Thursday, 13 March 2014

Training vs Teaching

Blimey, March already? At this rate I'm going to have to get everyone started on their Christmas compositions before long..

Now, in my last post I mentioned the aspect of training your fingers in the same way that an athlete trains their muscles, and I'd like to try and expand on that a little this month and talk about the difference as I see it between teaching and training.

Teaching is all about introducing the student to new concepts, and helping them to understand those concepts by connecting them to information the student already knows. Whether that be a new chord shape, or a theory idea or a scale pattern – teaching is all about imparting that information to the conscious, rational part of the brain, ensuring that the rationale behind the new idea is understood and makes sense.

Training, on the other hand, is all about finessing those movements via repetition and attention to form, until the student is able to call upon these responses instinctively. Using the same athletics parallel we looked at last month, this is similar to a training session in the gym – you may not necessarily learn any new exercises you didn't know before, but by repetition and attention to the detail of what you're doing, you're able to make incremental improvements simply by gradual progressive steps. For example, playing the same scale sequence, but 1-2 bpm quicker, or with a slightly more defined dynamic difference between piano and forte, or just playing the same notes with increased clarity as the pick and fret hands learn better how to mute out unwanted string noise.

Many psychologists view the brain on two levels – system 1, the rational conscious part of our brain that considers things logically and in depth, and system 2, which is the intuitive “subconscious” part of the mind. Both parts are necessary – can you imagine, for example, all the decisions that have to be taken in order to take a breath, or blink an eye? Without the intuitive system 2 which lets us “just do it”, we'd never be able to cope.
Teaching places the information we need in system 1. But without the training aspect, the understanding and the movements we need will never make it into the instinctive system 2 part which allows us to immediately call upon the licks, phrases, scale patterns that we need to improvise in the heat of the moment. Training groups these ideas together into system 2 which allows us to call on them much more quickly, without consciously thinking (often referred to as “muscle memory”).

There are many everyday examples of this duality in action – driving, for example. The processes all have to be learned painstakingly at first, but with experience and practice – training – they become grouped together in the instinctive realm of system 2. An example I use with my students – I have no idea how to to my shoelaces. I just tie them. If I stop to think about it – can't do it. For the first time in a good long while, one of my schools started requiring their peripatetic teachers to wear a tie. I haven't worn a tie in many, many years.. the movements were there, buried deep in system 2, but in order to access them I had to focus my conscious mind on something else completely and do it without thinking about it – effectively taking my own brain by surprise!

Of course, this makes it extremely important that at the first stages of training your fingers to accept new movements, chord shapes etc., you have to pay very close attention to training the right thing into your fingers. Otherwise all you practice is playing badly, and all you will get better at is playing badly. So 10-15 minutes spent focusing intently on your playing can have far greater impact than four hours splitting concentration between guitar and computer, guitar and TV, guitar and Xbox...