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Learning vs Acquisition by Franz Vitulli


Learning vs Acquisition by Franz Vitulli

In this first article of mine I would like to express some ideas I developed through the years, having been a student, having attended classes with more than one teacher, being actually a teacher myself since I graduated at the academy where I’ve studied the electric bass and being a senior student for an MA in General and Applied Linguistics.

It is really amazing to realize how similar could be the human approach when you learn/teach music and when you learn/teach a second language. Maybe scientists would say that music and language activate the same areas of our brains, I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

So, here’s the thing…  I borrowed this idea from the Second Language Acquisitional Theory and tried to apply it within my music lessons. It’s all about the crucial distinction between learning and acquisition. Acquisition is a painless process: like a child, who unconsciously works on grammar just hearing the language all around him, it is possible – with some obvious limitations – that a grown man acquires a language e.g. working on a building site when he just left his country and moved to a richer land. Could this situation be compared with a self-taught musician who tries to master his instrument by hearing what his heroes do on his favourite records/Spotify songs/Youtube videos? My answer is “Yes!”

Learning, on the other hand, is basically what a man gets in a formal environment, e.g. in a classroom. It involves a specific work on rules and results in a conscious knowledge “about” the language (or music).

Some linguists who have been working on this field have stated that the grown man on the building site will be able to communicate much sooner than a man who attends a traditional language class, but in the long run the student will reach a higher level of proficiency. I strongly believe that this statement can be applied in music: a punk self-taught bass player will learn how to play his favourite songs roughly but very quickly, sitting down with his bass and jam along the song until he finds the right notes or reading a tab found on the web, while a student usually needs some time to get confident with chords and scales before he’s ready to play music with others. And while most of the self-taughts keep playing with this routine (I want to play this song, then I somehow look for the right notes and play the song), the traditionally educated musicians have more chances to reach a higher level. Please don’t misunderstand this point, music history is full of talented musicians who dominate their years without having attended a single lesson, but they surely have spent time studying and practicing consciously.

In my humble opinion the key is to merge the two approaches and get the best results from each one, and it shouldn’t be so hard for a modern musician. Spending time and money with a teacher is necessary, but you have to know when it’s time to change teacher or to keep practicing on your own. The “acquisitional teacher” has the duty to allow his student to enjoy the benefits of the self-taught players, where “teaching” and “guiding the unconscious process of acquisition” are synonyms. He has to let him discover things without overwhelming him with notions and theoretical constructs that he’s still not able to understand, notice when it’s time to introduce new topics (acquisition is a sequential process!), avoid persevering with an error correction/detection approach but using the recast (playing an arpeggio, or a scale, or a melodic phrase the student didn’t play properly, until he realizes his mistake) and turn the lesson environment from formal into informal, spending the last 15 minutes of the lesson jamming with the student in order to check if he’s able to apply autonomously, spontaneously and unexpectedly (= he has acquired) the stuff he’s studying.

If you are a teacher and spend the class time just explaining concepts, welcome to the internet era: your students might find way more than you can teach him on Youtube videos, websites, ebooks, not to mention the regular books, etc., but this approach doesn’t work at all, and if it worked, there would be no reasons to keep teaching music at any level. If you are a student and your teacher talks, and talks, and talks, just don’t say “Yes, yes, I got it” but stop him anytime you need a clarification and let him know that you need time to process the information he’s giving to you. If he keeps talking about rules and at the end of the lesson your mind is about to blow – in my opinion – just do yourself a favor, go to another teacher.

So the responsibiity of a successful lesson is both of the teacher and of the student. The goal of the lessons must be the acquisition of the necessary skills to be able to play music, not just the knowledge of music. And make sure that you are always investing your time in the best way possible.

I would really like to hear your thoughts about this, so please comment, tweet this article, share it on your Facebook wall and tell your friends about it!


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