Thursday, September 26, 2013

Make the Stuff You Learn Stick

An article in the recent Dulcimer Players News (Summer 2013) caught my attention, "How to Get What You've Learned to Stay Learned," written by Dan Landrum. There's some good stuff in there! And it got me thinking. What works for me? What works for my students?

I asked a few of them, "What do you find most helpful in learning tunes, or learning technique?" The first reaction from some folks, "Nothing helps!" Oooh ... do I detect a bit of frustration?

Indeed ... My students do struggle with this. They ask, "How do you remember all these tunes and all these ideas?"  I wonder myself, "How can I train my hands and brain to consistently play cleanly and accurately?" If I knew the answer to THAT I would be rich and famous!

Repetition is an obvious strategy. It's what it takes to etch memories into our ears and brains and muscles. Most people recognize the importance of repetition in learning, but how many times through a tune is enough? 10? 20? 50? 70? 7 x 70?! I'm not sure I've ever reached the optimal number. Let's just say you'll know it when you get there ... but realize that the number is significantly larger than you might think. Add to that the fact that most of us are constantly raising the bar. What was acceptable yesterday must be improved upon today with new skills and ideas. Despite gradual advancement in overall abilities, you may feel as if you're chronically just a tad bit short of nirvana.

It might be helpful to remember that we're all on this infinite continuum. There will always be some players who are better than you AND you will always be better than some players. So acknowledge that you're on a journey, and be sure to enjoy the trip!

In general:
  • Learn the basics. Work on your hammer strokes. Practice your scales and arpeggio patterns.
  • Be patient with yourself. There's a lot that must come together in mastering this instrument.
  • Structure your practice time. Set an intention for each practice session.
  • Improve your focus. Leave the multitasking behind. Turn off the phone and computerize notifications.
  • Recognize your learning style. Look for a variety of ways to learn. Mark up your music, listen to audio recordings, hammer a difficult pattern onto your lap at a stop light, i.e. use your ears, your eyes, your hands.
  • Play what you like, like what you play. Life is too short to mess around with music you don't care about.
When it comes to memorizing, here are a few more specific things that I've learned along the way:

You have to know what you're doing before you memorize something.
  1. Fix the tune in your head. Learn it well enough that you can sing it to yourself. In this day and age we have great resources for finding free audio files ... think YouTube. Or play it ad nauseum from any type of recording.
  2. Analyze the tune you're working on. Work out hammer patterns and bridge crossings. Pay attention to the chord progression.
  3. Identify the difficult passages. Turn them into exercises. Include them in every practice session. Smooth out transitions between phrases and parts. You really don't want to memorize errors. Remember, practice may not make perfect ... but it does make permanent!
Now you're ready to memorize.

  1. Get away from the printed music as soon as possible. Look at what you're doing on the instrument.
  2. Divide and conquer. Identify chunks, not single notes. Learn to see the patterns ... pieces of scales and arpeggios. Good memory work is done in chunks. Don't forget to work on transitions between the chunks.
  3. Play it backwards. This is a very effective memory strategy. I find it essential to working out difficult passages. If you don't know how to practice backwards, read this:
  4. Play it forwards, learning it in its appropriate form.
  5. Use a metronome to work it up to tempo.

Test yourself.

  1. Put yourself under pressure ... even if it's "fake". Read about a silly little game that I play to produce pressure in the practice room: Count to Eight for Effective Practice
  2. Practice in a practical way ...  perform for others. It's ok to set up gigs for yourself !
  3. Teach somebody -- it's the best way to learn!

Memorization is necessary on any instrument if the goal is to play fluently, with freedom and musical expression. We actually don't have much choice on the hammered dulcimer. Because there's no tactile connection to the instrument we depend on the visual connection which makes it difficult to read from a score while playing. So hone those memorization skills, and if you find a trick that makes it easier, please share!

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