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Finding my Fingers; Learning Stories

Are you a good learner?

"You've got to really want to play because your fingers don't do what they're told." says acclaimed guitarist, Mark Knopfler. His uniquely brilliant fingerstyle playing is the product of desire, determination, and practice - lots and lots of practice. Like many successful musicians (Eric Clapton, Prince, Elton John) Knopfler is primarily self-taught, meaning he has achieved mastery without formal training. His lengthy obsession with playing folk and blues style music trained his fingers to become, as he says, "orchestrated like those of a piano player."



Providing provocation in style all his own, Will Richardson, as part of a Change.School conversation asked, "Are you a good learner? How do you know?" The backdrop of this discussion was challenging our assumptions of what we believe about schools. Stripping away the superfluous, educators should be sprouting and nurturing learners. 

Reflecting on who I am as a learner caused me to jump into my way back machine. About forty-something years ago, my grade school teacher encouraged me to join the school band. My mom provided me a shiny, hand-me-down saxophone. I decided to give it a try. Right away, I found the practices boring, tedious, and confusing. Music lessons were like broccoli, tough for me to swallow. Success in athletics came more naturally for me, my musical interests were put on the back burner. Seemingly, this was music to the ears of my family and neighbors, I remember creating awful sounds with that old saxophone.

A few years later, about the time I became interested in popular music, I learned girls my age thought drummers and guitar players were cool. Since my younger brother came pre-programmed with a drummer's disposition, I decided guitar playing would be my pathway to popularity and romance. My parents helped me purchase my first guitar from the formerly, El Rey Music Store in Arlington Heights, Illinois. The Gibson knock-off was far too sweet for my rookie ability, but I felt cool, and I discovered my passion for playing guitar.

I took the introductory lessons included with the purchase of the instrument. I didn't care much for music theory, scales, or tapping rhythm patterns. I just wanted to play songs. I was able to develop my ear and play along with a few of my favorite songs. Many hours were spent in my room playing along with whatever music we had in the house. Self-taught, perhaps, but far, far from mastery. At some point, athletics, once again, pushed my musical interests aside. High school girls, apparently, appreciate guys in basketball shorts and football pants.

Learning, as I have come to understand during my time as a professional educator, is not linear, is not always easy, and not always fun. However, curiosity, desire, and purpose will help learners push through challenges and discomfort. Assessing meaningful learning is difficult. Not to sound like a broken record...


"The learning process is one which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive." - Seymour Sarason

Fast forward about forty years, playing football is in my distant past. Thankfully, and depending who you ask, my brain is healthy enough for me to tell stories and learn new things. Last fall, realizing I wanted new challenges, I decided to learn a new language and to really learn how to play guitar. Admittedly, I have not progressed with Spanish, but since November 3rd, I have practiced playing guitar at least one hour each day. 


Some days, I practice for several hours. Instead of tweeting while watching TV, I am picking on my guitar. Practice sessions are filled with exercises, scales, chord progressions, fingering drills - all of the things I disliked as a teenager. Playing is one part obsession and one part therapy, frankly. Knopfler says a well-matched musical instrument, the right guitar, for instance, becomes an extension of our personality, "when our voice runs out of words, music completes the story."

Why are people, young and old, encouraged to have hobbies?

Coincidentally, last week I took one of my guitars into Guitar Center for a professional set-up, this is like getting periodic maintenance done on your car. Interestingly, their slogan is "finding your sound." I asked my technician, "Jose, how long have you been setting up guitars?" 

He said, "I'm 42. In my mid-twenties I went to school to become a luthier. I built guitars off and on for several years. In my thirties, I started doing "set-ups" and repairs. I worked for free for three years to improve my skills and build a following of clients." He said, "School got me started, then I watched the experts, I practiced what I learned. I would install one hundred sets of strings in a row, sometimes with my eyes closed. My hands would hurt, but I knew the practice would make me better. Eventually, I developed my own techniques. Now people like you are learning from me." Unaware of my professional background, Jose said, "you never stop learning. If you love what you're doing, you can always get better." 



I shared my role in public education and commented it would be beneficial for teachers and students to hear his learning story. As he tuned my guitar, Jose Cardenas added, "I know guys who have been guitar techs for more than thirty years, the technology changes, they're still learning, always practicing, always learning." I sat and observed as Jose continued his meticulous work, while explaining the subtler points of tone, resonance, and sustain. He the teacher, me the student, I made a conscious effort to soak up every word.

Are any of us genuinely "self-taught"? 

Living my belief in self-determined learning, I started taking online guitar lessons. I am enjoying the self-paced delivery and the differentiated course offerings based on skill level and musical style. The instructors are accessible via a discussion board or video chat. I've found the exercises and drills to be very helpful. 



There are no grades, points, nor badges. Feedback comes in the form of being able to play along with the practice tracks. I can hear and feel when my skills improve. Doubling up my daily practice, I completed an eight-week fundamentals course in four weeks. I'm currently taking the "fundamentals-two" course, practicing fingerstyle techniques, and preparing to learn a few songs. Tracking my progress is smooth and satisfying. My goal, like Jose, is to keep practicing, keep playing, and keep learning.

Some days my playing flows free and easy, other days, it can feel a bit clumsy and out of tune. I love playing guitar, I think I always have. As strange as it sounds, learning a new riff makes my brain feel right, similar to how my body feels after a good workout. In this Ted-talk, world-renowned guitarist, Tommy Emmanuel shares his talent along with an enthusiastic message about continuing to learn what feeds our passion.

Harold Jarche said, "Work is learning, and learning is the work." My rediscovered hobby feels more like play than work, but I understand what he means. Joyful practice is engaging my mind, body, and spirit. 

Am I a good learner? My fingers know.


What is your learning story? (#LearningStory)

How can schools help learners craft beautiful stories?


Related Reading:

"Local Library Works to Keep Music Alive Following School Cuts" - Fox News, Jan. 27, 2018.

"Science Shows How Guitar Players' Brains Are Different..." - Mic, April 29, 2014


photo credit: wuestenigel closeup shot of guitar and strings via photopin (license)

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