When I need a jumpstart for a topic to blog about, the quickest way I know is to scan what other blogmeisters (Bruce Hembd, John Ericson, Lyle Sanford, et al.) are currently cogitating about, and very often there is inspiration galore to set off a train of thought. This morning, the first entry I checked was another winner from Bruce Hembd, who discusses the benefits of learning that come with the writing of a blog and the opportunity for reflective learning that regular blogging brings. Bravo, Bruce! This entry on student blogging interests me especially because I have only recently begun this blog and because my students will be required to have horn blogs second semester this year. Bruce’s comments and insight will provide a good introduction to this.

One the links in Bruce’s entry leads to a brief but excellent article: “Reflective Practice” by James Atherton (from a site on learning and teaching that I didn’t know about before this). The theme of this article is very similar to some of the topics discussed in earlier posts in this blog. What I called “The Baby Bird” model of teaching (in How to Impress Your Teacher, where the teacher fills up the passive student with knowledge), this site quotes MIT social scientist Donald Schön’s term “Technical Rationality”; author Atherton adds his own term “battery model”, where the student is “charged up” with knowledge to be be “discharged” in the world of practice. Schön makes the case that this model is in fact not a good description of what really happens in the real world, of how professionals “think in action”.

Atherton: “The cultivation of the capacity to reflect in action (while doing something) and on action (after you have done it) has become an important feature of professional training programmes in many disciplines, and its encouragement is seen as particularly important aspect of the role of the mentor of the beginning professional.”

In other words, engage your brain and your awareness when you are learning something. Observe, react, adjust, adapt, hypothesize, try again, refine, repeat.

This is the antithesis of the traditional learning model (all the terms above), i.e. rote learning.

How might this apply to horn playing?

I touched on this earlier a bit in an earlier post, Taking the Easy Way Out in Education. Rote learning is easy to grade, so the system relies on it heavily (this might also be called the Regurgitate Model). There is no doubt that learning facts is important in the mastery of any domain, but if this is where it stops, as this model does, any education is only half complete. Stopping with the “just the facts” is reason that so many students feel unprepared for “the real world” when they get out there. Facts (or “thoughtless or unreflective learning”) are a basis for understanding, but the other half of the equation is knowing what to do with them when confronted with all the infinite variety of real life situations.  One simple example: I once asked a student who was auditioning to play a one octave Db major scale. This person zipped off a two octave scale without effort. I said, very nice, but could you play that as a one-octave scale as I requested? They said no, they couldn’t. They had only learned it as a two octave scale and couldn’t play it otherwise. Rote learning had given them the ability to do one thing very well, but it had also left the student narrow, inflexible, and unable to adapt to even a small deviation from the programmed script.

The way we study horn lulls us into thinking that the world will be as neat and clear cut as our warm-up routines or etude books. We learn to play our technical material unreflectively: up the (octave) scale and down the octave scale. We are at best only dimly aware of what scale degree we’re on and what overtone of what “horn”. We practice passages often with little or no idea what scale we’re playing. Unreflective. We learn to parrot, but without much understanding.

It’s like speaking a foreign language. You can read off the phrases you learn from a Berlitz phrase book, but good luck if the person answering says anything except what’s in your book. It’s much preferable (albeit more “work”) to learn to think in the new language. The way to do this is to use short phrases in real life situations over and over in different ways. Converse (conversation is a great model for acquiring mastery – you have to understand what you are talking about to be successful). Try it all kinds of different ways – there is more than one way to ask for a cup of coffee.

On the horn, we need to look for opportunities to “speak” music as well as recite it. Recitation is certainly a part of the the job, but you will be much more convincing and learn much faster if you can “speak and think” in music. Even though we have a lot of reciting to do, we need to be able to be musically flexible and adaptable. This comes through the musical version of reflective learning, or the “conversation” model of acquiring mastery.

Here are some ideas to adapt your horn playing to achieve this in, say, your technical development (there are certainly many more than are given here – take inspiration here and develop your own).

1. Get away from the printed page as much as possible. Learn general principles, then apply them eyes closed.

2. “Talk” about narrower and more varied subjects, i.e. don’t just practice octave scales. Pick a shorter length and discover all the different ways you can get in and around that collection of pitches, all possible stepwise movement, then leaps, then a mix of the two. Make up melodies in this length; play familiar tunes of this range  by heart. Vary articulation, dynamics, range.

3. Play everything in all keys, but don’t be in a hurry to get through them. Take your time. Stay on one key until it becomes very familiar and fluent. Repeat in minor.

4. Practice with a friend. There is nothing in technical practice that can’t be made into a duet, which will double the fun, the focus, challenge, and variety. Have a conversation in the scales you’re working on. Play them in canon. In parallel intervals. In counterpoint. In harmony. In alternation. Play Call & Response – one plays a measure (invented) and the other must play it back. There is a great deal of learning and fun possible in this kind of collaborative learning, which is one kind of reflective learning.

5. Pick a technical topic and make it into a Daily Arkady – i.e turn technique into music and see where it goes. Start with a rhythm or a melodic fragment and let it grow and develop. Take note along the way of what you wanted to do but didn’t quite succeed – and make it an object of study later. Learning technique through music is effective, fun, makes you very flexible and introduces you to a lot of situations outside of the usual.

(For those interested in pursuing this kind of playing further, there are a lot of ideas in my  book. I will also have a new book entitled Improv Games for One coming out in early 2010, also from GIA music).

There are many ways to engage your mind and awareness when you play. Traditional education doesn’t offer enough opportunities in this as it should. It’s up to you to look for ways to incorporate reflective learning into all your horn study. You’ll be surprised at how effective, empowering, and fun it is.