Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.
I’ve spent almost 30 years as a flight and ground training instructor in light planes and gliders, U.S. Army helicopters, and at an airline.
I’ve also been a mountain dulcimer player for about a decade, and I played harmonica before that. My dulcimer repertoire is wide ranging, from Civil War tunes to songs by the Beatles and Pink Floyd, and I’ve taught a few Dylan for Dulcimer seminars. I make no pretense of being a gifted player, but I really enjoy the teaching process and passing on what I have learned.
I find teaching somebody to fly or to play music uses the same rules and techniques, as both are very hands-on, and nobody is being forced to learn. Also, students bring a wide range of experience, expectations and goals to both endeavors.
A hobbyist music teacher like me may not have considered the learning process in much depth. I’ve been to seminars taught by excellent musicians who, sadly, were not great teachers. I’m hoping that considering the best of aviation training practices will be useful in music instruction.
What is learning?
Learning for our purpose is defined as a change in behavior. Consider beginning to ride a bike. You couldn’t keep your balance, and you were scared of falling. Then, a breakthrough, and you could stay upright. (Learning to land an airplane usually involves the same kind of sudden breakthrough. The lessons leading up to that point can be really interesting).
You never forgot how to ride, but you probably had a learning plateau. In my case I could ride, but not brake. I went through several pairs of shoes from dragging my toes to stop before my mom figured out what was going on. We won’t discuss my early landings. (See Mark Alan Wade’s article in the DPN Winter 2011 issue for more on overcoming plateaus).
“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.” - Galileo Galilei
The teacher’s job is to guide the student’s perceptions. The mechanics of playing dulcimers and flying airplanes are not remarkably more complicated than driving stick shift cars. If you can do any one of the three, someone can probably teach you to do the other two.
Of course, I am not saying that these activities use the same skills. But whether we are talking about the clutch friction point in first gear, the timing of the music, or the closure rate to
Laws of Learning
There are several versions of these laws, depending on which reference is used. FAA uses Readiness, Effect, Exercise, Primacy, Intensity and Recency. We use the mnemonic of REEPIR to help new instructors to keep these straight. Some are obvious for our purpose, and won’t need much ink. Others can be problem areas in music instruction.
Individuals learn best when they are ready to learn, and do not if they see no reason for learning. Adults will work hard on their own to learn something they want or need to know.
Some of my pilot students are very happy just to solo, while others, even as beginners, have a career focus. Music is similar in that there is a difference in individual goals. Does your new club member want to just play with the group, or eventually be a solo performer? What is their favorite kind of music, their musical background, and what do they ultimately want to play? Understand student motivation to tailor instruction to meet their needs. You can move from known to unknown, for example, or show how the facet you are teaching helps to attain their ultimate objective.
Explain the goals clearly. “When we are done, you will be able to ________.” For a festival, explain in detail what you intend to teach, and let participants who share your goals attend. Don’t cause participants to sign up for the wrong class because of your incomplete course description.
People learn better when they are enjoying themselves, or associate learning with a pleasant experience. Most people connect very well with whatever music they were listening to in high school or college. There is a good deal of overlap between this law and the one preceding.
Exercise. Practice makes perfect.
Primacy. The first thing learned creates the strongest impression, is the best remembered. This is the most important learning law to remember and put into practice.
You may have had the experience of first learning a song incorrectly, and then having a hard time unlearning the mistake. I once played Star of the County Down on harmonica as part of a dulcimer and guitar group. I loved this tune, and had been playing it for years as a harmonica solo. However, I had learned it in 4/4 time, not the waltz time used by everybody else. We spent a lot of practice time trying to get that right. In the end, the other three in my group gave up, and they all switched to my 4/4 time. I had learned the song so thoroughly, so completely, and so wrong that I was unable to stay in the correct time signature, and kept reverting to what I had learned first and best. (I’ve since learned that musical timing tends to escape harmonica players. This seems to be a function of how we are taught in the beginning).
I believe that the law of primacy explains why most MD players lug around huge books of tab, and most guitar players do not. Mountain dulcimer instruction starts out with tab, and rarely uses anything else. While tab for guitar does exist, most guitar players are not trained to play using it, or just use tab to get something in their head, and then put it away. Guitar players are not inherently smarter than MD players, or better musicians. They are just trained using a different approach.
The mountain dulcimer standard is fine if the goal is to just play from tab. But it seems to me that most players will ultimately want to do more. Possibilities include:
Assuming that the student shares some of the goals above, it is important to introduce these concepts almost immediately. Boil Them Cabbage Down lays out just fine in the keys of A or G, no retuning or extra frets required. Playing it in Em gives it a, “Boil That Borscht” vibe. Learn this simple tune in more than one key right away, in both noter-drone and chord versions, and close that tab book. This gives a foundation to build upon, and is much more effective than telling someone who has only used tab for a long time to do something else.
Years ago, pilots were first taught to maneuver the plane by looking at the horizon through the windshield, or by “visual reference.” Performing the same tasks solely by reference to the flight instruments was saved for much later. This lead to problems at night or in unexpected bad weather, as a pilot who could not see the horizon would fail to transition to the instruments soon enough, lose control of the plane, and quickly arrive at the scene of the accident. Today, pilots are usually taught to fly a maneuver by both instrument and visual references from the very first time a new procedure is introduced. The result is a safer pilot, one who will fly the gauges sooner and trust what they are telling her. It also makes later training for an instrument rating (the ability to fly through clouds, and in poor weather) a lot easier, as the pilot has that foundation on which to build.
This is where that “tell me, show me, involve me” rule cited earlier comes into play. People learn from experiences, not lectures. If the student just listens and does not use the content somehow, their retention of the information will be zero. Taking notes during a lecture in order to retain the material works not because it allows you to review your notes later, but because the act of writing causes you to be involved in the process and form memories at that time. Of course, we need some explanation of what we are doing. But we have to back that up with demonstration and directed practice.
Here is a capsule lesson plan, boiled down to the essentials:
It is vital to involve the learner. In my Dylan for Dulcimer seminar, we learn how to transpose the key using only the chords for the song and a Circle of Fifths. I could just walk the class through my handout example and leave it at that. Most would nod their heads. Some would scratch their heads. But no one seeing this for the first time would remember how to do it the next day. I involve my class in this portion by including a practical exercise. I show them how to transpose the key on one song, and have them to fill in new chords on another. They work with their neighbor, and they get it. A potentially dusty lecture topic becomes experiential learning.
Effective questions are another way for the instructor to involve the student. For a question to be effective in the classroom, it should have a specific purpose, be clear, contain a single idea, stimulate thought, require a definite answer, and relate to previously covered information. Ideally, I can use that question to link the last topic to the next one, too.
Use it or lose it. ‘Nuff said.
There are many books on learning to drive, fly, or play music. None of them are worth anything by themselves. For learning to occur, there has to be a change in behavior. Our job is to get our adult learners involved in the process, and guide their perceptions by applying the material in practical situations.