The Stages of Learning

I will forever be a student. As an adult nothing gives me more pleasure than to find a subject that fascinates me and absorb as much information as I can about it. The longer I teach, the more I have come to enjoy the process of learning a new instrument, or learning to sing (and no, I don’t consider your voice an instrument, but that’s another blog).

Stage 1 is intellectual. We learn from a text book, we watch a video, or we listen to a teacher’s lesson. It’s passive. We are looking at the map and making connections about what roads connect where. We are seeing the start and end point and following the route. We have not tried to do it ourselves, but we more or less understand what is being asked of us.

Stage 2 is application. We begin to try to apply what we know, but our brain has not yet burned the neural pathways necessary for action. It’s as if we got in the car for our road trip and realize we don’t actually know how to drive. This stage is frustrating. We are really bad. Our brain knows what to do, but our body is slow and clunky. Many of us begin to turn on ourselves and think it’s a personal problem: “I don’t have long enough fingers”, “my brain doesn’t work like this”, “I’m terrible!”, “I’m just not a natural.” If you go overboard with the negative self-talk, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re teaching your brain that you can’t do it. If you are in creative purgatory, then the reason you don’t get it is because you don’t have enough time. None of this is true. The truth is, this is an important part of the process.

Learn to laugh at yourself, remind yourself that you literally need to burn some neural pathways into your brain for your mind and body to work together, and be nice to yourself. The pay off comes, but it creeps up on you and rarely shows up on demand. Thoughts like “I’ve got this” and “patience, young grasshopper” will help propel you. Good, deep breaths help, too. There’s nothing that can be done here except to enjoy the process of practice. Repetition will get you places. If you want to move even faster, instead of looking at the spots that you keep messing up on as annoyances or failures, look at them as your roadmap for practice. In Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit” the Olympians and world-class musicians she interviews all employ this tactic. I don’t think they’re doing it just for giggles, ya know?

Stage 3 is FLOW. Once you feel like your mind and body are actively working together, you must work the song enough so that your timing, dynamics, and emotional output flow. This is when the song really starts to reveal itself to you. If you want to be performance ready, this is when memorization comes in. This is when you dig in and ask, what am I sharing? Why does it matter? What does it mean to me? This is the realm professionals live in and should be the goal for everyone. This is the space that allows you to jam with friends, perform with ease, and quite frankly boost your self-esteem. This is the space that really makes you feel like a musician. This is the space where you have the freedom and power to share with the world who you are through sound. I hope you stick around to make it here, even just for a song.

Some of us never get to stage 3, but to me, that’s where the most beautiful pay off is. As you grow in strength and skill, this process becomes easier. Our mind is powerful and we can often get mired in black and white thoughts that cut off our creativity and curiosity. We cannot read a map and teleport to our destination (not yet!). But we can visualize in our minds getting better, and we can accept that Stage 2 must happen in order to make us strong enough for Stage 3.

Practice doesn’t have to be a loaded word. It’s just the regular habit of working on your instrument. At any given time, a song or a concept will be at stage 1, 2, or 3. Consistency is the key to movement. Cramming for music just doesn’t work, because that’s not how muscles work.

If I’ve learned anything over the years it is this: Be good to yourself, be realistic, and be consistent.