Learning is not linear

So, I'm now teaching middle school.

Following a calling is an incredible thing. I've found that it's best to not ask why I feel called to do something - I've just got to do it. Not that I'm impulsive, necessarily - I believe, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, that things grow within us without our awareness before they seem to spring up out of nowhere in our lives. The roots of this project go deep, even though a mere five months ago it was unknown even to me.

In order to best serve my students, I prepared. I researched curriculum. I reviewed the finer points of quadratics and quadrilaterals, colloids and covalents, appositives and apostrophes. I developed a daily schedule, put together a ton of IKEA furniture, and meditated on my vision for the school year.

Man, was I in for a surprise.

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Start at the end

Here we go! Another one of Casey's ridiculously counter-intuitive posts. Start at the end. It doesn't get more contrarian than that, does it?

This is the way I was taught to practice, and I continue to do it because it works. Time and time again I share this practice technique with my students, and I can always tell when they follow my directions because their playing sounds smoother and more confident. Learn how and why starting at the end works so well. Don't worry, we won't be going backwards.

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How it's supposed to feel

Most of what you do should feel easy.

If it's not, you're taking on too much. Either your task is too big or you're moving too fast.

Break it down.

Breaking things down is a challenge in itself. It forces you to think critically about what you're doing - looking for the main ideas, sorting priorities. If you make that the hardest part, actually carrying out the tasks won't be such a headache.

This has immediate application if you're learning a piece of music. I'm trying to keep it in mind as I set about writing a book.

Where will it help you most to slow down and break it down?



Be a beginner

Kira, an eighth-grader, has been doing amazingly well learning to play and sing pop songs, to the point where she can do it pretty much on her own now. So, I suggested that she start writing songs.

She said that she had tried to write a song but, "I didn't like it."

I said, "Wouldn't you be surprised if the first song by a beginning songwriter was something you wanted to listen to?"

I have a first song. I wrote it nearly twenty years ago, and I remember it quite affectionately even though I was somewhat embarrassed by it at the time. All in all, there is only a handful of songs from my first five years of songwriting that I would consider performing onstage now. Thankfully, though, I've became a better songwriter, and now there are many songs I've written that I'm actually proud of.

Where's the fun in knowing how to do everything right from the start?I'm still a beginner in other ways, however. Currently, I am trying now to launch a new program that will allow children to explore a variety of musical instruments and games on a drop-in basis. I wish that we had dozens of exotic and expensive instruments and a polished presentation. Instead, it's more like what the above-average kid would own if he were very spoiled by Grandma, with an enthusiastic but not extensively experienced staff member helping out.

But so what? Is it going to be perfect, right out of the box? Hell, no - there isn't even a box. I'm making the whole thing up as I go along. I have to, as Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird, "write really, really shitty first drafts." I have to just let myself be a beginner, and perhaps Mastery will notice me laboring there in the trenches and bestow a little fairy dust on my endeavors.

I have no reason to think that my project won't work - or at least, evolve into something that will. I have taught many children, and everyone improves. Everyone gets better, even with vanishingly small amounts of effort in some cases. So I feel very confident in telling Kira that her songs will improve. I just won't tell her how long it might take.

In what respect are you a beginner?

Hat tip to E. R. Pidgeon for sharing the Lamott piece.

Beware the Song Machine

Along with learning things in the same spirit in which they were created, I believe in teaching things the way I learned them (while of course allowing for different learning styles). When working in pop music (i.e., anything that is not classical or jazz), this has some counter-intuitive implications.

Most guitar teachers (and those piano teachers who teach in pop/rock styles) learn the drill pretty quickly: student wants to learn Song X, teacher transcribes Song X after having spent a few minutes working it out by ear. Student goes home, dabbles with Song X, brings in Song Y, and the cycle continues.

Some teachers are especially enthusiastic about creating professional transcriptions for their students. They spend their own time outside of the lesson working out every detail of the recording.

This works - to a point. The student is learning songs. However, the teacher is actually the one learning the instrument. How's that for counter-intuitive?

