The Best Learners 3


Music LearningOne fascinating thing that comes to the fore after lots of teaching-especially concerning adult students- is that some people possess a personality that is optimally suited for learning.

This isn’t a matter of intelligence, which is overrated anyway, but rather a collection of personality attributes and habits. In fact, barring unusual circumstances, these aspects of a student seem to be far better indicators of long-term enjoyment and success in piano lessons than native talent or IQ.

So what are these key traits and habits? Here are several that I’ve noticed over-and-over throughout the years:

A genuine desire to learn

The quality of intense curiosity in an excellent student is almost palpable. There is a tremendous focus on how interesting the subject matter is. Any temptations toward approval seeking, proving oneself, and being distracted or defensive from self-doubt are set aside. The good learner is focuses solely on the pleasure of learning.

Intelligent ignorance

Without relinquishing judgement, the good learner defers to a teacher’s expertise. Once the teacher selection is made, the ability to suspend judgement *intelligently* is crucial to optimal learning. Without this, the teacher spends more time proving himself and the student spends more time re-evaluating whether the teacher knows what he is talking about. As a result, not much time is left for actual teaching.

A real interest in the teacher’s advice

Amazingly, many students will pay good money for professional advice yet completely ignore it in the practice room! Not only is this a waste of time and money, it’s incredibly frustrating for everyone involved. Good practice, of course, involves a great amount of creativity, but it also means taking a teacher’s suggestions seriously and trying to integrate them outside of lessons. This is important from a teacher’s perspective as well, since even if a certain strategy proves fruitless, it gives a good baseline for future strategies.

The desire for clarity and integration

A good learner is never happy with a “wishy-washy” sense of a new concept, but rather strives to understand exactly what things mean and how they fit together. He or she sees knowledge as a whole, and strives to integrate seemingly disparate facts. For example, a good learner, upon learning how a certain chord progression functions will not simply leave it at that, but will be interested in what a certain chord progression sounds like, where it occurs in a piece, how it can be modified, etc.

Going broad

In the same vein, a good learner (within reason) doesn’t limit the scope of what is being taught, but instead always tries to go broader in learning. Simply because the usefulness of a certain skill isn’t immediately apparent, it may well be vital in the long run. An adult student once said to me “I don’t want to learn theory because I don’t want to be a professional pianist”, yet this same student wanted to play advanced pieces from the classical repertoire. Since he couldn’t immediately experience how critical music theory is, this student was forever limited in the repertoire he could engage. On the other hand, I am amazed by the work that some students will do outside of lessons in understanding concepts more broadly and deeply.

Patient and consistent practice

A good learner makes time to practice and think. I would say that if I had to pick one thing that sets apart successful students, it is *consistent* practice over a long period of time. There is a long-term strategy of patience, instead of the desire for quick rewards. The best learners enjoy the slow process of mastery over many years, instead of the thrill of quick but shallow gains.

This last point may require a lot of effort and discipline to implement, yet it’s perhaps the most simple and powerful of the bunch. To be a good learner, learn every day, day-after-day and year-after-year. This speaks to the good news behind all of these points: they are within our own control. You and I can start cultivating them and making ourselves better learners today.

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3 thoughts on “The Best Learners

  • Kristie

    Great insights. I have noticed that students who cannot admit that I may know what I’m talking about–who do not “suspend judgment intelligently”–typically do not progress and eventually give up, because they’re not getting much out of lessons.

    • Matt Post author

      Thanks Kristie! Yes .. I think it’s a hard balance to get right for a lot of students. But I think most people can judge well whether they can get something out of what a teacher is saying. The hard part (for all of us!) is being able to accept the criticism.