What is your Learning Rate Determining Step?

Just over a month ago, I had my first piano lesson. It was very hard. The teacher kept trying to teach me about “Middle C”, a term that had little meaning and even less perceived value to me. And she taught me to play music that was so inanely simplistic that I was bored before I’d finished playing the first bar. But the experience was fascinating. Especially when you know how good some pre-school students are!

After getting bored with drills intended to train me like they might train a 3-year-old, who will take an average of 1200 hours of formal practice to achieve Grade 5 (according to Sloboda’s Leverhulme Project), I decided to just learn how to play a piece of music. I chose to play one of my favourites, Gymnopedie. It looked easy enough.

It wasn’t easy. To start with, it was hard. Very hard. And it was hard in very specific ways.

And it has already highlighted two key aspects of learning for me: One conscious, one unconscious. I’ll get to those.

  • It was not hard because of the timing of the notes. I knew how long to hold the individual notes because I know the piece very well. Despite this, the teacher harped on holding the individual notes for the ‘right’ length of time. Indeed, she still was at our last lesson yesterday 🙂
  • It was not hard because of the biomechanics – with the exception of a four-note chord right at the end, it was pretty easy for my fingers to move to move.
  • Even the note order wasn’t really that difficult. While being a rich piece of music, it isn’t too fast and doesn’t involve wide variations in the note locations.
  • What was difficult for me was figuring out where to put my fingers! And for me that wasreally hard. My teacher would throw terms at me like “B” and “D” and “Fa” and “Do” – that might well have a meaning related to the keys for her other students, but for me they meant nothing. But when she physically showed me which key to press next, I was right to go for the next part. And, after a while, I started to put these parts together, so that now it almost sounds like a real piece of music.

A strange experience was discovering that I could play several relatively complex parts – with some of those weird black keys! Looking at the notes on the page, I couldn’t follow the notes, but if I just followed my fingers, I realized that I had ‘absorbed’ the sequence by watching and copying my teacher’s fingers. And what was most strange was that these were some of the easiest to play – where I made fewer mistakes, while concentrating less. When I was learning these, I had very much ‘surrendered’ to my teacher’s demonstration rather than trying to consciously understand what was going on: What we might call an “NLP Modelling” state.

Here are two things that I want to highlight from this:

  1. What is your Learning Rate Determining Step? What has stopped you from learning quickly and easily is as unique as you are – being able to identify those obstacles and tackle them is a profound skill that is remarkably effectively ignored by most of us. When you are learning something, whether it is a status skill, a professional skill, or an intellectual pursuit, you can focus on finding the constraints, the bottlenecks in your learning, the “Learning Rate Determining Step” in the process. Once you’ve found it, find a way to overcome that LRDS (like putting notes on the keys) and align the way you’re doing things to overcome the LRDS.
  2. You can absorb and learn unconsciously. We can absorb information presented to us quickly and easily if we can access an appropriate state. To do this, we can just let go of our need to feel like we know what we’re doing, and become like a child again – curious, open and willing to make mistakes.

I’m curious as to the extent that I can stop trying to learn consciously and deliberately so much, and focus more on that unconscious assimilation style… it sure is more fun!

(Of course, I’d love to have educators who focused more on removing the constraints to my learning rate than they did on how to design a powerpoint presentation… though let’s start with small steps.)