Randy Pausch, in The Last Lecture, talks about the "head fake," in which students think they are learning one thing but are actually gaining something deeper. In this case, the teacher has set up his own head fake. He thinks he is teaching the student, but in reality, through the process of working out a song by ear, assimilating it, transcribing it, and then teaching it, the teacher is the one who gets the benefit. The student just gets the by-product!

Through the process of working out song after song, the teacher's musical ear gets ever sharper, his transcription skills get quicker, and his facility on the instrument increases. This, my friends, is how you actually learn how to play an instrument: by teaching yourself songs. That's how the teachers themselves learned (and continue to hone their abilities).

Yet, instead of teaching the student how to figure out songs, the teacher functions as the student's Song Machine: bring in a recording and the Song Machine will spit out a transcription, teaching the student nothing but the superficial details of how to play the song. This is the opposite of teaching something the way you learned it.

This whole idea dawned on me when I started getting annoyed at a couple of students who were bringing in songs each week, but never following through by learning them well. I felt taken for granted because they weren't even mastering the songs I was giving them. "I ain't yer Song Machine," I grumbled to myself. "I never had anyone to work out songs for me."

Hey! Wait! That was not a grievance: that was my secret weapon. I'd always been my own Song Machine. And after many years of playing and teaching, it's become a well-oiled machine.

At first, a student doesn't have the skills to work out a song by ear, so we usually start with a few simple songs. But right from the beginning, I'm going to show how those songs were built. As I model the protocol for figuring out a song, I will also explain what I'm doing and why, and get the student doing the heavy lifting as soon as possible. Teach a musician to fish, if you will. 

I hate just being the Song Machine for my students. There's no depth to it. The student gets the song, but the Song Machine gets to keep all the quarters.

To leap across a chasm in several systematic steps

When I was a kid, we had to do the President's Challenge for physical fitness. I failed every time, because I could not do a pull-up. Every year, I would watch the little monkeys in my class who could do a bunch in a row, and then I would get up there and struggle mightily while the P.E. teacher would say something like, "I think you did...one-quarter..." and make a note on my sheet.

I wished to avoid this humiliating display in the future, but I had no idea how. Every so often, I would go out to my swingset int the backyard and hang until my shoulders felt like they were going to pull out of their sockets, but I never could do a single pull-up.

I think of this when I have a student who requests to learn a piece well beyond their ability level. I think an exciting, challenging piece can be a great motivator, but there is a point where a piece can be so difficult it is truly inaccessible for the time being. The student will try and try, like I did with my hopeless backyard strength training, and get no return.

What's the alternative? Systematically breaking it down (yes, sorry, sometimes you have to be a geek if you want to do a thing well). Unfortunately, when I was a kid we did not have the Internet, but if we had, I would have been able to research pull-ups to learn how to do them, including ways to make them easier. I could learn about the muscles used in pull-ups, and create a plan for building strength in those muscles. I might also acknowledge that overall upper body weakness is an issue for me, and create a complete plan for strength training with the help of a personal trainer.

Maybe, after six months of focused, targeted, and carefully sequenced training I would do a pull-up on the first try. From there, I would finally build up the number of reps I could do in a row.

By contrast, I could take those same six months and spend a few minutes every day trying to do a pull-up to no avail. I strongly doubt I would be able to do a pull-up after six months of that, for two reasons: One, I wouldn't even get to the point where the correct muscles were supporting my body weight; and two, I would probably get bored and frustrated and quit three days into it.

So, back to the musical example. Usually, students have great intuition about which pieces are right for them to learn. But occasionally, not. "I want to learn 'Cliffs of Dover' because it's my favorite song on Guitar Hero." Okay, fine. Go ahead and download the bazillion-page tab and set about learning it. Learn a tiny lick every day. If you don't go mad in frustration within the first ten minutes, after six months you might be able to play the whole thing (if I painstakingly show you how to play every note that you can't figure out on your own).

On the other hand, you could spend those same six months learning fifty easier songs that use similar skills and a similar vocabulary. You can build fluency, speed, and technique while improving your musical ear and your reading skills.

