Teaching a fundamental skill versus straight information impartation

(Warning: Unedited education theory rambling henceforth.)

One reason why Aural Skills (Ear training and sight singing) was the very best class in college was that it was the most like the establishment of the Kingdom of God. (I know, I know, this analogy is a stretch, here, but work with me.) The Law was heavy indeed, but redemption (albeit self-redemption) held even greater sway than all the law. You could fail and fail and fail throughout the year, but if you passed the final exam, you passed the class. End of story. All your previous failures were erased. The teacher knew that the journey might take you through some very low and dark places. If he wanted people that could perform on par from day 1 – what would there be to learn? Instead, we all got our asses kicked really hard. The question was not, “Can you do this?” but rather, “Here is how to do this. Now let’s do it over and over and over together. After a year, we’ll see if you did it enough to be comfortable with it now or if we should keep doing it together some more.” (Fail and repeat the course.)

This the opposite of, say, a history course where you read and listen to lectures, memorize the narrative, and the prove that you were able to pack it in your brain by answering some test questions every few weeks. If you drop the ball on one test, an A is no longer possible. Now, this may be an adequate way to learn some material, but how much more powerful is the immersion experience of the first method?

This is what I wonder: If the first method is the only really effective way to learn certain fundamental skills, while the second method is decent at non-fundamentals – what if the first method were used to learn everything else as well? It’s just called first-hand experience. Yeah, some deep pedagogical theory there, right? Blow you mind.

It’s simple. What was the most valuable thing about music school at the university? The private lessons? The theory? The history? No. Those were OK, but what was really fantastic was playing in hours and hours of ensembles every single day: Wind ensemble three times a week, choir three times a week, jazz band twice a week, marching band 5 times a week, chamber ensemble, studio, and at least once concert – every single week. That’s about twenty hours a week of real, completely tangible, dialed-in music making. Who cares if you could audition for the highest group? Just show up and play (or sing). How can you help but learn? You’re drowning in it! (In a good way.)

Now I love lectures too, but only if I can engage what is being discussed with the same level of intensity as watching the conductor. Possible – if the teacher is an especially good speaker or the material particularly and obviously fascinating. But most of the time? Not so much. I can tell you with full confidence: no amount of listening or study will make you like Brahms. The first symphony is a snore fest. But go actually PLAY some Brahms, every day for 2 months, and then try to tell me with a straight face that it doesn’t totally rock. (I was very fortunate to rehearse and perform his third symphony, double bass, when I was 16. Changed my life.) Reaching this sort of level of engagement is possible with any topic, but I feel that our most common pedagogy often gets in the way. School could be getting in the way of you learning something really amazing.