I bumped into an old friend during my holiday trip to California. “Dylan” has always been an athlete, so I wasn’t surprised that he’s still avidly into hockey, skiing, and other sports. But I didn’t expect him to say, “And here’s one for you. I’m learning to play bluegrass banjo.”
What? Is Dylan even musical? Anyway, he wanted a quality instrument, so he commissioned a Wildwood banjo. Now he’s learning a few bluegrass favorites, mostly on his own. “What about lessons?” I asked. “Right now, I need to get a feel for the instrument,” he said. “No one can really teach that. So every night, for a couple hours, I tool around on it.”
It made me think about how we learn.
Most people take lessons or classes to learn something–to swim, to play the piano, to speak French, to do yoga. A teacher can guide students to learn the fundamentals. But if there’s no self-motivated practice and freestyle “tooling around,” there’s no real learning. Learning from a teacher counts for maybe 20 percent of ability, and the other 80 percent must come from independent practice (and, of course, natural talent).
Dylan played competitive tennis into his 20s. As a kid, he took lessons but eventually, at age twelve or thirteen, perceived that the conventionally taught “mechanics” were wrong for him. So he experimented on his own.
“When I changed my grip, for example,” he says, “I could immediately tell that it was mechanically correct and efficient. The technique was different from the standard way kids were being taught to play, but I could feel the correctness in my body.”
Instead of automatically deferring to well-regarded “professional” coaches, he relied on his his own instincts. For him, learning is about “feel, execution, and repetition.”
“Detailed instruction sometimes complicates things,” he says. “A person tries to learn by analyzing and becomes stiff, like trying to match a template.”
My conversation with Dylan made me realize that I tend to rely too much on formal learning. Even now, I sometimes blame my lack of progress in something on the lack of available instruction.
For example, I studied Japanese casually as a child (afterschool nihongo gakko), took two years of Japanese in college, and then revisited the language as a working adult through evening courses. Today in Vancouver there are few options for Japanese classes in town, and so I never crack open my Japanese books or arrange conversation practice with my native-Japanese friends. If I were more self-motivated about learning Japanese, I might be quite proficient by now, honto ni.
Same with pranayama, which also has few class options. While I practice pranayama more than I do Japanese, I could be more regular, more diligent–with or without a teacher. Actually, in my opinion, infrequent pranayama classes suit me. Between classes, there’s enough time to practice the techniques taught. I know, firsthand, that if I learn one technique in a class, I need to practice it 100 times on my own even to touch it.
The trouble with lessons, classes, and formal instruction: they give the impression that you’re learning, when you’re actually only being introduced. In school, which I took seriously, I experienced real learning only when I actually cared about the subject. Good grades are misleading. (A person can attend a top-10 law school, get a JD, and pass the bar exam without deep knowledge, believe me.)
Thinking about Dylan and his gleaming bluegrass banjo makes me smile–and reminds me of the importance of teaching myself. Some of us might like the structure of formal instruction, especially with the right teacher. But there’s much that we can, should, and must do on our own.