Two paths to learning music: Which one are you taking?

When I was in college at The University of Connecticut, I got the chance to study music with a truly extraordinary man.  His name was Hale Smith, and I’ll share one of his insights with you here, which influenced me greatly.  This is just one example of the way he saw life, noticed things that many others didn’t, and shared his perspective with his students, including me.  I’d like to relate something that he told me about how people learn music. Like many of his insights, it may seem obvious after you hear it.  But I’ve met many smart and experienced musicians over the years and never heard anyone else put this thought into words.

Basically, there a two paths, or ways, to learn music.  (And he was speaking about really learning music. Becoming fluent and mastering your craft.)  One way is to take a good course; one that leads you step-by-step through each new technique.  There is a solid curriculum that guarantees you will learn A,B,C, etc.  In this way you learn in a very thorough manner and eventually get to your goal.

The other way is what can be called “street” learning. You walk down the street (or these days, perhaps on the internet) and hear something you like. You get excited and learn how to play in that style. Then you learn something else that you want. You pick up things here and there from various sources and become a proficient player. This path can be a lot of fun, but at some point you realize that there are gaps in your knowledge. You may have learned, say, how to play some jazz chords, but rather than going on to walking bass lines you delved into the blues. This is fine, but at some point you’ll need to go back and fill in those holes and learn what you missed along the way.

Hale’s point was that both paths can take you to the same place, provided you stick with them long enough. Do you know which path you are on?  Have fun with your playing, whichever way you choose to go!

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