Part 2: The Learning Process
by Jessica Pollack
So science tells us we can learn. How should we do it?
There are two things you should take from this post:
1.) There is a best way to learn long term, and it is a process you should cultivate every time you practice/learn.
2.) Every aspect of mastering your instrument is learnable, and complex skills like this can be broken into steps for you to manage.
As we said in the last post, there is no evidence of a quality inherent to someone like Ricardo Morales, Sabine Meyer, Martin Fröst, Mozart or any other prodigious musician you admire that allowed them to be amazing musicians other than that they figured out how to learn and then worked really hard at doing that.
The great thing is, you can, too.
We sometimes forget that practicing is really just learning. And the process of learning anything is the same whether you want to learn chess, chemistry, a sport, an instrument or anything else. It is made of some basic parts that you might recognize from various aspects of daily life or school. Once we purposely seek them out though, learning happens much more effectively.
Basically, to learn, we need to know what is correct, and we need immediate and accurate feedback about when we are correct and how to fix it when we are not.
As Dr. Ericsson explains in “Peak,” we should always be practicing with a specific goal in mind (knowing what correct looks like, while evaluating whether we are there). The goal might be to improve sound quality, fix pitch, increase tongue speed, phrase a certain way, etc. This is called purposeful practice.
The best way to practice, though, is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, Ericsson explains, is “purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.” (p. 98) How do you improve your sound quality, recognize and fix pitch, increase tongue speed or phrase more musically?
For me, deliberate practice can be broken into four steps:
- Knowing what correct looks like
- Being able to tell what is different (and the same) between what you have and what you defined as “correct”
- Identifying what is preventing you from reaching “correct”
- Knowing exactly how to change what is preventing you from being “correct”
- Knowing what “correct” looks like
This might be knowing what all the correct rhythms, fingerings and pitches sound like. Or deciding precisely what phrasing expresses your musical idea. Or having a beautiful tone despite range or dynamic challenges. For the advanced student it might involve all of those and more. “Correct” is whatever your ideal performance would be or sound like. Often, as we improve, our idea of “correct” will be more and more complex, adding in the subtleties that make a great performance. But you have to know what “correct” is before you can attempt to reach it.
- Being able to tell what is different between what you have and what you defined as “correct”
Now that you know what “correct” is, how close are you to achieving it? Did you play a note or rhythm wrong? Were you able to play the phrase as beautifully and musically as you wanted? Was your tone always your best and the way you wanted it to be? It is important to be able to recognize when you succeed and when you are not quite reaching your “correct.” And as mentioned before, accurate and immediate feedback is vital to learning because you need feedback about what part of your practicing is working and what is not.
- Identifying causes of the differences between step 1 and step 2
What is it that is causing your incorrect pitch or rhythm? Is it difficulty with fingers, the actual rhythm or something else?
What is causing your tone to change? Is it something with air support, embouchure, tongue position, poor equipment or something else?
If you are focused on fixing a specific source of the problem, you can fix it much more easily than by trying to overhaul every aspect of your playing (or simply playing it over and over hoping it will improve through sheer will power — a popular unproductive practicing technique).
- Knowing how to fix what is preventing you from playing what you defined as “correct” (i.e. fixing the problem in step 3)
Let’s say the actual rhythm is complex or confusing. How can you practice that aspect? (e.g. singing the rhythm or adding tongued subdivisions)
If it was the fingerings affecting your rhythm, what are efficient ways to make your fingers more comfortable? (e.g. practicing slower or practicing in different rhythms).
If your tone is changing because of air support, what exercises can help you fix that here and long term?
If it is your tongue or embouchure affecting sound, how can you remind yourself what a better position is, and what exercises can you do to isolate that and help you long term?
So, generally, we need to decide what “correct” is, see where we are in relation to that, determine the causes of our shortcomings and choose appropriate solutions. That is sometimes simple and sometimes not. And you have to practice using the model the same way you have to practice each individual step. Take this with you into your practice and experiment with putting it to use every time you work on a skill or passage. But … remember it’s all learnable. Each of those steps can be tricky on your own. You may not always know what is causing a problem, or it might be hard for you to tell if you are playing in tune. You have to be continually working to master this process, but no one is born being able to do or answer every part of it. If you don’t naturally discover the answer right away, it does not mean you lack talent, and it does not mean you cannot learn this skill. As we saw in the last post, you, as a human with a brain, have a ridiculously amazing capacity to learn.
The important part of this model is that it is ALL learnable. The process is learnable and each aspect of each step is learnable. That means you can learn and use this model as a process to generally improve a passage but you can also learn each of the steps in this process.
You can learn to identify pitches or distinguish rhythms. You can learn the logistics behind double-tonguing. You can learn to identify whether air, embouchure or something else is affecting your sound. And you can learn to find exercises that fix the problems you identified. You can also learn to use this process and practice deliberately. As I said before, you don’t have to naturally practice that way or instinctively have the skills in each of the four steps above to be able to use them. But you have to be building those skills and critically evaluating your practice in order to improve efficiently.
For more information, check out the resources listed at the bottom on Part 1 or Part 3. If you have any questions or comments for me feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out what else I’m learning about at www.jessicapollackclarinet.com.