Learning How To Learn: Who Knew That Learning A New Skill Could Be FUN?!

I discovered something amazing this morning: I discovered that I have finally–after more than half a century–learned how to learn. I discovered that learning is about, well, discovery!

I grew up in a house where playing music was a deeply held value. My parents bought a grand piano before they had the money to buy living room furniture. I have fond little-kid memories of playing “campout” with my sister beneath the big black piano that held court at the end of a long, empty room.

But my memories become less fond when I recall learning how to play that darn thing. Some combination of a sensitive temperament and high expectations from my parents led me to become a perfectionist, probably before I could walk. So by the time third grade rolled around and I began mandatory piano lessons, it’s apparent that I thought learning to play the piano meant learning to play the notes right so that my teacher and my father would not disapprove of me.

So I did what I thought I was supposed to do: I learned to play the notes right. By setting a timer and practicing the pieces I was told to play for the amount of time I was told to practice until I was told I had perfected them enough to move on to the next assignment. By trying until crying when my father–who wasn’t unkind, just impatient–sat down next to me to “help” because he was frustrated that I kept getting the same notes wrong over and over again.

I didn’t really hate learning piano. But I didn’t like it. I didn’t play for fun. I didn’t fool around with pleasing melodies or ask to play songs that I enjoyed. I just did-what-I-was-supposed-to-do. Compliantly. By rote.

So it’s no surprise that in tenth grade, when homework pressure grew, I quit. I thought I was kind of average at playing piano, I didn’t really have time, and I didn’t care about it.

So I stopped.

Just like that.

All at once.

Forever. (Almost.)

But when I was almost 30, in the middle of a move, and I unearthed a tape recording my 8th grade piano teacher had made of me playing a few of my best songs. Curious, I listened to it.

Oh. My. Gosh. I could play. I could REALLY play.

Eight years of rote practice had led to some pretty darn good skills.

But I hadn’t felt skilled. I was just going through the motions.

My heart kind of ached when I heard those recordings. I grieved (though softly) for giving up on a skill that could have been so pleasurable. But that ache didn’t make me try again.

Fast forward 20 years.

Two decades went by filled with watching my son enjoy playing piano, or rather creating music with the piano, taught by teachers who emphasized feeling the music before getting the notes right, and then made getting the notes right an exciting activity to aim for to connect with other musicians. Two decades filled with watching that same son learn to love learning at Montessori schools that emphasized process over rules. Two decades filled with my own therapy where I learned self-acceptance and found my calling of being a therapist where I help my clients learn how to accept themselves for who they are every day.

Suddenly, after 20 un-piano-playing years filled with my own unmusical self-transformation, my parents downsized their lifestyle. And before I could say do-re-mi, the very grand piano I camped out under when I was little and got notes right on for my whole childhood, was delivered to my very own living room.

In a satin-black-and-ivory instant, it arrived.

Black and grand and beautiful, it inhabits my house.

And now my son–who provided a musical sound track for my life the entire time he lived at home, giving me good reason to own an upright piano yet not play it–has grown up and moved out on his own.

Without him living here to play, I have no excuse.

I own a grand piano.

I’d better play it.

But wait. Am I forcing myself?

No! I don’t feel pressured to play that gorgeous instrument.

The poignancy of seeing that very piano leave my parents’ house–a house where the piano and the music it generated were very much beloved for almost 50 years, to enter my house, joins with the ache from the memories of those tapes I heard when I was 30, and makes me long to play.

So I sit down.

By myself.

And begin to fool around.

To play with the notes.

To suddenly remember the beginning of the last piece I’d memorized in 8th grade–a ragtime song I’d actually liked.

And as the notes fill the room, bouncing off the wood floors and the high ceilings, I forget all about getting anything right.

I play around with playing the piano.

And I discover that I can discover.

I find fun little melodies that sound kind of cool. I play my 8th grade ragtime song in snippets without feeling ashamed of barely getting five notes into it before I get lost. And as my getting-it-right mind fades into the past, my discovery-mind wakes up, and that ragtime song starts coming back! All on its own! It’s still materializing, but it’s returning. After almost 40 years of being abandoned, it’s finding its way home.

Because I’m playfully inviting the music to emerge.

Now I can hardly walk through the living room without stopping to play the piano. I can hardly get myself to sit and write this post because I want to experiment with more melodies and even scales. The discovery of learning-as-discovery has burst my musical world wide open and made me want to reach for more! Has made me repeat things over and over with joy, and without shame. Just because I want to discover how to get it to sound good in my own ears.

Yeah. That’s right. Even though I’ve learned something new every day of the last fifty or so years, I just now became aware that sometime in the last two decades I transitioned out of getting things right and into playing around with things until they fit or until they seem right. Both techniques work for stuffing stuff into your brain. But the playing around method seems to work far better for causing the learning of new ideas, new skills, new anything, to be deeper, richer, and more self-sustaining. All in all, more fun.

How about you? Do you have fun trying new skills? Playing around with learning and discovery? Or have you been seduced by our culture into thinking that learning means getting things right? What would help you to have more fun with your own learning?

(And if you’re interested in the theory behind why playing around with things helps us learn more richly than does rotely getting things right, keep an eye out for the next post!)