And it is by doing. Practice, habit building, repetition, reinforcement, routine; whatever you want to call it, there is no other way to build a skill or explore a mode of expression. So at the most fundamental level, learning is not very complicated or mysterious! The answer to any question in the learning process, be it physical, cognitive, or emotional, is “keep on trying to do it until it works.”

The reason learning an instrument (or any other broad skill) is often confusing is that we don’t know which questions to ask. Wanting to become a “good pianist,” for instance, is a goal so nebulous that it is effectively meaningless. We can chart the route to an objective by naming it specifically. But without a preliminary understanding of the art form, how could one be expected to define a more particular concern? Teacher, parent, and student must work together to break down broad, abstract goals into narrow, tangible actions. This involves the splintering of categories, and it might go something like this:

Learn to play the piano:

  • Fundamental technique 
    -Time
    -Micro-timing
    -Expressive phrasing
    -Combining the attacks of multiple notes
    -Blending with texture from other instruments
    -Dragging/rushing
    -Tempo consistency
    -Groove
    -Speed
    -Dynamic control
    -Articulation
    -Fluidity
  • Musicality
  • Stylistic familiarity/repertoire
  • Discipline and practice strategy
  • Creativity/imaginative capacity
  • Expression/development of individual artistic identity

We can approach learning from the other direction: starting with a specific activity and expanding it to include all of the skills it encompasses…. But I’ll leave that for another entry. In the meantime, try discovering new questions (this in and of itself is a skill that can be practiced!