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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Turtle BS: Formal vs. Informal Education (60* d) RE: BS: Formal vs. Informal Education 02 Jun 00

A couple of months ago, I took a few voice lessons just for the heck of it. The teacher (a jazz & blues singer who also has classical training) was trying to get me to sing a blues scale, and I was having trouble hearing it so he picked it out on the piano. I was watching him, and I said, "Oh, so there are two half steps in the middle, is that right?" He said, "Yes," and then I sang it correctly, and he added, "and you just taught me something about how you learn--you need to understand something, and then you can do it."

I knew I was a visual learner before that, but since then I've realized that he was right--if I understand something in my head, I have a much easier time doing it with my voice or with my hands. It doesn't work that way for everyone, but it does for me. And that's one advantage of formal training (in the sense of getting input from someone outside myself, like a teacher)--they can give me a framework to put what I'm learning into. I could do it by myself, I guess, but it's faster this way. I suppose another advantage that shows up in that story is that I now know something about how I learn that I didn't know before. It's often easier for someone outside of my head to point that stuff out to me than it is for me to see it myself.

When I was in my early twenties, I played guitar a little, but I never took lessons, I just used some method books and a whole bunch of songbooks. And I didn't ever get very good at it, certainly not good enough to feel like I could play my guitar around other people, which is where I might really have learned to play. As a result, I think, I stopped playing after a while. I just couldn't get good enough on my own to make it very satisfying. Last year, I took up fiddle and I found a teacher who's one of the old-time musicians in my city, someone everyone knows & respects, and I've been taking lessons with him for about fourteen months. It's not formal training in the sense of music school or classical training, but in the sense that I go and sit down with him every week or so and learn some tunes and ask him questions and play with him so my ear gets better, and learn some theory in the process (last night he played a new tune for me and asked me what key it was in and how I arrived at my guess, for example). I love playing fiddle and most of the time I think I'm improving steadily at it, though of course I'm still a rank beginner. I don't think if I had tried to learn it on my own I would still be playing.

My experiences probably have a lot to do with my own musical capability (or lack thereof), and with my own learning style. I think we each have to figure out what works for us in learning how to play--well, in learning anything, I guess. It seems that different kinds of training bring out different skills. At an oldtimey session with a lot of really good musicians, I think my ear gets better both in terms of playing in tune and in terms of picking tunes up by ear. Playing at home alone I learn how my fiddle and bow respond to different ways of holding them, how to produce a better tone. From my teacher I get a framework to put it in, a vast storehouse of tunes & tales, a connection to the tradition, techniques that otherwise I would have to invent, warnings against bad habits I would no doubt otherwise develop, and always, encouragement to keep playing.

So I guess what I'm saying is probably what other people have said--that the proof's in the pudding, that different people learn in different ways, that different ways of learning bring different advantages and disadvantages, musically speaking. I hate to see us making generalizations about whether formal or informal training is "better"--one of the best local fiddlers in my area started with Suzuki when he was three, played classical violin through high school, and started fiddling in his twenties. His classical training didn't hold him back at all--he says that having classical technique helped him play fiddle. I know another fiddler who started as a classical violinist who's been playing Irish tunes for a couple of years who has way more technique than most fiddlers, but is really struggling with letting go of that technique enough to fiddle well. What matters is how you play at the end of the day, not how you got there.

As for the larger question of schools and society, McGrath of Harlow said it all.

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