Juan's World

Guitarist, Composer, Writer, Publisher

Learning, Practice, and Mastery

Review of

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 2014

The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness
Gerald Klickstein, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2009

In nearly everyone lives the desire to learn, and master, new skills. Lifelong learning—learning new ideas, skills, and techniques—enriches your life, enhances your career and changes the very make-up of your brain. It appears even to lead to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementia. Few of us, however, can innately judge the best way to learn. Blame your brain; blame our education system as well, if you will. Learning can be fun, but that doesn’t mean it should be easy.

In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel argue that learning is more meaningful and effective when effortful, even as we are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we are not. For example, students often feel that reading, highlighting, and re-reading textbooks again and again—massed practice—makes them familiar with the material, that they understand the subject matter, and are ready to ace the exam, when this is often not the case. The authors point out that retrieval and spaced-out practice—strategies such as creating and reviewing your own flashcards, writing down key points in your own words, and self quizzing—seem awkward, especially at first, but are much more effective in making learning stronger.

The authors present numerous evidence-backed strategies that help students learn more effectively and show teachers how to foster learning that has greater long-term impact on their students. Interleaving—mixing up different subjects and learning strategies—is one of the desirable difficulties that make learning more precise, versatile, and enduring. In batting practice, baseball athletes pitched 15 fastballs followed by 15 curveballs and 15 changeups do better in practice and feel the sensation of making progress, while those in batting practice who receive pitches in random order feel frustrated by a lack of progress. It’s the latter group, however, who achieve better results in the next game and beyond.

Despite the popular rhetoric of the importance of teaching students in their preferred learning style, Make it Stick highlights the benefits of going wide, employing a variety of learning styles rather than using one. Focusing on learning the underlying rules or principles, generating answers before reading the material or being given the solution, practicing elaboration by giving new material meaning, thinking about learning and techniques of learning using reflection, and extracting key ideas, organizing them into a mental model, are other strategies that produce results that last beyond the final exam.

In the course I teach on advanced marketing and promotion, online and face-to-face in a masters program in publishing, I strive to make the class engaging and interesting, but at the same time I try to make sure it’s challenging. Marketing should be fun—it's a fun subject—but there is a lot of ground to cover and to really learn it all takes some work. Readings encompass diverse subject matter and come from a variety of sources, students have to complete homework assignments, participate in discussions, and work in teams to produce a final team-based project. One year, a student complained from the very beginning about nearly everything in the course: she didn’t want to work in groups, either in activities or for the final class project; she thought the readings were too numerous and the homework assignments too hard. After the term ended, it wasn’t hard to discern that it was most likely the same student who rated the course, and instructor, poorly on the course evaluation, and claimed she didn’t really learn anything. The other students rated the course highly and professed that their learning goals were met. Most people, most of the time, indubitably get what they expect.

Learning, practice, and mastery lie on a continuum, and form part of a loop—perhaps in no craft does an artist or practitioner reach true mastery, always there is more to learn, far from being a source of frustration, however, it’s a font that inspires. The relationship of learning, practice, and mastery in the case of musicianship is explored thoroughly in Gerald Klickstein’s The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Written especially classical and jazz instrumentalists and vocalists at the university level, the book nevertheless provides important lessons for musicians of widely diverse levels and backgrounds.

Roughly the first third of The Musician's Way concerns Deep Practice, and parallels concepts offered in Make It Stick. Klickstein discusses how to plan for and move through the “five practice zones”: tackling new material, refining and developing material, memorizing and interpreting performance material, honing technique through scales, arpeggios, and other new techniques, and developing musicianship through sight reading, improvisation, and composition. His tips for deep practice are designed to move a performer through mastery, integration, and transcendence of material using “habits of excellence” such as ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone, focused attention, and positive attitude. Some of the lessons similar to Make it Stick include creating mental models of the material, creating variation by experimenting with changes in tempo and dynamics, reconstructing passages from basic elements, mixing up practice zones, and finding ways to deepen emotional connections to practice pieces.