After six months have passed, you may well be able to pick up most of "Cliffs of Dover" by yourself in just a week or two. You might not even need the tab for very much of it, because your fingers will "hear" different parts of the song and automatically go where they belong as a result of playing so much. Because in the process, you learned fifty other songs. You learned how to play the guitar, not just "Cliffs of Dover."

They say you must leap across a chasm in a single, dramatic, all-in move. Or you could go to school, become a civil engineer, and design a bridge that will enable you to easily walk across. The first way only works if it works, and most of the time it doesn't. The second way is built to work every time. Not as daring, but you'll get there in the end.

Where are you attempting with no visible progress? Is there an intermediate benchmark you could be striving for, or a more systematic way to achieve your goal?

A few extra beats

All of us learn by making connections between what we are learning and what we already know. This sometimes happens overnight or over a period of weeks, and sometimes it happens in a flash. The important thing is for the student to have the opportunity to make these connections, and with small children, I do this by allowing a few extra beats.

I had the privilege of working with a bunch of small children this week in our new intensive program and in some group classes. Besides the fact that they are pretty darn cute, it was fun because I got to try out some new activities and bring back some old favorites, including the following:

  • Bells - I recently acquired some resonator bells that can be arranged in various ways. I laminated six index cards with the numbers 1 through 6 and placed one number in front of each of six bells (C, D, E, F, G, and A). I had each of the kids roll dice and then play the bells with the corresponding numbers. This worked extremely well in both the group class and the private lessons.
  • Rhythm Cards - I took index cards, each with a quarter note, half note, pair of eighth notes, or a quarter rest, and arranged them into various patterns. I did not explain anything to the kids - rather, I just demonstrated each of the notes using certain words corresponding to each note value and let the kids go from there, words which I learned from Gina Branagan at Village Elementary School in York, Maine during my student-teaching experience.
  • Pattern Echo - In private lessons, we did a call-and-response activity where I played a melody pattern and the student played it back.

Throughout all these activities, as well as the spontaneous moments in between, I allowed the students to dictate the pace as much as possible. This can be a little disconcerting for the parents, who are paying a lot of money seemingly to watch their kid tinker around with some bells or tap the piano keys a little bit. In reality, however, there's a lot more going on.

For example, suppose I've handed the child the mallet for the bells. Before I play the dice game or say anything about the numbers, I've got to let the child explore the bells. In doing this, she is internalizing the relationships between the tones, working on her gross motor ability, engaging in creative experimentation, and developing her rhythmic ability and sense of pitch.

After a couple of minutes, she might run out of stuff to do on the bells and be interested in my game. But if I were to skip over her exploration time, she would have trouble following the more structured rules of my game.

In the rhythm card activity, I give the kids a few extra beats by sitting silently for a moment after I put out the cards. Each child is in his or her own little world, thinking out loud, trying the pattern, clapping, and tapping. I wait until everyone has tried the pattern (some kids do it a few times), and then I count off so that we can all do it together. When the kids are incorrect, I do not try to fix it - I simply model the correct pattern, and let them make the correction themselves. By doing it this way, every child has the opportunity to process the rhythm pattern, not just the quickest child. Furthermore, the focus is not on "did I get it right?" but on the process of solving the puzzle.

When working with small children, certain actions might seem willful or disobedient but they are not. A small child walking into a new environment will put a lot of energy into exploring it and processing it. This can't really be rushed - if you tell him it's time to go sit down and focus, he wil not be able to do this.

Today when I was working with one little boy, as I was playing a musical pattern for him to echo, he appeared disengaged but was able to play the correct pattern by ear. He looked like he was distracted, staring out the window, but in reality he was completely involved in what we were doing. His vacant expression was actually one of concentration! In this case, taking a few extra beats allowed me to realize what was happening and why, instead of reprimanding the child for not paying attention.

Small children are learning constantly - everything is so new for them, and learning is still joyfully process-oriented rather than product-oriented. Allowing a child (and yourself) a few extra beats after every question, or at various points in an activity, will teach you both a great deal.

Teaching isn't explaining: it's listening, observing and adjusting, and that goes both ways.