Me, Outside my Zone of Proximal Development

Bear with me on this one …

Yesterday was full of music for me, but I was challenged in ways that I have not been challenged for some time and it made me reflect a bit on those students of mine whom we do push and cajole to move onto unfamiliar ground and how uncomfortable the experience can be in the moment for them, but how empowering the effect can be later on as a learning experience.

I have been asked to play my saxophone for a jazz-infused service at our family church in two weeks. With a bunch of professional jazz musicians. On songs that I really don’t know. On a saxophone I have not really touched much in the past seven or eight months. I said yes, but then, as I listened to the other guys at practice yesterday, I gulped and wondered if I had done the right thing. I am way, way out of my league with these guys. These folks play in touring bands, run music programs at colleges, they pull chords and melodies from their heads, they are immediately in sync with each other.


I was a fish out of water yesterday as we ran through the six or so songs that we will be playing, with two more to be written by the piano player “for the occasion.” They all nodded at that, but all I could think was: I sure as heck hope he writes it out for me.

I could feel my brain working overtime just to find the right notes as we played, since all of the music was in C concert key and I was on my tenor sax, which a Bb instrument. I had to transpose on the spot and then keep in time, and then take solos from time to time, and I really did not know what I was doing.

I was at the upper reaches of my Zone of Proximal Development, for sure, and they were unknowingly moving me forward. The trick for me was to keep going, to remember what I was learning so that I would not make the same mistakes the second (or third) time around, and then, now that I am home, to practice what I learned. I want to be near the Zone where these guys are, if only for this upcoming performance. I want to find a place inside this musical bubble.

Later in the day, I was with other musical friends. Now, here, I was on bass and we were practicing for the first time for a benefit concert coming up next month (more on that another day). I am not a bass player in the slightest and my fingers plodded along on the fretboard as I searched for root notes. But, like the morning jazz session, I was determined to keep up and by the end, I think I pretty much had it grooving. This was a little less stressful setting — no professional musicians in the house — but still a learning experience.

So, how does this all help me as a teacher?

My discomfort reminds me of those students who often venture into a new subject or a weak area and feel themselves grasping at straws just to keep up. Instead of swimming, they feel themselves sinking. For me, the musicians I was with in both settings yesterday were patient with me (although in my own head, I heard the invisible negative comments and I had to shush myself towards quiet) and this support allowed me to make mistakes. But I had a responsibility, too. I could not give up. My students also have to be encouraged to keep pushing forward when they run into a wall. To not give up. They need to see small steps of success to know that larger accomplishments lay around the corner. And we, as teachers, have to be there to help them swim. We can’t let them sink.

Yes, I was uncomfortable yesterday, but today, I woke up thinking of the structure and melody of Thad Jones “A Child is Born” and the bass line to “Collide” by Howie Day, and that little run on the original song performed by a former student for the concert, and the backup singing to “Fireflies” by Owl City, and how I am going to solo on “When the Saints Go Marching In” and how, darn it, I need to make time in my days ahead to practice so that I can push myself forward.

That’s called learning, right?

Peace (in the zone),

One Comment
  1. That’s called learning all right.
    And that’s you being a good teacher, making those connections, 24-7. How can we lower the stakes? Is the support of others enough to keep the students plugging away and making time for practice?

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