Competitive Music Learning

Recently I answered a question about why some people learn music faster than others.

Why does anyone learn anything fast than anyone else? On the blunt end, it’s focus and interest. I often can tell you which student is going to progress faster than others when I start a music student out on their instrument. Some people just want to learn and are genuinely interested in seeking knowledge. Others aren’t. When I start explaining some of the rudiments of music, such as how our Western music is all based on the major scale, or stray to anything that involves a little history of the influence of American slavery in our music, blues, jazz, early rock and roll, the student that is paying attention is the one that will pick this up faster. Otherwise, students who are looking around, noodling on their instrument, changing the subject, etc., are the ones who don’t have the focus to do this. Everyone thinks that they love music, especially the “music is my life” crowd that likely don’t know much about any type of music than their very limited experience from the radio or what is spoon-fed to them.

Bored student

There may be some merit to certain physical characteristics that make learning an instrument a little easier for some, like long fingers, but overall, it’s attitude. Some people have been brought up purposely to be questioning and pay attention to detail. We are likely to get this from witnessing our parents. Maybe there was a lot of music playing in your childhood, like classical music during dinner time, etc. I knew one music teacher whose family used to gather in the livingroom after dinner and sing solfege together(Do-Re-Mi-, etc.)

I can tell you that I was never a part of a family that listened to classical music nor sang solfege together. I did hear a lot of classic rock music and was given music for gifts, such as records, tapes, etc. I inherited my parents’ old 45rpm records which became quite an obsession for me. I certainly became a big fan of rock music at an early age, and I had two father figures who played instruments(Dad played guitar and StepDad played drums). Having heard live rock music played in the cellar very early in my development(maybe 5 years old), I was quite positively affected.

However, I’d argue that another larger part of my music development had to do with being brought up to think logically, to figure things out. I wasn’t a particularly studious kid, nor did either of my parents go to college. However, something in my upbringing allowed me an inquisitive nature. Maybe it was being a child of divorced parents, maybe it was moving from living space to living space fairly often(we moved within the same time every 2–3 years) that made me think for myself and have a fairly introspective nature without being a recluse. I tended to realize conceptual ideas decently early, and noticed how different influences affected people. I noticed what effect music had on different people, and how different types of music did different things for people. I also learned to put a lot of emphasis on things learned from teachers and those more knowledgable than me. Sure, I was a kid and tended to be skeptical of things I didn’t know much about, but overall, I learned to pay attention and internalize knowledge that was given to me by others, and how to analyze that which may be incorrect or uninformed.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve become quite dedicated to continuing work on what I’ve focused on. Practicing an instrument is quite important to one’s music development as well as a continuing life lesson; the more you more you put in, the more that comes out. Practicing was never a chore for me. The bigger problem is getting going. Often, practicing is not as boring as one would think, but setting down to do it is the biggest issue. It’s like going to the gym; once you’re there, the time goes by fairly fast, but getting one there is fairly difficult. Learning the life lesson of dedicating one’s time and ambition is quite important to learning an instrument.

Overall, I’d say that if one wants to learn music, one must put in an inordinant amount of time and focus to the love of the art of music, and want to actually make music. It’s not just about what comes on the radio, or how cool the music on a movie soundtrack is. It’s about the beauty of the artform of music and the incredible diversity of styles and influences for a man-made artform. Opening one’s mind to the many different forms of music and arts is a step in the right direction. To learn to make music, one has to live it, listen to it, want to practice one’s instrument, and realize that one doesn’t have to understand everything about a particular style of music in order to enjoy it. However, an inquisitive mind to figure out what one doesn’t understand when something unfamiliar presents itself is an important part of the successful musician’s greatest tool.

Physicist Richard Feynman said it best:

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says, “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.

At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes.

The activity of learning the theory and literature of music gives one a deeper and richer understanding, but it certainly shouldn’t take anything away from one’s enjoyment of music.

I see people suffering the pitfalls of music education often. They like music on a base level and want the learning of music to take a similar tack. It feels like we spend an inordinate amount of time learning about the music rather than playing the music we think we have in us. From spending too much time trying to make sure that the prospective music student enjoys his/her studies, we may run the risk of educating musicians who are less curious, less holistic-minded, and less circumspect than they could be.

Some people find theory boring, and this is often because they perceive it to be a dry and lonely world cut apart from the living art of real music-making. Personally, thinking of theory that way is unimaginable, nor can I understand how it could ever be boring. If it has changed the way I listen to music, then it has simply made me a better listener.

Some people learn music faster than others because they have a broader view of what music is, their priorities to learn as much about the music as they learn to play it, and are likely to have a more realistic view of what they love about the music.


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