Music, learning and pedagogy

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Being interviewed by Rick Zanotti last week got me thinking about music and learning. The conversation turned to music, my songwriting and performances with various bands during the 80s and 90s.

Rick mentioned that we can all learn a lot from music, and specifically mentioned timing. He said that many educators could benefit from listening more to music, and especially playing an instrument, because timing, pacing and spacing were often lacking in formalised learning settings.

I agreed with him, because I know that timing is crucial in all forms of learning. You cannot make children learn something if they are not yet ready to learn it, and if a teacher paces a lesson too fast, some children are likely to be left behind, while others may become bored and switch off. The same applies equally to adults.

This made me think about all the other transferrable skills I developed as a musician, and am still learning even today. Here are four other things all good musicians know and practice, and how they might be applied to learning, teaching and development:

1) Work as a team. Musicians who play alone, can do essentially what they wish and change tempo, key and emphasis at will. When playing with others in a band, or singing in a choir, is a different matter. It becomes crucial that you pay attention to everyone else around you, and listen to what is being sung and played. If you decide to go off on your own, there is likely to be discord, confusion and a general loss of tempo or impetus in a performance. Teamwork is therefore crucial, and as bands or choirs spend time working together, they discover the nuances and differences within the members, and how they can be co-ordinated for the best possible results. Teachers who work with their students tend to be more effective than those who stand apart.

2) Performance is connection. When a musician plays live for an audience (and also to a lesser extent, when they are recording), they need to project their talents as a performance. There is no point in hiding from the audience, but instead good musicians tend to connect with those that are listening to them perform. The notable exception was Stuart Sutcliffe, former bass guitarist in an early line-up of The Beatles, who famously turned to face away from the audience during the band's concerts. He clearly did not wish to be on stage, preferring instead to listen from the wings, or in the audience. Teaching is often a performance, where the audience needs to be engaged, connected with, and inspired. 

3) Give others space. One of the most important lessons I learnt as a lead guitarist in rock bands was to play only when necessary. This is strange but true for just about every solo instrumentalist. Giving others space within a musical performance is vital. When everyone plays at the same time, the usual result is cacophony - which is quite literally defined as a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds. Space within music often enhances the listening experience. The same applies in teaching - too much information or content all at once can overwhelm and disorientate students. Giving them space occasionally to reflect on their learning and to give them compression time, often brings its own rewards.

4) You are only as good as your last performance. Forget the rest. Musicians focus on their next gig, and try to improve their skills and performances continually. The same should apply to all learning professionals - reflecting on previous lessons should engage thoughts about what can be done to improve one's teaching on the next occasion. Continually working to improve does a great service to all the students in once's care, and causes us to strive for better pedagogical practice and outcomes. 

There are many other lessons to be learnt from music, and I'm sure you would like to let us know about them. Please use the comments box below to add your own thoughts.

My interview with Rick Zanotti and Lesley Price can be viewed on YouTube here.

Creative Commons License
Music, learning and pedagogy  Steve Wheeler was written in Liberec, Czech Republic and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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