I’ll begin with the disclaimer that I’m no psychologist (well, at least not one by trade; I think every teacher is a psychologist to a certain degree). I haven’t spent years studying the theories of cognition, or the parts of the brain, or what it is that makes us able to function as we do. Or have I…?
What do we do when we learn a new instrument? We hone physical coordination. We attune our ears in new and different ways. We exercise our sense of rhythm. We train our eyes to focus on tiny little black lines and dots, and our brains to make sense of those otherwise meaningless symbols. But if I may be abstract for a moment, I’d like to argue that through this journey, we also learn how we ourselves learn. It’s the difference between “teaching to the test” for a specific desired result and mastering a concept that can be applied to any variety of questions that arise. If you just memorize the answers to last year’s exam, you’re not going to be able to ace the question that asks you to apply the theory or concept to a new problem. Similarly, if you just memorize the notes as they’re written in above the music for that one piece, when you’re presented with a new piece of music, it’s going to look like hieroglyphics all over again. Back to the drawing board. Or, to be a bit more mundane, it would be like a handyman showing up to do some repairs with only a Phillips-head screwdriver in his toolbox. Hex-wrench? Sorry, you’re going to have to call someone else for that job.
As musicians, we need to have a personal arsenal of tactics for addressing our various and sundry issues, and know when and how best to apply those tactics. I’m a big proponent of breaking stuff down and making it easier for my brain. I often ask my students if they’d shove an entire piece of pizza in their mouth at once. The answer I hope for is “no”; I usually get that answer, but it, ahem, depends on the age and gender of the student… Regardless, the pizza analogy stands: take little bites. Chew slowly and thoroughly. You can digest it better, and my goodness does it make for a more pleasant experience in the end. Speaking from a pianistic standpoint: lots of arpeggiated chords? Play them as blocked chords until your hand understands the feeling of those chords. Tricky leaps? Isolate and practice the leaps faster than they need to happen in real-time. You wouldn’t run a marathon to train for a 5K race, so why tackle an entire piece at once when you can work in smaller chunks and build up to a successful end result?
Analysis is also critical in the “learning how to learn” process, I believe. Look for patterns. Reduce a piece of music as much as possible – do those four measures return three times? Well, great! When you’ve learned four measures you’ve actually learned twelve. What? The piece is only 24 measures long? You’re halfway there! These are the conversations I have both with myself when practicing and with my students as we start looking at a new piece. The most glorious moment comes, though, when you draw from what you mastered in a previous piece and apply it to a new one. “Hey, that fingering we talked about in the B major scale just made sense in context in this one section of the piece!” (See? Even the oh-so-torturous scales serve a purpose, students!) In that recognition, the student has shown their internalized mastery of the concept and a way to personalize it so it fits within their own realm of musicianship. I’ve often wanted to throw confetti in the air when a student has a moment like this; not because it’s a time to be self-congratulatory, but rather because that’s a BIG STEP in working toward the ultimate goal of every teacher, whether we realize it or not: obsolescence. We love you all very much, students, but someday, you’ll be able to take off the training wheels and do a lot of this on your own. And we’ll watch you ride off into the sunset, knowing that you’ve learned what it takes to…learn. Good for you.