How Popular Musicians Learn

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This is not the style of book I would normally choose to read. It’s academic background is clear from the start. Most obviously through the writing which is much more verbose than most other books on practice reviewed here. It is not an easy read. However it is definitely worth the perseverance to complete.

The book is based on research conducted in 1998, comprising a series of interviews with ‘popular’ musicians. Each of these musicians is at varying stages of development – some in their early teens and others who have had notable performing careers.

One of the main thrusts throughout the book is the difference between formal and informal learning approaches. Formal practices include structured instrumental lessons, regular practice and use of sheet music, what we would traditionally call classical lessons. The informal approach is made up from self-teaching, copying, choosing music that is liked and irregular practice.

A perceived benefit of the informal approach is the development of aural ability through liking, copying and ‘playing by ear’. Green does concede that formally trained musicians do develop an equivalent level of aural skill albeit at a slower pace.

Green also offers some interesting insights on technique. Her research indicates that in the early stages of informal learning technique is given much less priority than making music. This is completely at odds with the traditional classical approach. However it is also argued that less formally trained musicians do develop an appreciation of the importance of technique, albeit at a much later stage.

Interestingly Green found that those musicians who had learned in a loose, unstructured, informal way went on to become teachers who taught in a very structured way. Why as learners did they prefer a free approach but as teachers implement structure on their students?

Marked differences in practice routines were also noticed. For the ‘popular’ musicians there was no sense of regular practice or aiming for any goals. That is not to say that a lot of practice did not take place. Using time as a measure sometimes these people would do many hours in a day but then not practice at all for several weeks.

Aside from the verbose style the other slight concern I had was the size of sample taken in this book. All research was conducted amongst only 14 musicians. Whilst interviews appear to have been thorough I would liked to have seen a wider pool of people used to give more weight to the findings.

There are some good resources at the end of the book which I shall be adding to the bibliography section of this stie.

Those who have received a traditional classical schooling I think will find much to ponder in this book. Is the structured, technical approach the best way to teach? Or can more enjoyment and engagement be achieved through freer methods?

Overall I would highly recommend this book. If you read it I hope you find yourself questioning as I do the divide between strict and free learning methods.

How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education by Lucy Green, (2002, Ashgate, ISBN: 978-0754632261) is available from:[amazon asin=0754632261&template=htp price]

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