A Few Lessons In Learning From Forty Years Ago

Elementary School:

Even when I was a kid, it was apparent to me that the grades I got in school didn’t really say much about what I was learning. It was also apparent that the grades kids got were irrelevant to who they were as people. My mother told me that when I got my first report card, she admired my grades and asked about how I stood in comparison with the other kids — whereupon I responded, more or less, “Why should I care about them?”

Lesson: Sometimes people use grades to compare your work to a standard metric; sometimes people use grades to compare your work to that of your peers.

Junior High School (aka Middle School): Two lessons from a bad teacher; one lesson from a good teacher.

6th grade English class. Free reading. I take out my copy of Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice” (loaded with footnotes explaining the math problems Dodgson/Carrol was referencing, the political humor embedded in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and the chess game that continues throughout the entire “Looking Glass,” among other things). Mrs. P___ comes around, asks, “What are you reading?” I hold up my book. She looks astonished, and says, “That’s for little kids!”

Lesson: Just because they’re teachers doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

8th grade English class; it’s Mrs. P___ again. I loathe her. My grades are slipping, because I cannot bring myself to do any work for that woman. My mother very wisely hears my complaints, and then says, “If Mrs. P___ is so stupid, why should you let her make you stupid, too?” I start doing all the classwork very assiduously, and begin getting good grades again. Every A on every paper is the result of me angrily refusing to let my teacher make me stupid; every completed assignment is a secret “f**k you, Mrs. P___.”

Lesson: Good grades don’t mean what other people may think they mean.

8th grade Music. An elective class, it’s billed as “Music Listening.” The teacher is the new, young, long-haired & bearded Mr. M___. The first day of class, he tells us that we’ll be listening to different kinds of classical music and learning what makes it tick. The students protest that they don’t want to listen to classical music (I don’t say anything; I’m sitting in the back row). Mr. M___ asks, “What do you want to listen to?” The answer comes back, “We want to listen to rock!” Mr. M___ says, “Okay.”

That moment is etched in my memory. It was the first time I ever saw a teacher voluntarily and enthusiastically transform an entire curriculum plan on the spur of the moment, in response to the needs of the students.

It turned out that Mr. M___ knew the history and development of rock and popular music backwards and forwards: over the semester we did an exhaustive cultural and historical survey of American music, with recordings of blues, rockabilly and all the precursors of the rock music we were hearing every day….and, of course, the rock music we were hearing every day.

It was that class that introduced me to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, changing my life forever (I vividly remember sitting in class listening to “Who Are The Brain Police?” and being utterly amazed that music like this was possible. “Freak Out” was one of the first three LPs I bought with the money I earned doing chores. I still have it, by the way.). I have no idea what grade I got at the end, because it really didn’t matter in the least. It was an incredible class, and it made me absolutely certain that whatever I did in my life, I wanted to do it in music. And the most important part of it was that it was obviously designed on the spur of the moment, in response to the stated needs of the students.

Lesson: Good teachers listen to their students. Good teachers are prepared for change, and welcome it. Good teachers know their subject(s). If a learning experience is genuine, the grade received is largely irrelevant.

Two Techniques for Regulating Your Practice

More from the Brian O’Neill Interview. This post has the two of us discussing two techniques for controlling the use of practice time to maximize ROI.

The Technique of a Hundred Beans

WS: Here is a very good technique that my teacher showed me for helping to regulate one’s practice: Get two bowls, or cups, and, from the supermarket buy a bag of kidney beans or garbanzo beans or something. Garbanzos are good for this. Count out a hundred of them. Put them in one bowl. Transfer one bean from the source bowl to the target bowl after each repetition of the line.

Later, I introduced a refinement. You see, you take one lick and you repeat it exactly a hundred times. My refinement was that sometimes in those bags of garbanzo beans you get one that’s misshapen or miscolored or something. I put that one in there, and whenever I got that one, I improvised for the same length of time. So at some point, I’d get a little vacation, and it was always a pleasant surprise.

BTO: What’s the unit of time per garbanzo bean?

WS: It was one lick, whatever the lick was — you know, typically not more than a minute. A hundred minutes is a long time!

BTO: Oh, each repetition?

WS: Yeah, each repetition. Finish a repetition, transfer a bean — This is the way to really regulate repetition.

If you don’t repeat it, then you wind up thinking that you know it, but not really having it there when you need it. It’s gotta be like tying your shoes, you know? It has to be completely fixed in muscle memory.

Index Cards

One way of handling the question of “what should I practice today?” is to get some index cards. On each card you jot down the nature of a particular practice, along with a stipulated length of time — however long that particular practice is going to last.

“Expanding & contracting, going up six notes and going down, and then doing that from the tonic, third and fifth of the natural minor scale.” 10 minutes

“Four-note paltas in Raga Kafi, from Mandra Pa to Tar Ma.” 20 minutes.

“Major 7, Dom 7, Minor 7 and Min7 b5 arpeggios in all twelve keys, through the cycle of fifths.” 25 minutes.

“Sightreading from Captain O’Neill’s book of fiddle tunes.”10 minutes.

“This specific piece of complex bol-bant in ‘Piyu pal na laagi mori ankhiyaa’ (Raga Gaud Sarang).”15 minutes.

“Fast scales in 16th note triplets across a two octave range, sung & played on guitar. 20 minutes. Starting at metronome thus-and-such, going up to at least metronome thus-and-such.”

And, so, every time that you invent a new practice, you note down what it is. Then, after a little while, you wind up with a batch of cards; you have, perhaps, 15 or 20 cards.

Then, after you’ve done your basic warm-ups, you shuffle the cards, and whatever comes up, you do that. And then your practice for the day is however many cards you can fit in the unit of time that you have allotted to practice. And then, here’s the nice part: the next day, you don’t just start where you left off — you shuffle the cards again.

Which means that some of the time you wind up doing the same practice three days in a row. But over all, over the space of, say, two weeks, you wind up meeting everything in there, and experiencing it as a sort of total repertoire of stuff to do. Then you may observe, in the course of those practices, “Huh, it really seems like in this part of this thing [= practice, card], I’m really not making it.” Then you design a lick that embodies that particular [problematic] thing, and that’s when you do the technique-building, metronome-incrementing practice (described in “One Lick for Two Hours.” Then you go back to that same practice [on the index card] next week or something, and you’ll ace it!