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Relearning to Learn

Many years ago, I took a test. It was the first step of our "Learning to Learn" class. After answering a series of multiple choice question, the form issued forth a proclomation:


Over the course of my years at school I would learn this piece of information to be on the whole useless and entirely innefectual.

To cut a long story short, school and university didn't go particularly well for me.

Learning by accident

It's somewhat embarassing to admit, but I don't think I really learned how to teach myself things effectively until at least the age of 26.

When I look back, I realise much of my learning was a result of accidental chance; for example, I learned to program mostly by virtue of complete immersion and stumbling upon 'the right things'. I just followed my nose (and to be fair it worked out).

But now I'm an adult with a job and a family, and my time is far more precious. If I want to learn something new, I can't count on stumbling on the right approach anymore. Simply creating the conditions in which learning is possible is not sufficient, since I lack the time that approach requires.

Enter Mentor

How I learned to learn is, surprisingly, not at all related to my area of study or profession (software), but a hobby.

I met my whistle teacher Becky in 2020 on a video call. It was near the start of the pandemic, and I had some extra time on my hands. Becky is somewhat unlike other teachers I've had, in that she could mechanically break down and explain music to me in a way that allowed me not just to play it, but understand what I was playing.

The whistle is a small, cheap, end-blown flute – somewhat like a budget recorder. It has six tone holes that you cover with three fingers of either hand, and a mouthpiece that you blow in to. Out of this deceptively simple instrument, you can get two full octaves of range in two major keys and all the keys that come along with that. That is to say, it's small, but surprisingly versatile.

Irish traditional music, along with other traditional music of the British isles, is generally learned and played by ear, though sheet music is available. What sets this folk music apart from most classical and contemporary music is that the sheet music is essentially a suggestion. Using your skill, wits, and guile, you have to take a couple of parts of a repetitive tune and make it interesting.

This is where Becky comes in, with two really solid pieces of advice: one about how to practice, and one about how to learn.

Mindful Practice

The first of the things Becky taught me was how to practice; how to gain the mechanical skill required to execute what I knew, and to transform my knowledge into understanding.

"Know what you're going to practice before you pick up the whistle"

In retrospect, startlingly obvious. Noodling around randomly does very little but ingrain what you've already learned; if you want to learn something new then you have to have a goal. But, as with many things in life, having a plan (even if you have no idea what you're getting in to) is half the battle.

"Five minutes every day is better than an hour once per week"

This subtly implies something else; you should make your practice not just habit and routine, but low-friction and easy to access. You will do much better chipping away at small, easy problems, than trying to tackle a hard problem you are not ready for (and all hard problems are just n easy problems in a trenchcoat anyway).

"Do it slow until you can do it right"

This one has a very "slow is smooth, smooth is fast" kind of vibe, and it's right. Doing something slowly and accurately is hard. In a programming context, it's very easy to whack together some code that delivers a feature, but the end result is of limited use if it's buggy, doesn't actually deliver the desired feature, or is riddled with security or structural issues.

Learning to Learn

The second thing Becky taught me was how to learn. Specifically, how to learn an instrument, or a tune – the approach is broadly the same.

It's a model, and as my colleague Craig likes to say; all models are wrong, but some are useful. Hopefully this is one of the latter.

"First, learn the notes"

You have to be able to play a tune through in its entirety. Obvious, right? But there's a lot here – some tunes are difficult. Some tunes don't have a written form, and you'll have to learn them by ear. Worse, some tunes have very poorly transcribed sheet music that will lead you astray! Not all learning material is created equal.

Beyond that, you will also have to contend with your own (lack of) mechanical skill. You will likely get stumped by a strange combination of notes. Perhaps you're not accustomed to switching octaves so quickly, or you accidentally bang out the wrong note because of some pattern you've learned in a previous tune.

"Second, make it more interesting"

Boy, isn't that 'interesting' a really load-bearing word? In this context, it means adding ornamentation, variation, dynamics, and a plethora of other tools in the folk musician's toolbox.

Making the piece flow better - the folk musician's version of 'clean code' - is key to turning a roughly shaped tune into refined birdsong.

"Third, play the tune"

Taking all you have learned, play the tune. Not the notes. Not the parts. The whole thing. Feel the rhythm, lean in to the swing, and add to it with your performance.

This is not just the culmination of learning how to play the tune - it's the start of learning the meta-skill of picking up and playing the tunes you come across.

In code terms; release it. You must make mistakes to improve, and more often than not you will be startled how others see something that is so mundane to you as so magical.

Some observations

This is not a new topic, or a new field. People much smarter and more experienced than me have studied this for a long time, but I share it in hopes that for someone out there, the same realisations I had will click.

If you want to read more on this topic, take a look at:

And if I've somehow convinced you to listen to whistle music:

Thanks readers, and thanks Becky!

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Posted 2022-06-19

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