How to Learn an Instrument Using Metacognition

Posted by Jesse Sterling Harrison on Apr 5, 2016 07:00 AM

rockinbaby.jpgPhoto by Stephen via; used under Creative Commons

We’ve all heard how children learn many things more quickly and easily than adults. For example, young children rapidly soak up new languages. We’ve also seen musical prodigies who began instrument lessons at three years old. So what if you’re 45 and never took up the piano like you wanted to? Maybe you’ve been playing guitar for 20 years but have a craving to learn tenor sax. Has your window closed? Not at all. Children’s minds may have more plasticity as they rapidly develop, but adult learners have an advantage, too. It’s called metacognition.

What is metacognition? It’s thinking about thinking, or learning about learning. When the three-year-old violin student takes a lesson, she has no choice but to follow the technique and philosophy of her teacher. As a teen or adult learner, you have some self-knowledge about what learning technique works best for your brain – and the freedom to choose that technique. As you progress through your lessons, you also have the ability to evaluate how things are going, building on what works, deleting what doesn't, and realistically monitoring your own progress. Below, we list some metacognition strategies that work best for learning a new instrument.

1. Choose your path

In the internet era, there are many ways to learn. You’ve been to school, have most likely worked for pay, and have probably taken private lessons in something along the way. Now is the time to evaluate how classroom lectures, corporate training, and the strategies of your teachers worked for you.

Some students are alert in classroom settings, methodically taking notes. Others fall asleep. Some students find it intimidating to practice hands-on learning without a foundation of basic concepts. Others only want to jump in and learn. You have the power to choose. Do you need a one-on-one instructor? Do you have the option of taking a group class? Are you a self-motivated experimenter who might learn best by exploring the instrument on your own and teaching yourself? Or are you a YouTube learner, watching others in pictures and videos and mimicking their technique? Chances are, you had strong reactions about what was most appealing while reading these examples!

Trust your gut; you’ve had a lifetime of learning how to learn. And if whatever you’re doing isn’t working, move on. This isn’t high school; there’s no reason to stick with a teacher you dislike working with.

2. Tune your practice regime

A metacognitive study of music students shows that very few students practice their instrument more than once a week. This would be like trying to learn the skills of a new job working only on Fridays. Common sense tells us that you’ll be slow to learn anything doing it only once per week. It takes some repetition within a reasonable time frame to fix anything new in your mind.

So why are so many students practicing so rarely? Most likely because they have a weekly music lesson and wait until just before then to practice, so they won’t be embarrassed in front of the teacher! This is same reason that children given weekend homework tend to do it late Sunday evening.

To avoid this natural procrastination, practice should be scheduled as a daily event, understanding that life might sometimes get in the way. We know that such a routine, once established, will be hard to break. The ensuing progress with daily practice will snowball, creating intrinsic rewards that in turn lead to even more momentum and faster improvement.

We also know that new habits are best established with built-in rewards. Follow your successful practice session with another enjoyable activity: a snack, a favorite TV show, or something else you look forward to. The rewards you create will also tune your brain, teaching it to enjoy the practice because of the pleasant experience that follows, even if the practicing itself is difficult or physically uncomfortable at first.

Within your practices, the same philosophy tells us to do the more boring parts first. If there are scales to play, strength exercises or stretches, or other less musical tasks to attend to, start with those. Working on a new piece is more intrinsically rewarding, so that should be left for last.

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3. Evaluate yourself every step of the way, then respond

The study we cited above also shows us that students tend to overrate their own abilities. This may be because they tend to be evaluated from without, learning their own rank through the grading or comments of teachers. Students are more realistic about progress when regularly asked to rate themselves, so check your own progress in various areas and give yourself a grade of A through F. This will show you where you’re lagging behind and where you’re excelling. If you find yourself lagging in one specific area, target that area with new learning techniques or increased focus on that area during your practice.

4. Have a game plan for each piece you tackle

Excited to play a new piece of music? Excellent. Now, before you jump in, review the recording or sheet music. Look for patterns, and search for passages that might give you trouble. Do you have problems with tempo, slowing or speeding up inappropriately? Do you find certain rhythms or time signatures challenging? You can break the piece up into chunks, as theater actors do when learning each scene in a play.

To remind yourself about what to watch out for, speak out loud. You may sound crazy, but speaking out loud is a proven memory tool. When you plan ahead, you’ll succeed.

5. Go to sleep

Get a good night’s sleep after you practice and, indeed, every night. While you’re snoring, your brain is busy sorting and filing away everything you just learned. It’s also growing and changing. Just like children’s brains, adult brains grow new connections between neurons when confronted with new skills and challenges. This growth makes it possible for you to process more information at a faster pace, creating superhighways for data within the mind.

You’ll be surprised how much easier a difficult piece feels after your mind has been musing about it overnight. And once you feel the pleasure of your own improvement, there’ll be no stopping you.


Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.

Topics: Performing, Honing Your Craft


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