Six Strategies for the Effective Learning of Applied Classical Guitar
by Andrew Marino
Research in cognitive science has led to advancements in our comprehension of effective teaching and learning strategies. In the following article, six specific cognitive strategies for effective learning are discussed, as well as examples of how they can be integrated into teaching practices. The aim of the implementation of these strategies by music educators is to make advancements in music education in general, and applied classical guitar in particular. These six strategies are retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding.
Retrieval: Bringing information to mind; recalling information. This gives the learner information on what they know and what they don’t know. Bringing information to mind changes it, making it easier to recall. This makes the information more durable and easier to apply.
Application to instrumental study: One of the most important things we do as musicians is memorize. I don’t mean memorize by rote, so maybe a better term is “internalize.” We internalize everything from pitches and rhythms all the way to entire concertos and symphonies (either through analysis or performance). When students retrieve these internalized concepts, whether it’s a scale or a movement of a sonata, they form a deeper understanding of these things, making them more long lasting. Practicing retrieval can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it is beneficial. Create opportunities for your students to practice retrieval perhaps by creating low stakes exercises in lessons. For example, have them play the opening note/chord to the piece they most recently “completed.” Also, when a student hasn’t played a piece for a while, they might consider it “forgotten,” but that’s not accurate. They might need to refresh that piece for a competition or audition. Practicing retrieval early on can help reduce the anxiety that usually accompanies the cycle of learning and walking away from a piece and can make refreshing it a much simpler task.
Spaced practice: The idea of spacing out learning over time. Typically, the longer the delay the better, so the more time there is between learning and testing the higher the rate of student success. Time management tends to be an issue; setting aside the time to study/practice every day, and decided on how much time to do so, is problematic for students. Following up with students regarding their schedules is an important part of spaced practice.
Application to instrumental study: This should sound very familiar to musicians. We devote a lot of time learning to schedule daily practice sessions and we spend even more time teaching (and reminding) our students to set up a practice schedule, practice for a certain amount of time every day, not to “cram” for a lesson – because it will go poorly. It’s useful to combine spaced practice with retrieval practice because spacing isn’t “what” to practice, it’s just “when” to practice.
Elaborative Interrogation: This is the process of connecting pieces of information or adding new information by having students ask “how” and “why” questions and then answering those questions themselves. An issue here is that students might not focus on the right things, they may need prompts for “how” and “why” questions.
Application in instrumental study: This is an effective way of coming up with creative practice and learning strategies. For example: “why is this right hand fingering being used when there’s another, more efficient way?” or; “how do augmented 6th chords function?” These questions, when students search for the answers themselves, have the potential for more effective learning. Elaborative interrogation also shows an active engagement with the subject-matter.
Interleaving: This strategy involves taking ideas/concepts you’re trying to learn and mixing them up (or “jumbling”). The concepts should be related; they should all be within one subject. Changing subjects causes confusion. This breaks students out of “blocking” or “massing” practice approaches where one specific thing is studied or practiced over and over. Interleaving leads to durable, long-term learning. It helps students distinguish between different concepts and ideas, giving them perspectives on different problem-solving approaches. Interleaving also teaches students when to apply different practice strategies, not just how to solve one problem.
Application to instrumental study: A wonderful example of interleaving in practice is switching between difficult passages in a piece. “Blocking” (oftentimes referred to as “drilling”) or repeating a passage over and over may seem like good practice, but it doesn’t lead to the kind of durable learning musicians and music students require. Switching between passages can lead to novel problem-solving/practice approaches. A real-world example here of interleaving is from my own experience when I was a doctoral student learning both Ponce’s Concierto del Sur and Hetu’s Concerto for Guitar, Op. 56. My teacher had me create two booklets, one for each concerto, of all the difficult passages in every movement. He had me practice every passage back-to-back, varying the order every session. By the time of the performance nothing seemed difficult, in fact I was excited to get to these passages! There is not one universal approach to practicing difficult passages, but interleaving can shine a light on more effective practice strategies.
