Note-learning – why we don’t like it!

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents the idea that we have two systems for thinking – System 1 is effortless and intuitive (fast), whilst System 2 relies on deductive reasoning (slow). Although I have not yet finished this extraordinary book (which appears also to have some leanings towards economics, which is most definitely not my field), this concept has been a revelation to me in terms of the light which it might shed on studying music, and in particular on how we practise.

In recent weeks I have asked many colleagues, friends and pupils to answer the sum 17 x 24, out loud. Several have declined even without trying: “I couldn’t do that.” Eavesdropping on others whilst they have multiplied, stored and carried their way to the answer (not always the right answer!) has been very enlightening; there is no doubt that mental arithmetic requires our undivided cogitation, even for the few who took on the challenge with no fuss. Kahneman’s suggestion that our System 2 is essentially ‘lazy’ seems to me to carry a lot of weight – most people would rather do something which comes more easily!

Is it any surprise then, that given the prospect of learning new notes, many pupils conveniently find something else to do instead?! Note-reading requires  a great deal of mental effort not only in reading pitch and rhythm, but in co-ordinating the body and at the same time trying to assess, via ears, fingers and intellect, whether we have it right or not. Having opened the score, some pupils will find it hard even to begin, whilst others might make a reluctant start but give up once they realise the scale of the task ahead. Maybe perfecting the first page would be more fun after all…!

For a long while now I have encouraged my pupils to think about three stages of practice. Stage One Practice is note-learning.  However reluctant, just a few new notes learned every day will make in-roads into the piece which the student is learning, as well as practising reading skills of course. Stage Two Practice is consolidating our recent note-learning. Once we are familiar with something, even if we only encountered it yesterday, we tend to regard it with less suspicion! Music which was new yesterday is altogether more approachable today. Stage Three Practice is refining music with which we are now quite familiar, and might even be considered playtime!

Stage One Practice is, of course, System 2 stuff – that is, hard work on the brain. By the time we get to Stage Three Practice, however, we are moving very much more towards relying on our intuition. Expert intuition can be learned, in as much as we can become so familiar with something that we just know it. Once at this level, the tough cognitive work is behind us, and things come easily. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Stage Three Practice is easy – far from it – but in pure cognitive terms it is less demanding than the early note-learning stages.

Just being aware of this concept is surprisingly helpful. I actually like learning new notes, but sometimes, especially if I’m tired, I prefer to work on more familiar repertoire. And with some students, knowing that there are aspects of practice are potentially very demanding might alter the way in which we approach helping them; sometimes it’s not just a question of time spent, but actually breaking through the initial mental barrier to take it on at all.

In the wider context, pupils who develop the habit of learning new notes every day, and are therefore readily prepared to think hard and problem solve, are surely more likely to use these transferable skills in other areas of their learning too. It strikes me as an excellent habit to be cultivating.

One response to “Note-learning – why we don’t like it!

  1. Pingback: Thinking Fast and Slow (book review) | Memorising Music

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