach is critical to improve in any kind of art. What I did not notice was that this duality and the constant analytical reflection also brought a form of distance between me and my play.

After graduating from high school I got into music school and met my next bass teacher. I liked him because he had a charismatic personality, but I didn’t really understand his teaching. And furthermore, I didn’t even understand that I didn’t understand. He started each student with the same etudes by some guy called Finteisen. There is nothing more monotonous, repetitive, and uninspiring than those etudes. They were supposed to strengthen fingers and hands, and they had the musical charm of a dumbbell. But ok, I accepted their benefits. They seemed like fish oil that you have to take each day to stay healthy. You close your eyes, hold your breath, and get through it.

I had a far more difficult time with the way my professor wanted me to play them. He asked me to play them with incredible passion and  intensity — as if my fingers were Morse coding the secret code of our planet’s survival into the strings instead of just playing chromatically repetitive 3-tone phrases. To model what he meant he played for me, he hummed the “de-de-de-de” with eyes wide open, his head pulsing with every beat, his forehead lifted up high, his eyebrows dancing —  all to show me the intensity of play he was after. Literally every fiber of his body was playing Finteisen. I tried to copy his way, but I guess I was subconsciously hesitant to play those etudes as if they were Beethoven’s last message to the world. I understood that you had to swallow these bitter pills, but why serve them as if they were a romantic candle light dinner?

My teacher tried to inspire my play from many different angles. He was a very good piano player, and he was pushing me by accompanying me with an inexhaustible enthusiasm  – his never lit pipe always in his mouth. The piano always did the trick for me. It was like when an experienced dancer invites you to to just follow the lead (which never worked for me in dancing), and I did. When he felt that that we did a successful dance together, he would end with a smile and take a sip from his tea cup that always stood on the piano. Sometimes he would crunch down in the corner of the room, pretending he was a little child, and he wanted me to play my tune for that child in the corner, to shake off my distance and dive fully into the music.

I can’t recall a specific moment when it clicked for me, but his message began to sink in, week after week, little by little. He challenged me to give up that polarity of being a judge and player. He wanted me to put everything I had into each piece of music, into any kind of musical action, Finteisen or Mozart, practice or performance. He challenged me to give up the distance that I had previously kept by analyzing and correcting myself. I learned that I could be 100% player and still be aware of what I was doing, how I was sounding. I was still able to reflect about the next steps in my practice, but I would play as if there were no next steps.

painting of Scheherazade


He challenged me to give everything I have – every single time – like Scheherazade. Every night her story had to be good enough for the king to want more. Every night she would have gotten killed if her story was not fascinating enough. She couldn’t afford to wait until her story would become good enough, she couldn’t take a break to sharpen her skills or look for another great idea. Every single night she had to invent for survival. When my professor asked me to play for that imaginary child in the corner, he asked me to abandon my critical judge position and become Sheherazade, to fully immerse in what I was doing.

I now deeply believe in the Scheherazade principle. It cuts off false excuses. We can learn to give everything every time. We have the energy to play each note as if it was our last. This holistic way of learning moves us forward with a speed that the player-judge duality never could.

These days, when I paint with clients who haven’t had a paint brush in their hands since they were children, I ask them for the same attitude, to go all in and to suspend judgement. Many of them try to hide behind their lack of skills and their lack of creative talent at first. But it is utterly satisfying to see what happens once they immerse in the moment and begin to tell their Scheherazade story.

Thank you, Wolfgang!


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