Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning How to Learn

One the most difficult things to learn (and to teach!) is how to learn in the first place. In other words, what is the process behind learning and mastery? How do we as musicians or other artists use our mistakes to grow and get better?

This is a difficult thing for many students to understand, because in school we are often taught (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not), that learning is meant to be a passive experience. We sit still and listen to the teacher, then regurgitate what we've been told. We memorize information for a test, then forget it a few weeks later. Schools are often not structured to allow for true mastery of any particular skill, and much of the information they teach is irrelevant enough in day-to-day life that students don't bother mastering anything it on their own. They've never learned to take control of their own learning process, or what are the steps towards the deep learning mastery takes.

I see this all the time with music students. They learn the notes of a piece, but not how to make it sound beautiful or expressive. They do what the teacher asks in class, but when they go home to practice they don't actively correct their mistakes or think carefully about their technique. Instead, they just play through pieces, making the same mistakes over and over again in hopes that somehow it will get better the next time.

It's very tricky to get students out of this mindset. I've tried many different approaches. First, I try to have students repeat back instructions in their own words. This tells me if they understand what I'm saying, but more importantly, I hope that it teaches them to be their own teacher. After all, that's part of our goal--to get students to recognize and fix their own mistakes when they practice, instead of relying on a teacher to hold their hand.

Next, I try to focus on "process" instructions, instead of basic corrections. I want my students to have a "routine" to run when they make a mistake. If they hear a wrong note, for example, what steps do they need to take to fix it? Each technique might require a different set of steps, but once they know the routine they can fix problems on their own. When students are playing wrong notes, my first step is to have them sing the note names. Subsequent steps might be playing very slowly or playing pizzicato.

It's important that students take active control of their practicing. I tell them that they should feel like their brain is really working the entire time that they are playing. If they lose focus, it's time to try a variation or find a different approach that keeps them on task.


  1. I have them identify the more difficult spots in a piece and have them isolate those measures so they don't get in the habit of playing straight through. I want them to go over and over the hard spots and then put them back into the piece. For the little ones (beginners) that's usually getting from an open string back to, say, third finger on the string below. Really hangs them up.

    You're right...they certainly don't 'learn how to learn' in school.

    1. Ahh, the trap of "playing straight through" is the worst! I tell them to play slowly, isolate the difficult sections, but then they go home and play it straight through! Then again, when are they ever taught to focus on the difficult problems at school? In most classes and on standardized tests, they're taught to answer the questions they know and skip the ones they don't. What a terrible way to learn!

  2. As a general rule, I spend the majority of my time in lessons helping the student with "how to practice" the piece they're working on. This includes discussion and demonstration from both the student and myself.

    I emphasize the difference between practicing a performance (playing through) and problem solving. Problem solving is a very focused effort addressing a specific problem the student is having with a passage, phrase or small section of a piece.

    The idea is to focus only on the problem. If the issue is a two measure syncopated phrase, then we break down those two measures, get the sequence of notes correct, and then loop the phrase (playing it like an endless repeat) at a tempo they can get it correct, speeding it up until they're up to or just past the speed they need. Then we work on the transitions into and out of the phrase.

    I emphasize with them that they make this an exercise (like a proficiency or warm up exercise) for a while so that it "takes".

    My full explanation is that there are three things they need to practice; Proficiency, Performance and Problem Solve.

    I often use a sports analogy with them to help them grasp the concept. If they've ever played in a team sport they will be aware of the different activities, usually general strength and agility training (proficiency), scrimmages (performance) and drills (problem solving).

    I read an article a while back about behavior of top athletes that hit home for me. One example was a basketball player fixing a problem with their hook shot. He was having a problem with his release; how the ball rolls of the fingers. To address that issue and get the most out of his available practice time, he removed all the activities that don't fix that problem, like dribbling, extra moves and fakes, and bringing the ball up the court. He would carve out some time every day standing basically in one spot and practicing his release over and over. Focus on the problem and solve it, then move on.

    1. Those are good ideas. I try to teach kids how to practice, but I think it's hard, especially with middle school students. They don't have a good understanding of being methodical and precise.

      I think the sports analogy is good, but not all kids play sports, or play them well. I can't tell you how often I emphasize careful, deliberate practice that focuses on solving problems, only to find students playing through pieces instead of working like I ask. It's frustrating. One student I wrote SLOWLY on her music in huge letters, in hopes that she'd work carefully and slowly. Sadly, she did not.