A lot has come to light in the past decade since I began looking beyond tradition and started thinking. Thinking about different ways to learn the instrument, more efficient ways, ways that are more now and less then. At some point we have to move beyond the 19th century… I have done my best to steal from many other fields (i.e. climbing over the apparently high, barbed-wire rimmed walls of the box for a new go at thinking) to bring back stuff that works for others and try it on the horn. There is a rich realm of possibilities lying glistening and unattended for the determined idea thief. First, from other brasses. What do trumpets do that we don’t that we might try? Low brass? Over more walls: what about woodwinds? String players? Percussionists? Guitarists? Jazzers? Conga players? Keep scaling, out of music altogether: Business? Psychology? Sports? Education in general? Creativity studies? Designers? Astrophysics?

Well, maybe not that last one (but never rule out anything – there is something to be learned from just about anything). What has fascinated me most of late is what neurologists have been up to this past decade. From earlier focus on neurons, they discovered that the measurable physiological change that enables mastery is the gradual build-up of myelin (white matter) around well-used neural pathways, which is the result of long and careful practice. This story was well-documented and engagingly reported in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin several years ago, highly recommended (also available as audiobooks).

Neuroscientists working with educators continue to come up with hot stuff that should affect the way we teach and learn – if we’re paying attention (a big if). Last weekend saw the publication of an interesting article in the Sunday NY Times entitled The Trouble with Homework by Annie Murphy Paul (author of Origins, now at work on a new book about the science of learning, can’t wait). She reports that to be effective, homework has to be not brief or long, but of the right kind.

What is smart homework? 1) Spaced repetition. The idea is to keep coming back to a subject rather than covering Topic A today, Topic B tomorrow, Topic C the next day, instead to keep returning to the information briefly over longer periods of time. 2) Retrieval practice uses the test not to assess knowledge, but to reinforce it. Because of way the brain works, the best way to make learning stick is for the student to keeping calling up the material to be learned. Just reading over notes or text doesn’t do it. Self-quizzing works because it focussed “less on the input of knowledge… and more on its output (calling up the same information from one’s own brain).”

Author Paul also demolishes another piece of conventional wisdom: that we learn best when information is easy to absorb. Not so – we recall what we know better if we have to work harder to understand it. Oh, my. She says that psychologists have come up with various kinds of “desirable difficulties” to that end, including deliberate mistakes, typos, and so on. One kind of desirable difficulty is called interleaving. This is where different kinds of problems are mixed together, rather than having them all be of one type, so the student brain has to work a little harder to first determine what approach to take for each one. Paul’s example is sports, e.g. baseball. Hitters improve more when they don’t know in advance what kind of pitch is coming, which of course is just like in the game itself. Studies have shown that interleaving works the same way in academic learning.

Interesting stuff! A call for reflection how a horn player (or any musician) could use these ideas. Here are some thoughts off time top of my head; I’d be pleased to have readers contribute their thoughts as well. The idea of spaced repetition suggests that we study a variety of technical topics and keep coming back to them. Sure, many have routines where they run down the same list of scales and arpeggios daily, but that is a different story. The problem with the never-changing workout should be obvious to anyone who has ever gone to a gym. Your muscles adapt (i.e. stop improving or developing), boredom sets in, and good of it fades. Also, any single workout by definition is limited leaves out many, many technical topics. No trainer at the gym would give a client the same workout routine forever, yet that’s what happens all the time in the horn world in warm-up/workout routines. Best would be workout sessions that covered general areas (scales, arpeggios, patterns, overtone exercises) but in constantly changing ways. To add spaced repetition, the player/teacher could set up cycles where various topics loop – keep coming back, perhaps in varied ways. The first time you work on F#, you do the first three notes. Then five notes. Then the octave. Then jumbled. Then combined with the F# arpeggio. Then in bookended by other scales (different every time). Then in other registers, other dynamics, other articulations. Then improvising in F# with a friend. It might take some planning, but continuing to come back to that material in different ways would be both interesting and effective.

Retrieval practice is easy: stop using ink. Memorize. Improvise. Memorization forces you to learn a composition at a deeper level – you can’t play it from memory unless you really know the music. Improvisation is instant retrieval of what you know about the scale or arpeggio of the moment, shaping it with articulation, dynamics, and note value to express something as part of a phrase, making musical decisions that call up technical resources right now. Retrieval practice is mildly painful at first to those who are addicted to ink (as I certainly once was), but continued effort pays big dividends, and, hey – is a whole lot of fun.

The same goes for interleaving: mixing different problems together in an unpredictable way. Play improvised duets with someone. You could set restrictions so that they emphasize some aspect of technique that you want to work on, e.g. low range, certain scales and arpeggios, extended techniques, certain keys, etc. Improvised duets or trios are guided by listening: you are constantly adjusting to match pulse, rhythms, key, articulation, melodic motifs, as well as moving between solo and accompaniment roles. You don’t know what’s coming next; you have to be ready for anything. It’s exciting, very fun. And a great way to work on technique with a partner. Unlike our usual way of practice (alone), improv is social, and works best with partners so that you have inspiration and someone to play off of.

You don’t have to improvise, however, or you could use nonimprovised ways in alternation with improvised ways. The way to get the benefits of mixing problems together could be done with the help of 3X5″ cards. Take 12 cards and write down a key on each: C, Db/C#, D, Eb, E, F, etc. Shuffle well. Take another stack of blank cards and write on each a chord quality: major, minor (melodic, natural, harmonic, Dorian, etc.), dominant 7th, diminished. The insufficiently challenged may add extended types: major 6, major 7, major 9, minor 7, minor 9, dominant 9th, etc. Shuffle. Then deal out one card from each stack, for example Ab dominant 7th. Immediately play the scale and the arpeggio. Pick a tempo where you can be 100% accurate; this may be different for each scale, so note-to-self: spend more time on the less familiar material. Alternatively, you could pick up the tempo towards the end so that you are increasing the challenge toward your current limits, which spurs the brain to add more myelin to this particular circuit.

To continue, go to the next (random) card in the stack for the next key. For chord quality  (major, harmonic minor, etc.), you have a choice: either keep the same one until you’ve been through all keys or take the next one in the stack. Until you’re really proficient in all chord qualities and just need review, it’s probably better to stick with one type through all keys.

An alternative to the cards (so that you don’t have to stop and turn over the next card) is to write (type) out various cycles (key orders) through all keys. The advantage of this method is that you can include some basic cycles that you should be familiar with:

Circle of 5ths: (descending; each is the dominant of the next):

C F Bb Eb Ab Db F# B E A D G

Chromatic:

C Db D Eb E F F# G Ab A Bb B

My advice is what I would say about choosing desserts: try both.

You might also take into account your current needs and choose to work on only certain things, e.g. only on F#, B, and Db scales, or diminished arpeggios, or a pattern.

Or just say organization be damned – just mess around (that’s the technical term) in a key, a scale, an arpeggio, or simply whatever occurs to you in the moment, making choices about note values, articulations, dynamics, register, and so on on the fly.

Beware here. This can be so much fun that you probably should set a timer. But it is an interleaving tour de force.

More soon on other readings on the brain and video games.