10 Effective Learning Strategies

#156 10 Effective Learning Strategies - The Electric Campfire

So you have an audition.

Nailing it means you can get into college, or maybe you get to tour the world…

But ARGHHHHH!! Curses!

You cannot FOR THE LIFE OF YOU get this stupid tune/solo into your head.

I always have to learn tons of new music for gigs, recordings, rehearsals and so on, and I use each of these opportunities to experiment with different learning strategies.

Here are some of the most effective learning strategies I use all the time that might be useful for you.

If you’re struggling with something – maybe you’re trying to learn a new tune, or a transcription and it’s just not going in, this stuff can help.

Try them, and let me know what works, and if you have any other suggestions of things that work for you, I’d love to hear them :)

1. Do the easy bits first

For example, you’ve got a 7 page monster of a tune to learn. Some bits are quite difficult; some bits are simple. Where you can run into trouble is if there’s a hard bit at the beginning and you spend ages messing with fingerings and so on. Focussing on the easy bits enables you to make a lot of headway quickly. You’ll get more done and get more energy to push through to finish it.

2. See big sections

Usually, there are repetitions within a song. Say you’ve got a 32 bar standard AABA piece. Look for similarities within the big sections. Looking for things like that means that you don’t divert your attention to three separate things that are the same. Don’t waste your time going over things you already know.

3. Learn the best bits

Are there any bits you think are great? Learn those first. If you like what you’re doing you’ll have more energy to do it.

4. Learn phrases from the end to the beginning

This is a strategy for learning tricky phrases. Start at the end or the middle. Mix it up. There might be a part of the phrase which can only be played one way, and that will affect how the rest of the phrase is played. Starting backwards means you’ll have a better idea of where you’re going.

5. Just listen

Listen to whatever it is you’re learning until you’ve internalised it. Knowing how something should sound gives you a great frame for other modes of thinking. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? It is MUSIC, after all. But it’s easy to get caught up in other processes: intellectualising, reading, symbols, and on and on. Get back to the basics of ‘how does it sound?

6. Learn by sight

I find I can memorise things quickly if the structure is clearly laid out on paper. For instance, if the form is built in 8 bar phrases, it helps if the notation reflects this by laying it out 4 or 8 bars to a line. You might find it quicker to see structure that way, and it helps you see bigger chunks of form.

7. Similarities and differences

This relates to No.2. Are there similar phrases, structures, chords within the piece? Look then to the differences – How is it different?

8. Write it out again

Re-writing other people’s music can make you see it more clearly. Similarly, take a piece and transform it somehow. Transposition is one device to use to reveal those interstitial spaces, and that can help you focus on the connections between larger structures.

9. Make it a habit

Always be trying to memorise music. Especially if you’re reading from a chart. Every chorus is a chance to internalise the music and get it off the page. Use any of the above strategies whilst you do this, too. Try to get it so after one or two times round a sequence you’ve got it memorised. The more you do this the quicker you get. So make it a habit to ALWAYS do it. Even if you just memorise the 1st two chords, that’s a start.

10. Go to bed

Sometimes, just leaving it for a while works. Maybe your mind needs a rest. Or, perhaps your mind is doing some kind of magic whilst you take a break or go to bed. Either way, you’ll often find that something has changed after a break. Don’t think too much :)

So that’s 10 effective learning strategies that work for me.

How do you go about learning a new piece?

Comments on 10 Effective Learning Strategies

  1. Mike Outram says:

    Hey Tom, patterns play a big part of it for sure. I like your ‘route across a map image’.
    I try to hook as many things into something as I can, and that, hopefully, makes whatever it is I’m learning stick.
    Three primary focus points for me are the sound, the name, the fretboard location.

    Thanks for your comment :)

  2. Tom kitson says:

    Not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but I tend to play close attention to where everything lands on the fretboard, and almost think of it like a route across a map. Maybe I should be paying more attention to where the notes/chords are in relation to overall harmony though. I’d probably end up with a better understanding, rather than just a surface knowledge.

  3. tony heiberg says:

    I’m afraid that I just use the stodgy old approach of playing a new tune over and over until it seeps into my mind via a process of osmosis. I’ve learnt hundreds of tunes that way and can now memorise a standard in about 10 minutes. But I’ve been amazed to see you memorise a tune’s chords on a gig after two choruses and bassist Robert Rickenberg is the only other musician I’ve seen who is also able to do this. I will attempt your method but don’t hold out much hope that I can ever duplicate this feat – although I have busked requests at gigs and gotten away with it….

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