Nearly all of my life, since the age of six or seven, I have been playing, studying, and performing on the classical guitar. Some years, the press of responsibilities such as work and family, as well as—let me confess—life’s other distractions, have placed my music into a less prominent part of my life. This year I’ve been practicing more regularly, learning new repertoire, and setting goals for recording and performing. Playing is a form of meditation, regular practice requires discipline, and tackling new material can be a challenge. The guitar is perhaps one of the easiest instruments to learn and one of the most difficult to master—its possibilities are nearly infinite. The great classical guitarist Andrés Segovia is supposed to have said, when asked if he’d ever considered learning other instruments, “Why? I’m still learning the guitar.”

There is little to quibble about in either book. One of the qualities of Make it Stick is its liberal and effective use of storytelling—in fact, co-author Brown is a novelist—to both sweep away what we thought we knew about learning and instill new concepts. Eminently readable and concise, it’s no fault of the book, I suppose, that it will likely be read by those who probably need it least: those teachers and professors impassioned by their teaching who are already engaging their students. In a reading group in which I participated, discussing the book at George Mason University, participants were all high-performing professors, and many had won teaching awards. The strategies for students, while helpful, assume that the student is already motivated to learn, and of course, this is not always the case. And Make it Stick can’t hope to address one of the main failings of the educational system in the United States, that teachers must “teach to the test” in hope their students meet high-stakes testing requirements, instead of focusing on higher-order skills like critical thinking that will provide long-term benefit to their students.

In the comprehensive and detailed The Musician's Way, the author discusses the importance of ease. I don’t believe this contradicts the desirable difficulties espoused by Brown, et al.; Klickstein is leading the performer away from undesirable difficulties. Ease is a habit to fortify by choosing manageable material, building awareness of the repertoire in practice, being mindful of a suppleness of movement, dissolving the body of useless tension. I imagine that he doesn’t mean that students and musicians should steer clear of music that is challenging, since playing music that is easy would seem to hinder, rather than promote, progress. I can understand the detrimental effects of choosing overly taxing pieces that frustrate the student and engender poor habits, and instead a focus on ease of touch, movement, and posture.

The latter two thirds of The Musician's Way covers ways to enhance results when performing, auditioning, and recording, as well as ways that musician’s can minimize injury and pain to enjoy lifelong creativity. These aspects are important and too rarely discussed—most titles on recording, for example, delve into the technical aspects of sound, microphone placement, and other techniques while overlooking performance aspects for musicians. Playing musical instruments, along with other leisure and physical activities, has been linked to lower risks of dementia in older adults, thus, the book’s tips for long-term strength and well being of musician’s may provide lasting benefits. This section of the book is a bit unsettling. My first classical guitar teacher suffers from a condition, which he’s had for the last twenty-five years or so, which prevents him from playing guitar due to arthritic type pain and numbness of the fingers. The strategies in The Musician's Way may not have prevented such a condition, but these tips on self-care and exercises for injury prevention are worthwhile reading. As Klickstein remarks, “The key to easeful performance is the ability to command your music making in an integrated manner without exhausting yourself.”

Knowledge and creativity are intimately linked. The foundations of learning are the building blocks for producing creative works. Discipline and practice lead to creative breakthroughs. If I am not practicing and playing regularly, I do not compose. This may seem obvious, but creativity is sometimes viewed as something completely separate from, even alien to, discipline and practice. Inspiration seems to tap into something beyond the artist; composers and writers often comment something like “Anyone could have written it down, it just happened to be me… it came from out there.” I find that my own compositional process involves tapping into the creative flow, hearing by ear, finding the right sound and pattern, discovering emotion, and part mechanics, determining how the piece is played, ascertaining the best fingering and positioning, translating the emotion of the piece to the fingers on the fret board and the fingers plucking the strings. As the piece evolves, there are additional processes: creating a mental model of the composition, refining, editing, perhaps adding or removing a new section or reworking a voicing.

Creativity, the true expression of our deepest nature, emerges through regular practice, developing new techniques, and learning new processes. The tips and strategies in Make it Stick and The Musician’s Way will benefit teachers and students of all subjects and disciplines and foster a greater appreciation for learning, improving expertise, and achieving mastery.