Concrete examples: Taking abstract ideas that are difficult to remember and linking them to concrete examples of the idea. I often use analogies in my teaching to connect an abstract idea to something a student is much more familiar with.
Application to instrumental study: I’m sure many applied music teachers face challenges communicating abstract ideas to students that, when understood, are incredibly beneficial. Musicians’ hands feel and respond differently every day, I often use the phrase “play your hands” when trying to get my students to use how their hands are feeling that day to their advantage. This is a particularly abstract idea, so I follow it up with the analogy of driving a car (or riding a bike for younger students). You must calibrate your speed according to road conditions, you must slow down as you approach a turn, you must stop at red lights, etc., and no two days are exactly the same – maybe it’s raining, maybe it’s foggy, maybe it’s a perfect day. Guitarists have to make similar calibrations when performing – our hands might be cold or stiff, our strings might be old and feel a little “stuck,” or the stars might be perfectly aligned and we’re playing at our best.
Another concrete example from my own learning experience came when I was working on my master’s degree. I was learning Bach’s first violin Sonata, BWV 1001 and had just gotten to the fugue. While explaining strategies for learning such a dense piece, my teacher used a fantastic concrete example of a sculptor chiseling a statue out of marble. It has to happen a little bit at a time, and often work is not on the same section for extended periods, but eventually the outline of a hand becomes a hand, a face gets more and more detailed and so on until the final figure is complete. I still use this concrete example in my own teaching, no matter the difficulty level of the piece, as “learning a piece” is certainly an abstract concept.
It's best to give multiple examples with different surface features. Novice students tend to fixate only on the surface features at first and not the underlying concept. And it’s important to make direct connections from the concrete example to the abstract idea.
Dual Coding: This is the combining of visual information with verbal information. This can involve drawing or making sketches of concepts. Information that’s only given verbally is still abstract until it’s drawn out, making it concrete. Dual coding creates two different channels of retrieval cues, thereby creating better memory triggers. Students may be asked to draw or sketch concepts. This can be initially uncomfortable, and students might need to be reminded that it’s not about producing art, but about learning through making abstract ideas more concrete. If images are used in a lesson or presentation, it’s important that there are relevant and not distracting.
Application to instrumental study: Music notation, by its nature, is graphic/illustrative, so having students turn abstract sounds (pitches on an instrument) into concrete representations (notation on a staff) is already a powerful tool in music education. Illustrations in music are powerful, too. I remember a specific example from my music theory advisor. One was a drawing on the chalkboard of Arnold Schoenberg with gigantic ears during our study of his Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11 as a way of illustrating both the work’s and the composer’s stature in the history of music. I recall this being a profound learning experience. In a classroom setting, students’ use of arrows from one point to another or other simple illustrations can greatly enhance learning.
In general, musicians and music educators have been implementing several of these strategies for ages, notably retrieval practice and spacing, the combination of which is particularly effective for learning. However, there are still many more opportunities for combining any number of these six strategies.
Interleaving gives what we practice time to solidify in our long-term memories, improving retrieval. It also gives concepts time to “simmer” since it naturally involves spacing. Concrete examples work best in multiple layers. The use of multiple examples through multiple means, verbal, auditory (in the case of musicians this can be recordings or performances) and visual gives students better grasps on otherwise difficult concepts. This is also an example of dual coding. The “how” and “why” question/answer continuum of elaborative interrogation helps students with creative problem solving, something musicians deal with on a constant basis. It also gives students more authority over their own learning (see more on the “-gogies” in music). The science of cognition in music is ever evolving and so is the research on these strategies and their application. We can be sure that musicians’ implementation of these strategies will continue to grow along with this research.
The Learning Scientists (2017). The Learning Scientists Podcasts, Episodes 2 to 13 (strategy & bite-sized research related to the strategy) [Audio Podcast]. The Learning Scientists. https://www.learningscientists.org/podcast-episodes
Weinstein, Y., Madan, C., & Sumeracki, M. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(2).
 Weinstein, Y., Madan, C., & Sumeracki, M. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(2).