If you don’t know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.
— Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged)
A learning experience is one of those things that says, “You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.”
— Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt)
The Road to Hope
I’m headed to Hope in a Volkswagon camper. My guts are churning with a nervousness that is six parts excitement, four parts fear, or maybe it’s the other way around. I look to the back of the van for the umpteenth time to be sure I have my trumpet, mutes, small percussion instruments, and the all-important microphone Alan—who I have yet to meet in person—has requested.
Hope, Alaska, population 165, sits southeast of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, twenty miles as the raven flies, but an hour and a half by road. It’s a gorgeous drive, but I’m too nervous to appreciate it. The skinny road to Hope is tucked against mountains on the left and hugs the silty shore of Turnagain Arm on the right. Further south it wends through a dense forest of black spruce. The southernmost peaks of the Chugach mountain range rise up directly from the narrow inlet, a narrowness that causes one of the largest bore tides in the world. Bone-white beluga whales rise from the gray water like fat ghosts, feeding on squid and small fish. Surfers bob on their boards in the frigid water, waiting for the four-foot wave of the bore tide to take them on a ride that can last up to a mile if they manage to stay on the board. Goats on the cliffs above the road stare back at tourists. Much as I want to stop to watch this typical summertime Alaskan scene, I can’t. I’m late.
As I glance at the surfers, my mind flits from thoughts of surfing, to the improvising challenge ahead of me, then to Baja Mexico, where I learned to surf and further honed my imporvising ability, such as it was at the time. Baja is where I first experienced a flow state while improvising, a profound and influential event. Baja was also where I made the friend-of-a-friend connection that put me where I am now, heading toward a gig in Hope with musicians I’ve never met, to play music I’ve never played and which I fear is beyond my ability to play well. This could be extremely, and publicly, embarrassing. What was I thinking? The fact that the gig was in Hope was some consolation because there wouldn’t be much of a crowd, of course, but it still made me nervous. Turns out, these kind of experiences are some of the best ways to learn.
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
Have you ever been around someone who is very funny and you become funnier when you’re around them? Or maybe you’ve played Scrabble with someone who pushed you toward more seven letter words, or played basketball with (or against) an opponent or team who brought out abilities beyond those you normally bring to the game. All of us can find examples of this increase of ability around certain people: teachers, friends, rivals, or in certain situations. It’s an experience that’s exciting, but which can also be taxing and stressful because you’re trying so hard to maintain that higher level. The time and space in which this heightened ability takes place has a name, coined by Lev Vygotsky. It’s called the zone of proximal development.
The gig in Hope was my first truly challenging experience with the zone of proximal development, though I didn’t know it was called that at the time. Here’s how psychologist Lev Vygotsky, defined the Zone of Proximal Development:
The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978)
Born in Russia in 1896, Lev Vygotsky became interested in things like childhood development, the psychology of play and art, cultural mediation and the internalization of learning. He was fascinated by the way we communicate, both verbally and culturally, internally with ourselves and externally with others, and how this communication gets adopted—and owned—by members of the culture. Though there are many fascinating Vygotskyian ideas to pursue, the zone of proximal development embodies several of them. Let’s take a closer look at it.
A snippet of Vygotsky’s definition that most needs explanation for me is “problem solving.” For me, this evokes images of someone sweating over a ratty math textbook while trying to figure out some needlessly tedious word problem. In music the problem to be solved could be a difficult run or pattern of notes and the challenge is to get it to come out of my horn in a pleasing way. Although these are certainly forms of problem solving, Vygotsky’s use of the word means a whole bunch of other stuff, too. Here’s one way to think of the ZPD in music. Insert the word “playing” as in “playing music” in place of “problem-solving” and you’ve got the essense of the concept. The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent playing and the level of potential development as determined through playing under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.
Alone, you’re able to complete the task up to a certain level. With help, you can perform the task at a higher level, but there is an upper limit to that, too. A diagram—known in ZPD terminology as a scaffold—will probably help you better understand at this point.
Imagine the process a child goes through while learning how to speak. That child is constantly in the ZPD because she’s often trying to communicate with adults who have vastly superior amounts of practice at communicating. She gets constant feedback (an important topic we’ll cover later), not only directly in the form of verbal correction or prompting, but also in dozens of indirect ways, like the facial expressions, body language, and behaviors of those with whom she tries to communicate.
Or imagine playing a video game against someone who is a lot better than you; in fact you get smoked pretty regularly; you can’t beat this person. If you’re tired of getting beaten, you’ll watch what your opponent does closely, you’ll pick up tricks and shortcuts, ask questions, take stock of your own shortcomings and make changes, seek feedback. In short order, you get better. In this kind of situation, you have to really dig in to keep up, and that’s what improving is all about. Whether there is overt competition or not, the ZPD is a demanding place to hang out, but it’s a great place to be if you seek improvement. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
So how can knowing about the ZPD help you? Being aware that something exists is the first step toward harnessing it for more efficient use, right? Think about a skill that you’re learning or would like to learn. Which situations would place you into the ZPD? What activities? Who are the people that would help you increase your ability while you’re with them? Are they available for you to study or hang out with? Hanging out is cheaper and usually more fun, of course. Are there any rivals who you think are slightly better than you so you can pit yourself against them, either directly or by remote comparison? Actively seek out and take advantage of these resources, because they’re the best ways to improve your ability in any task, not just music. Once you’re in a situation in which you’re struggling to catch up or keep up–when you’re in the zone of proximal development–there are certain things to be aware of that will push your understanding and your performance even higher. If your teacher and/or friends don’t understand how these concepts work, you can share them so that everyone is on the same page and you can all make more progress.
I’m thankful the improvised music I tried to make in Hope at the Seaview Inn with Jazz Farm is lost to time but I’m grateful for the experience not only for the learning, but because it introduced me to a style of music I’ve come to love and admire above any other, Django-Reinhardt-style Gypsy Jazz. That performing experience was both fun, nerve-wracking, and occasionally embarrassing for all
the reasons you might imagine. At one point an audience member (one of three, so no stage-diving that night) felt inclined to tell me, “you’re not as good as these other three.” Ouch. He was right, and the experience was a great motivator and a necessary stepping stone to becoming a better player. I played a lot with Jazz Farm over the next year, including a couple festivals and a tour of Southeast Alaska that was a highlight of my summer, and I was in the Zone of Proximal Development every time we played. I owe a debt of gratitude to Alan and Amanda for giving me the space to learn and the opportunity to play.
The thing to constantly remind yourself about the Zone of Proximal Development is to put aside your pride and your fear and give yourself up to the learning experience, whether you’re sitting down and playing with musicians, are practicing with a teacher or more accomplished peers, or playing along with a recording that far surpasses you while your family and others in your sonic penumbra can hear you struggling. It’s a good idea to focus on the sounds and try to ignore how self-conscious you’ll probably feel. Make it about the music, not you, and improvement will happen a lot faster.
Have fun, and good luck with your practice!
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press.