Learning Strategies for Musical Success

Michael Griffin
Books, Music Education
Adelaide: Music Education World. 2013. 174 pages
ISBN/EAN13: 1481946730 / 9781481946735
Reviewed by , July 1st, 2014

The essential message of Michael Griffin’s terrific book is simple: that the greatest predictor of musical success is the quality and quantity of practice. Those experts like Mozart and Beethoven worked relentlessly from their early childhood to hone their skills. We call them geniuses but the research shows that world experts in any field, including music, have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice to reach their Olympian heights.  Griffin manages to distill the pertinent findings from a huge body of research into psychology of learning, neuroscience, neuroendocrinology, sports psychology and music education, to back up his claims and to underpin his recommendations on effective music teaching and practice strategies. I really enjoyed the clarity of his non-academic prose which is interspersed with entertaining anecdotes and pithy quotations. I found it easy to navigate the book as its layout is well- spaced and the illustrative figures are simple to understand. It is eminently practical in its content. I think aspiring musicians, their teachers and parents would find it very interesting and inspirational, because armed with the knowledge that it is practice that makes perfect, one can dispense with the idea that one firstly has to be born with special genes for musical talent in order to progress musically.

Michael Griffin

Michael Griffin

Parents and teachers can foster a healthy growth mindset (the belief that if I work effectively I will progress) rather than a fixed-intelligence mindset (that I am innately talented) by setting specific realistic goals, giving appropriate feedback and targeted praise for improvement due to effort.  Those who are taught to believe they are naturally “gifted” have been shown to give up more easily when faced with difficulties as it comes as a shock to their ego, whereas those who believe they can develop through work see failures and difficulties as part of the process of learning and are more likely to persevere. The confidence that results from progress through effort has enormous worth, and is also motivating. Griffin includes an excellent discussion on effective goal setting when discussing these different mindsets and includes the following telling quote from John Beckley (which now graces my fridge!): ”Most people do not plan to fail, they fail to plan”.  Chapter 2 is about developing deliberate practice strategies such as regular spaced repetition, chunking and slow play. He discusses lesser known strategies such as sleep learning, and using rest periods during practice sessions. Achieving the desirable stage of unconscious competence can be achieved only through repeated practice but the learning brain “does not distinguish between good and poor habits but learns whatever we repeat” (p.26) – an all important fact often ignored by music students!

Chapter 3 deals extensively with the all important “soft” skills of achievement, primarily the development of intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic, motivation. He covers Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow in an accessible way and has invaluable tips on learning to sight read, memorisation, playing by ear, and learning by imagining. The chapter about the nature of musical creativity and how to foster it is very interesting, as is the one about the fascinating relationship between music and intelligence. This is a rapidly expanding area of neuroscientific research which indicates the positive effects of music on the brain. He mentions various projects where singing together in the workplace is improving employee confidence, communication skills and teamwork.  Singing together releases oxytocin, the hormone released in the mother at birth, which contributes to bonding, and feelings of empathy for the people around you. He also looks at the role of background music in various environments and what sort of background music supports concentration when one is studying.

I came away inspired and excited by this book and I can recommend it heartily for all musicians and music teachers as an excellent resource. Those wanting to delve further could dip into the 88 references. I can recommend a visit to Michael Griffin’s website too – www.musiceducationworld.com – where there is more inspiring material to be found and a list of his other publications.


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