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Calvin playing with ball
Say hello to Calvin! ~ Image by dolescum via Flickr

For some time, ​I have been fascinated with the various ways in which people learn.  Observing the process is always full of surprises!

A New York Times article about creative problem-solving caught my eye.  In it, Benedict Carey describes a study at Northwestern University about the way people solve word puzzles.

In the study, the researchers found that people use analysis, the trial and error method, and wait for “Aha!” moments.  Puzzle solvers have the ability to switch between methods, regularly using all three.  The “Aha!” moments are preferred.  (Who wouldn’t like them?)

I wondered whether the process of learning music might have a lot in common with puzzle solving.

Ten days after the Times article appeared, I happened to hear an interview on NPR in which the actress Melissa Leo described different methods of acting.  She had the opportunity to watch a fellow actor “morph” into his character, producing variations in mood upon suggestion by the director.  (“With regret,” for instance.)  With a different director, actors found themselves “reaching” to find expression by way of his ideas.

Where does trial and error fit in?

While I sat on a bench in New York’s Riverside Park reading the paper one afternoon, a father and his young son appeared.  The little boy, 3 or 4 years old, was carrying a plastic bat and a Wiffle ball.  Batting practice!

At first the child faced his father directly, with the bat held vertically, directly in front of him.  You can guess how well that turned out…

About 20 attempts later, dad showed his son how to turn sideways and hold the bat away from his body.  Still no luck.

And then ~ SUCCESS!!!  Dad managed to hit the bat when he threw the ball.  I cheered!

I was wishing I could have seen the next few sessions.  How much trial and error goes into hitting a baseball?  When does hand-eye coordination begin?

How much is trial and error a factor in practicing?

One of my college piano teachers, a child prodigy, had never played chamber music or worked with singers.  With no background in collaboration, she partnered with another faculty member to perform Schubert’s “Die Schöne Mullerin.”

The performance was stunning.  But the process seemed arduous to me.  My teacher practiced the cycle for a year!  Her philosophy concerning the cycle and her other practice was to “find something” that worked.

Is random practice necessary, or even desirable?

My practicing was completely random for several years.  I didn’t have a useful approach.  So there was constant frustration, hearing what I wanted to express in my head but not knowing how to express it.

Now I can leave the angst behind and make decisions.  The works of Bach, Verdi, and Poulenc, for example, each have their own characteristics.  They are played differently.  So being completely random when learning music that can be ascribed an individual style seems to be a waste of time.

I would go with the style of each composer until that style doesn’t fit a certain piece of music.  (Composers sometimes write “out of character.”)  A newly-composed work, however, would require a different approach.

How do you learn music?  Do you begin with certain assumptions?  Is some of your practice random?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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