Playing Guitar & Making Music, or Why Aren’t Proficiency and Accuracy Enemies?

I have been playing guitar for over thirty years. I have been playing music for about forty. I have been listening to music for 48! I’m a pretty good guitar player; my skill allows me to sing songs and to play in bands. I was fortunate that, when I picked up the guitar, I had been playing trumpet for almost ten years, and I’m sure that boosted my confidence. But, really, I learned guitar by playing songs by ear, looking at chord charts, getting hints from friends. I had friends who attempted guitar by taking lessons. While I was strumming through Neil Young songs, they were learning “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the high E string. I stuck with it; they didn’t. Why?

I think it has to do with what David Perkins calls “playing the whole game.” In his book, Making Learning Whole, he urges educators to think of their teaching in terms of getting students to play the whole game of their discipline. No, most young people aren’t expert enough to play the game in the ways pros do, but, he urges, it’s important that we find the appropriate “junior version” of that game. Why? Because, Perkins insists, learning is otherwise a series of unrelated elements that never come together to form the “Big Picture” of whatever field is under study. When the Big Picture can be seen — and, more importantly, played — then the elements make greater sense, have greater purpose, and generate intrinsic interest in learners.

He uses the example of how he and his friends, as children, played baseball even if they only had five kids, one ball, no mits, and a street. The point wasn’t having Fenway; the point was playing baseball. They may have played poorly, they may have had invisible people on base, but they had the whole game — and the drive to keep playing because what they were doing wasn’t just batting practice.  In other words, they had the means to play a proficient game of baseball, which may have led — as all deliberate practice does — to greater accuracy (and maybe the desire to do some batting practice, as a result). More on this later.

Some guitar players love guitars: the wood, the pickups, the machine heads, the bridge — you name it. Others want to make music, and the guitar helps them to do that. Of course, both types of  people often like both. But I am willing to bet that it’s the making of music that leads to greater understanding of the instrument that is the means to achieve that end. Now, if I were a guitar teacher and a person came to me and wanted lessons, I would ask, “Why do you want to learn how to play guitar?” She might say, “to make music” or “to write songs.” If that is so — and, here, I assume that the majority of people would say this — then I believe I would work to make sure that we were making music as soon as possible. But no! the skeptics say, “She will learn the wrong way! She will develop bad habits! She will not know theory!”

This is binary thinking. My proposition is that the student wants to make music. Finding the junior version of that goal will propose just enough challenge and the likelihood of success. Which is more likely to lead to more playing and practice. Over time, this student is more likely to want/need theory, to care about the value of using a Gibson for this song and and Fender for that.

Too often, in my experience (and, yes, I’m talking about myself when I was a new teacher), teachers (i.e., me) taught from the perspective of one who was into the guitar itself and not from the angle of what larger purpose the guitar serves. And so, as a novice English teacher, I showed students how to scan a line of verse, how to identify a figure of speech, etc. I lost the bigger picture of how they might use their larger understandings as a result of studying literature. I was too into what they were learning (i.e., the “gear,” as we call musical instruments) at the expense of the effect of this learning on them in their lives (i.e., the music they wanted to make).

In other words, I needed to teach them to be proficient at reading and writing so that these successes could develop into a deeper skill set — not so they could merely succeed in college, but so that they could understand the power of storytelling on them as people throughout their lives.

What’s the point? I’m suggesting that the notion of “Proficiency vs. Accuracy” (a particular sticking point in the discussion of world language teaching these days), isn’t a contradictory relationship. In brief, the argument, in world language, is whether we should be teaching students to be as accurate as possible when writing/speaking a new language or whether we should teach them to be proficient in that language (i.e., allowing for, perhaps, more limited use of tense forms, vocabulary, mistakes). Even writing this, I’m uncomfortable with the false choice. It’s not an either-or proposition, but a question of approach and strategy. Is it more likely that students will use a language — indeed, find the learning of that language meaningful at all — if they only know how to identify verb tenses and grammatical structures on a test? Or is it more likely they will develop real aptitude for that language if they first get to “play the whole song,” even if there are some holes and blemishes to start?

I believe that likelihood of their interest growing — both in the language and in being accurate in that language (or in anything they’re learning) — if they have permission to be proficient first. But if we use the red pen for every small error, communicate to our students that all the elements must be right before anything creative can be attempted, and lose sight of the “whole game,” we actually prevent the strongest lever for their learning: their intrinsic interest.

A colleague of mine once said that subject-area teachers are often the least-well disposed to teaching that subject because they love the work so much we forget what it’s like to be a learner who doesn’t feel that way. It’s the person who loves the guitar so much he forgets it’s used to make music. Or the person who loves the pen so much she forgets that most people see a pen as a means to a larger end — communication.

Proficiency and accuracy are not enemies; they are symbiotic entities that work in a dynamic, powerful way — when we let them.



About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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