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The Art of Learning

I’ve been interested in the field of performance psychology ever since my teacher recommended ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ to me in university as a great way to improve both my practice and professional performance quality as an instrumentalist. Despite using examples pulled from the hard court as opposed to the recital stage, that book changed the way I looked at any endeavour where you are required to demonstrate skill in performance, whether that be music, sports, or others.

Most fundamental for me was the realization that conscious attempts to ‘control’ things, especially one’s self, are actually harmful to a relaxed and confident performance. Micromanagement (as any excellent corporate executive will tell you) can actually be very bad for the overall strategy, because in attempting such things you interfere with the almost-invisible details that go on in order to smooth the execution of whatever the goal is. Interference on behalf of the controlling mind actually tries to impose limits and conditions on subconscious tasks and skills that you don’t even know exist, and performance suffers as a result.

I have recently been reading another book that is sort of more broadly based on this concept which tackles the overall process of skill acquisition in addition to the performance side: “The Art of Learning” by Joshua Waitzkin.

For those of you who have never heard of him or not seen the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, Waitzkin was a child chess prodigy who won multiple US National Championships as a child and was heralded as one of chess’ great rising stars, a surefire eventual World Champion. His father, a writer, published a book on what it was like to raise such a precocious mind, and that book was picked up and turned into the movie. This had an extremely detrimental effect on Waitzkin’s development as a chess player. The notoriety and pressure of both living up to the fame caused by the film as well as the inherent grueling nature of professional chess caused him years of struggle.

At this time, he took up the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan, through the medium of Push Hands competitions. It was through studying this Taoist  philosophy as well as learning to not control his own body but letting the body work that Waitzkin started to try and formulate a theory of how learning worked. “The Art of Learning” is an excellent book that tries to explain all of his conclusions, with illustrating examples from both his chess and martial arts careers (for interest’s sake: Josh eventually left the professional chess world, won at least two World Championships in competitive Push Hands, and now coaches chess with children as well).

One of several key factors the book elucidates which I think both educators and musicians can instantly try to implement is the idea of getting rid of self-investment. A huge challenge, especially as he was much younger, was that whenever a loss or setback occurred, Josh felt that this reflected poorly on him as a person. His emotions and self-worth were so tied up in this idea that he needed to win, to succeed, that if the slightest failure happened, the overall quality of his learning and performance nosedived.

I’ve alluded in some earlier posts to the unfortunate way that many students and our society at large views ‘marks’, ‘grades’, or the attempts to state ‘quality’ in some concrete way. This is I believe one of the most damaging things to learning as an activity and as an art. And I do believe that learning is an art. For example, I am a good trombonist and a fine teacher, but my true talent is not necessarily teaching. With the amount of disciplines, instruments, and subjects that I continuously attempt to absorb, I believe what I have the most talent for is ‘learning’. I have an ability to apply myself to acquire new skills and knowledge, and I think that this is not just an on/off talent, but something that we can and should be teaching and striving for as teachers and as musicians.

In order to learn, you have to forget about the benefits or the potential costs (in terms of psychological investment) of failure. Learning is most productive when success and failure are studied and compared alike. When you approach a performance activity in a way that says “I just want to really notice what’s happening”, then you are in a healthy learning frame of mind. However, when it becomes about “I really want that A+ just to be able to show people” or “If I don’t get first chair, I’m not a good musician”, you are doomed to first failure, and secondly not learning anything from the experience.

Another excellent idea from “The Art of Learning” is the need to provide yourself with some relaxation and calm introspection. The world of music and education is full of stories of people who practiced 8 hours a day in a locked room to become great, or those students who got 100% on their entrance exam because they spent 16 hours over the previous two days studying. But this is not where true learning comes from. Different people need different forms of learning, study, and practice. Providing some rest and recovery periods to yourself as you feel the need will allow your mind and body to absorb and solidify key components that you weren’t aware existed. For myself, a great example was my realization that a warm-up didn’t need to be an hour long to be effective. I had heard so much about how extensive a warm-up routine needed to be (going over the full range of the instrument, long tones and scales and articulations…) that I was exhausted by the time I finished all the recommended exercises, would not practice well, and then feel worse in performance.

Finally, one day, about the time I was halfway through “The Inner Game of Tennis”, I said to myself that I was just going to play 1 ten minute long exercise, a couple of random scales, and then a lip slur drill (for all non-brass players reading, these are some of the most fundamental elements to the technique of brass instruments). The entire warm-up took 15 minutes. I spent another hour and a half practicing, then came into my next lesson and blew the assigned piece out of the water. I had reached the realization that allowing myself space to breathe and just ‘not worry’, my body already absorbed more learning.

This works similarly in the classroom: students who allow themselves to just do it and who are provided with a little downtime to let their brains recover inevitably do better than the students who make every assignment and quiz a massive load of stress. Many schools now have optional classes in studying or learning skills. I’m coming to believe that these things must be included in a normal curriculum in order to help our students reach their maximum potential. Are they all going to be what we currently think of as ‘honours’ students? No. But they can all of them be the best they can be, as long as we teach them not knowledge per se, not ultra-specific skills, but simply how to learn.

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1 Comment

  1. Actually your thoughts here are similar to fitness theory. You hear about people who spend hours every day in the gym but don’t make progress as well as athletes who do that and are amazing. Usually the thing missing is apprpriate recovery time. Without appropriate recovery time your body can’t repair the muscle damage that occurs when working out. I think that’s one of the problems with school, particularly some post-secondary degrees. The curriculum does not give some people enough time to mentally recover.

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