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Learning How to Learn

October 9, 2013

When we go to the practice room it helps to understand what kind of work we are doing because different kinds of work require different learning strategies. As we start a new piece there is a period of data acquisition when we process a very large quantity of new information. This is labour intensive, as we break down melodies, rhythms, phrases and other things into meaningful bits of data that we can remember. Thinking of our musical assignments as a puzzle is useful because we are trying to assemble an internal image. Assembling puzzles is not a linear process: one moves from the simple to the complex, identifying signposts around which the other pieces fit. Stage one – build the puzzle.

The next step is to figure out how best to recreate this puzzle on your instrument – and this will usually require fingerings. If the piece is by a guitarist, the fingering codes will probably be intuitive, but some attention will be required. The great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska wrote that she only recognized she was really working on a piece when the erasure marks outnumbered the pencil marks. Fingering is an organizing process where we parcel bits of information into convenient mechanical units. Stage two – structure the mechanism.

Next wHaliburtob Sculpture Forest (9)e music make the knowledge active by running through the task many, many times. As we do this our knowledge of the music becomes more intimate, as we observe details repeatedly we notice different things. In general, the more simple a work appears to be the more complex its internal structure will be. As we run through the music we externalize the “puzzle” and examine the mechanism that we have built. Stage three – assess the work.

Now we must revise some of our fingerings, and solve a few problems to merge the internal image and the external one. Inevitably there are some things that need attention, and in doing so we revise our internal image  – making it more detailed as more and more nuances are included.  For example just yesterday I was having difficulty with one of my own pieces with two repeated notes – couldn’t seem to play them well enough until I chose to shorten the first one a bit at which point everything fell into place. Stage four – revise and reinvest.

Now is the time to set the physical memory – a period of intense repetition. We must be careful to repeat with intelligence making sure that we are using the minimum amount of force. We must remain mindful through every repetition, noting perhaps where things can be improved. For me the best strategy is to play more quietly each time – by take 25 I am not even pressing the strings down. One of the most provocative discoveries I have made is that as the external energy used goes down – the internal energy increases. In other words as I press less I have to imagine the notes more clearly. Stage five – set the physical movements.

Moving forward we start over preparing, making sure that the worst we can do is play perfectly. We must begin to play through our piece faster than the necessary starting at ten percent and moving towards 40 percent oHaliburtob Sculpture Forest (3)ver speed. For this stage it is essential to play with very little force because it is very tiring for the ultra-fine muscle sets. This tasks requires intense concentration – even just imagining the music faster requires huge stamina. As we approach 40 percent over the necessary speed many things crop up. We need to prepare our movements much further in advance, and organize our fingerings better. There is no time for extraneous gestures and long sequences must well planned. Stage six – over preparation.

One day Nasrudin and a friend borrowed a boat to go fishing. Together they caught over a dozen fine fish. As they were going home, the friend asked, “How are we going find our way back to that wonderful fishing place?” Nasrudin smiled as he said, “I thought of that — I marked the boat with chalk!” 

“You fool!” said the friend, “What happens next time if we borrow a different boat?”

  1. William, as always I thoroughly enjoy your musings. This entry caused me to look deeper into my approach to guitar practice

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