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Picking and Learning

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

Conversations with the Modern Learners community frequently cycle back to Sarason's definition of productive learning. In practical terms, what is productive learning?

"Where have you been?" asked one of my colleagues. "I haven't seen anything new on your blog in a while."

Guilty as charged, I've been peeling layers of myself off of the grid, reducing my digital footprint, and immersing myself in learning experiences I enjoy most. I'm writing daily, just not online. In the absence of Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, I have been learning to play guitar, fingerstyle. As one of my favorite musicians, Mark Knopfler has advised, playing has become a bit of an obsession, really. I dedicate at least an hour each day to practice, learning the instrument, reteaching my hands to tell stories without words.

For those of us concerned about our advancing years, taking up a hobby, learning new skills promotes mental health and longevity. Some folks work on crossword puzzles or play Soduko, others paint, write, or plant gardens. My commitment involves six strings, ten fingers, two eyes, two ears, and one hungry mind.

"Playing an instrument can certainly improve a person's overall well-being. Playing even five minutes a day can lead to a range of physical, mental and emotional benefits." - Daniel Levitin

November 3rd, 2017, I purchased a second-hand acoustic guitar and set a goal to learn to play my wife's favorite song, Pachelbel's Canon, in one year's time. Mission accomplished, I am now working to make the song sound more "orchestral" when I play it.

Playing guitar has become my hobby, and learning obsession. The professional educator part of my brain wonders, "can an old dog learn new tricks"? Is Malcolm Gladwell correct? How many hours of purposeful practice will I need to master the art of fingerstyle guitar? If the assumed target is 10,000 hours, then I am about 500 hours into an amazing and fulfilling journey. My only regret is not having started sooner.

"Anyone can achieve mastery with purposeful practice. With considerable, specific, and sustained efforts over time, you can do most things you struggle with. You can only turn into the expert you want to become by deliberate, purposeful practice." - Thomas Oppong

Apparently, I'm not alone in my pursuit of musical mastery, or at least, satisfaction. Recent research conducted by Fender and Egg Strategy asserts more people are playing guitar than ever before. Additionally, musicians are bringing greater innovation and diversity to the art. The proliferation and accessibility of shared instructional resources are creating a generation of "self-taught" musicians. A summary of Fender's research shows:
  • women account for 50% of the bourgeoning guitar market
  • 72% of new players cite self-improvement as their motivation
  • most players have simple aspirations, playing for themselves or with friends
  • 42% believe playing music is a significant part of their identity
My practice of fundamentals has included the completion of two online courses for beginning guitar players. Although I can't read music, I use an app on my iPad to play along with tablature to any song within my "self-assessed" range of skill. My most frequent instruction, coinciding with Fender's research, leverages online videos. I bookmarked a Canon in D tutorial, forty-one minutes long. It took me about four weeks and roughly four thousand "play-tap-pause-tap-play" reiterations to get through the entire lesson.

Fender CEO, Andy Mooney explains, "In 2015, we found more than 90 percent of first-time players abandoned guitar in 12 months – if not the first 90 days – but the 10 percent that didn't, tended to commit to the instrument for life." Business leaders, like educators, want to know more about motivation, engagement, creativity, and learning. Providing accessibility for players to connect and interact virtually seems to be a key component in "capturing" some of the ninety-percenters, as well as, establishing a life-long attachment to the fully committed.

Returning to Sarason's definition of productive learning, the importance of agency and "want to" has become evident to me. Performing scales and doing fingering exercises isn't homework, it's purposeful practice. Grading isn't necessary - my ears tell me when I am making progress. I get coached by many online experts who don't mention words like mindset or grit. 

There has never been a better, nor more confusing, time to be a learner. Do you have a hobby you are passionate about? In what ways is your "Informal" learning like school, in what ways is your "informal" learning different from school? How can we change narratives so schooling aligns more favorably with the education we value?

My guitar calls - stay cool, be kind!

References and Related Reading

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation. “Guitar Isn't Dead: Research Shows Learning To Play Helps Us Live Better Lives.” PR Newswire: Press Release Distribution, Targeting, Monitoring and Marketing, 16 Oct. 2018,
Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain On Music: Understanding a Human Obsession. Atlantic Books, 2011.
Oppong, Thomas. “The Art of Purposeful Practice (Not All Practice Makes Perfect).” Medium, The Mission, 14 Nov. 2016,
“What Happens When We Become 1% Better Every Day.” A.J. JULIANI, 28 Oct. 2018,


Aaron Davis said…
What I have learnt recently is the importance of learning something beyond education. I have been doing some thinking about writing a book about covers. In part I am interested in the process and what I can learn about myself. I really enjoyed Ryan Holiday’s reflections on the journey.

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