Monday, April 14, 2014

Guitar Hero - book overview

Marcus. G. (2012). Guitar hero” The new musician and the science of learning published by Penguin Press.

Probably the least satisfying of Gary Marcus’ books. Professor Marcus uses his sabbatical year away from university teaching to learn how to play the guitar. Marcus is realistic about his poor sense of rhythm and tone deafness. However, his experience just prior to going on sabbatical through playing music via the computer game ‘guitar hero’ ignites a long wished for ambition to play the guitar.

The book tracks Marcus’ journey from neophyte to being able to play the guitar as part of a band. On the way, reflections on learning a skill are detailed. Descriptions of the deliberate practice cycle are sprinkled through the book along with Marcus’ new learning on music theory. Importantly, how he starts to make sense of how chords are constructed and how they contribute to musicians’ expertise. Identifying and learning the ‘signature discipline’ does make a difference to learning progress.

When I was a child, I learnt to play the piano and in hindsight, realise how much learning music has contributed to my toolbox of life skills. Aside from providing a lifelong love of music (both Western and Eastern – Chinese and Indian), learning the theory of music meant I practised the ability to make sense of symbolic concepts and acquiring the motor skills of piano playing provided improved hand-eye and brain coordination.

Marcus’ book provides practical advice for others intending to take a similar route as adults to learn how to play an instrument. Of note is the correct assertion that we are never too old to learn. Our brains were evolved to be plastic and flexible. Older people may bring with them life experiences which contribute to learning difficult skills and concepts better. Adults tend not to have the time to put into deliberate practice time to build up the 10,000 hours required for expertise but they may have acquired metacognitive skill sets assisting them to leverage off deliberate practice cycles better. The key is to maintain motivation, find the right teachers, put aside dedicated time to the task of learning and not be afraid to make (and learn) from mistakes.

The book has a useful glossary to explain musical and neurological terms, short notes for each chapter, 25 pages of relevant references (especially useful on skills learning) and index. 

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