The Levels of Learning


            One of the most frustrating aspects of learning music is when a bit of advice useless to you then offers another student dramatic positive change. Have you ever been there, being given a small snippet of information that seems to have been a lifesaver for someone else, but barely scratches the surface of your problems? I see it constantly, but there is a clear reason for it. The worth of a given piece of information is absolutely relative to the level at which a person is in their development.

            Whether you realize it or not, whether you like it or not, you are not nor have ever been a blank slate. You are the compound result of millions and billions of outside stimuli, constantly prodding you and your being in various directions and dimensions. You are the result of your culture, with thousands and hundreds of years of thought, reason, tradition and philosophy baked straight into your upbringing without you even realizing it. Every thought you have is inevitably nested within the surroundings of your upbringing. Every cogent neuronic firing in your brain is built upon all the philosophy embedded in your cultural traditions. This enables you and those around you to have social and mental shortcuts to more effectively communicate. Let’s be honest, thinking is hard. Developing a fully-framed and working philosophy of being and the world is a nigh insurmountable for a single man to develop whole-cloth. So, we outsource this job to the eons of time, to stories and traditions built up over centuries. If the end is a civilized society, then we might say that those stories, traditions and philosophy are a good and work well. Regardless of our opinions on that matter, it is inescapable that all of your thoughts, moral compass, and being are sprung from what came before you. This is also in part why there is more peace within culturally homogenous societies, and why marriages between people of vastly different cultural backgrounds have a higher rate of separation. If the thoughts of nearly everyone in your society is founded in the same tradition, there is less explanation that needs to happen for everything said and done.

            But what the hell does this have to do at all with playing and teaching an instrument? Because, as who we are as a person is wrapped up in layers and layers of understanding, the same is true of our individual disciplines, though admittedly on a very diminutive scale.

            The initial aspect of this is just how much has to be actively considered when first learning. Getting the most basic movements out of the way of your active conscious is one of the first steps towards proficiency at the instrument. Progressing each layer of playing is often little more than laying more and more movement into the realm of the subconscious.  

            Think, when you first start an instrument, you are stuck what are certainly simple motor patterns, but they seem difficult for a time. Why? Because you must actively think about every single one of them! Take for example, tying your shoe. Is it difficult for you now? No! At least, I hope it isn’t. If it still is, I’d imagine that either you were a young child (if so, peculiar but quality choice of reading material. You’ll go far) or that you suffer from some sort of acute mental retardation (if so, also a peculiar choice of reading material). It was difficult for you at one time, however. I certainly remember the process of learning to tie my shoes. A lot of my difficulty came from wanting to figure it out on my own, resulting in a rather messy, complicated lump of a knot. After being shown the proper movement I still found it frustrating and tiring to practice, trying to get it right every time. But before too long, you become increasingly acclimated to the motion, and now don’t even have to think much about it. It is encoded within your muscular memory. The cranial program labeled “tying shoes” has become so efficient that it has been relegated almost completely to your subconscious. Any skill, whether in sport, art, dance, or music, is based upon the same principle.

            Let’s now go to the violin and how this principle works there. When starting, the student has so much to actively think about. This is why I break down the necessary movements within each region of playing (violin and bow) and have them practice just those movements in isolation. Someone like myself can swing and sway the violin around (carefully, of course), lob it up to my shoulder without much thought and know for certain that it will go into the right place. If you’ve been playing the violin for even a year at this point, you can likely the same. A complete beginner, however, will not have the same level learning, and I must spend a few weeks carefully working with them to even put the violin in the right place on the shoulder. They have to be consciously and actively thinking about everything involved in putting the violin on the shoulder in the correct way. This trend continues into the hand-position on the neck, putting the fingers down on the instrument in the correct pattern with the correct joints, and of course, everything involved with the minute motor movements of bow technique. Once a student begins to get these things “under their fingers,” as the saying goes, they can move on to actually making some kind of sound with the instrument.

            These levels of learning continue all the way up into advanced playing, and I find it is helpful to be able to think of learning as little more than the process of moving things into the realm of the subconscious so that you can add another level of conscious thought. This is also where I can get to the main point of this article: the problems that arise when a teacher doesn’t adequately consider current levels of learning and instead gives instruction that only works at the teacher’s level, not the student’s.

            If you’ve read through my blog posts so far, you might have noticed that I have a peculiar derision for what I’d consider to be “bag of tricks” teachers, i.e. those that treat teaching the violin (or any other instrument, for that matter) as if it were such a simple process, throwing out little tricks and advices that seem to fix problems in the short term (often just within that lesson) but leave the student ill prepared to work things out consistently on their own. The teacher then gets to pat themselves on the back every successive lesson as they continue this bollocks throughout the day. Much of this stems from schools’ tendency towards hiring great performers, not pedagogues, likely with the interest of attracting naïve students and their loan money to prop up the inflated house of cards that is the modern conservatory system. But there is also the fact that many of these so-called teachers are giving “tricks” that actually work for them at their own level. If you have built up the levels of learning that it takes to be a concert artist, then what seems like a simple “trick” might really work for you. If you are not at this level, however, then much of what is being provided for in your lessons is nearly useless. Of course, it would also be useless if I was just moaning all day about the sad, current state of violin teaching, so I will do my best to proffer some solutions.

            Firstly, have a detailed, step-by-step understanding of how you do EVERYTHING that you will be teaching to your students. If you have an ability, but don’t have such a crystal-clear way of explaining it so that someone with the IQ of an above average turnip could maybe understand, then don’t teach it. On occasion you might be able throw out ideas for your more advanced and motivated students to play around with, but in 95% of cases you’d be best sticking to what you understand consciously, not just internally.

            Secondly, never stop exploring how to more adequately explain concepts to your students. This harkens back to an earlier post where I postulated that it is often those who were not as natural as performers who make better teachers. Those who, for the sake of their own playing, had to take apart and fundamentally understand every aspect of technique and musicality, might have a much clearer idea of just how to explain those ideas to others. Even so, your journey as a learner mustn’t stop when you are no longer officially a student. The best teachers that I’ve observed are like children in many respects, always finding newer and clearer ways to explain concepts and techniques.

            Thirdly, take into consideration the level of learning of each student is and add instruction accordingly. Talk to your students about the idea of the conscious versus the subconscious, about how learning an instrument is little more than slowly increasing the things you don’t have to actively think about. Have your students read books like “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell, or “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman to get a better idea of the subject. Avoid quick fixes that do little more than to stroke the shaft of your own ego but produce little productivity in the long run.

            And Fourth, don’t be afraid to explore ideas with your students, especially as they become more advanced. Playing an instrument well becomes more and more abstract the better you become. While the beginner is taught basic movements, the more advanced player must know what they are doing by feeling, hearing, and then making smaller and smaller adjustments. Getting to each new step requires certain level of brain rewiring, as well as a lot of active thought on the part of the student and the teacher. Stop acting like you are the all-knowing Oracle at Delphi and be open to trying different things and ideas with your students. As your students get much more advanced, it might not be as easy to judge exactly where their level of learning is. So, it is on you, the teacher, to figure out what cues and advices will help them. Some of this might be trial and error.

            Great teaching can only exist within the strange amalgamation of humility, confidence, and a desperate search for learning. Many have the confidence but lack the desperation for knowledge and certainly lack the humility. I believe we can raise up a generation of pedagogues at the highest level, circumventing the current bloated system, and breathe new life into higher classical music education. All it takes is a little care, a lot of drive, and a yearning for understanding how people truly learn. I’m up for this task. I hope you will join me.