An experiment with 4 year olds shows surprising results
Take two groups of 4 year olds. Sure, they will drive you bonkers, but you can always give them back after this fascinating experiment. To the first group the teacher says:
"I have just found this toy! Looks like fun. [She squeezes one of the four tubes]. Ooops, it makes a squeaky noise. Ha, ha, ha! Let me do that again. Great! Do you want to play with it?" Then she gives out a toy to each.
To the second group the teacher say:
"Gather round children. Here is a toy I have been given. As you see it has four tubes. When I press this tube it makes a squeaky noise like this. [She squeezes tube]. Let me do that again. Do you see how I am holding it? I am going to give you one each so you can have a go." Now she gives a toy to each in this group.
Which of the two groups do you think would enjoy playing longer with the toy? And which group would be more likely to experiment with the other tubes?
To spare you the trouble of gathering two groups of 4 year olds, let me tell you that this experiment has already been conducted and written up by the MIT psychologist Laura Schulz.
Before telling you the results imagine young guitar players, anything from the age of, say, 4 to 70 years of age, each let loose on a guitar and set the task of discovering all the different sounds the instrument can make, and from there to create a piece of their own. How would you go about it as the teacher in charge? Would you do as with the first group of 4 year olds and their four-tube-toy, or as with the second group? Which group would be more creative?
The result of the toy experiment is that the first group played longer with the toy and experimented with the three other tubes. The second group lost interest much more quickly. The conclusion is inescapable: more can be less, for more information meant less curiosity. The first group was more creative - it explored and investigated and enjoyed without firm guidance. The second group was less curious and gave up quicker - after firm guidance.
I think it might be the same with music instruction and guitar playing. If the name of the game is creativity, enjoyment, and developing individuality then let the student do a lot more exploring. Maybe it is best to avoid lots of guidance before-hand. That means reducing advance information about correct technique, holding the guitar properly, using a foot-stool, growing the nails, reading from music, etc etc. The student may feel more free and unencumbered without so many received notions.
Now, when the student has had a real go, he or she will approach the teacher for advice and ask a whole series of intelligent and probing questions. Before the student asks those questions, one hour, one day or six months might elapse. However long it takes, when the student is ready, that will be the time to receive teacher's best advice.
There is a lot of evidence that this approach is not only good for the young child, but that it has produced some of the finest professional musicians around.
Some still prefer, indeed thrive, when given clear guidelines in advance - which of course is the traditional approach. But many, maybe a majority, are much more creative and become better musicians using the alternative approach.
The trouble with the "free" approach is that it is more individual and demanding, and requires greater responsiveness and imagination from the teacher too. But if these are the disadvantages then it is worth the effort to overcome them.
Why am I so sure? Because, I know, I have tried this approach myself and I know it works with many students.
8th March 2014, Tromso, Norway
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