Years ago, as a novice guitar instructor, I dreaded the moment an older and more advanced guitarist might contact me looking for lessons. I knew it was inevitable. The seeds of this foreboding had been planted several years earlier when a story was circulated about a neighborhood musician who signed up for lessons at a newly opened music school, the same school where I started lessons. Pretending to be a complete beginner, this ruse maestro had the teacher believing he was struggling throughout the entire half hour. The story goes that at the end of the class he said, ‘Thanks teach, I think I’ve got this now.” He then proceeded to whip off a bunch of rapid-fire licks in front of the duped slack jawed instructor.

When we hear a story like that today we think of the type of good-natured punking that abounds in our culture but back then the intention, I believed, was simply to humiliate the innocent unsuspecting teacher. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t really think that I was going to be targeted in the same way but I was self aware enough to know that I was still a bit young to be placing myself in a position of authority. My own guitar teacher, on the other hand, must have seen something in me because it was his recommendation that I ‘hang a shingle’ and start teaching.

What Can I Offer?

A couple of months into my new and smoothly unfolding career path my dreaded student event happened. He was several years older than me and was already gigging regularly with his band. He had even studied with one of the top session players in Toronto who, he explained, had left town and moved to New York. Wow. My first thought was; “What can I possibly offer”?

Rather than allow myself to become overwhelmed I instinctively knew enough to stay relaxed, pay attention and really listen. Then, in order to evaluate where he was at, I had him play something for me and quickly noticed that there were technical issues that I could help him address. In fact it helped me realize that my overall technique and understanding of music was advanced enough that I could help aspiring learners at all levels.

The Wall

levels and learning hitting a brick wall

Although that experience helped me get over any hang-ups I may have had teaching advanced players the real lesson proved to be something else entirely and took years for me to fully articulate.

What he was trying to say was: “I am stuck”. He knew he could play well enough but he was having trouble improving. It turned out that his lessons with the session player had been information heavy and application lean. The result was that he didn’t know how to advance his technique nor how to integrate his many musical ideas into his playing. He had hit a brick wall and his progress had halted

OK Plateau

levels and learning

I recently came across an expression that perfectly describes that place , the ‘OK Plateau.’ This is the term that Joshua Foer used in his book, Moonwalking With Einstein, in which he describes his preparation and participation in the USA Memory Championships. In his book Joshua outlines the three stages of learning that 60’s psychologists Paul M. Fitts and Michael I. Posner use to describe the process we all go through when learning a new skill.

levels and learning

The stages they named were ‘cognitive, associative and autonomous’ which fold very neatly into the 2nd, 3rd and 4th stages taught in the 70’s by psychologist Thomas Gordon.

I first came across the four stages or levels of learning in my own studies of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) .

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: In other words we suck and we don’t even know that we suck. You just have to look at any typical first round open voice/dance competition to see examples of participants who perfectly embody the expression ‘ignorance is bliss’.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: Like the ‘cognitive’ stage. This is where real learning starts as we become aware by comparison that we are “not good”. In fact great concentration is required and we need to make countless mistakes and then correct them.
  3. Conscious Competence: We start to realize that we are getting better and concentration is becoming easier in this ‘associative’ stage. Certain things are easier but some are still hard.
  4. Unconscious Competence: We don’t need to think about it – we just do it. This is the ‘autonomous’ or autopilot stage.

levels and learning

For those persevering students first achieving glimpses of the 4th stage it is like discovering The Holy Grail only to realize that the inscription on it reads, “needs more practice”. It is an unfortunate fact that in order to correct learned errors or learn new advanced techniques it will involve both unlearning (going from stage 4 to 2) and relearning (going from 2 back to 4). This challenging process is fundamental to advanced skill development. Those that lack the necessary discipline and commitment to suffer through that process remain residents of the OK Plateau interminably.

As a student myself I was forced off the OK plateau by several teachers. It seems any teacher worth their salt will always have us rebuild our technique from scratch. Any who have been through it know how frustrating this process can be. Since that first advanced student I have taught many more and, to be honest, I have observed that leaving the OK Plateau is not necessarily for everyone. Joshua Foer in describing how experts are different from the norm says:

Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces.

Levels Within Levels

As a perpetual learner and someone who has gone through these stages on several instruments I tend to see the levels not as discrete or separate stages but more as levels within levels.

Since we know that we are only able to hold 7, (plus or minus 2), items in our conscious awareness at any given time it is no wonder that the rate of skill development is as slow as it is. Every step of the way we have to go through the same time consuming process of racking up the repetitions necessary for the minimum muscle memory that in turn can free up enough space in our conscious awareness to add just one more item. And then one more, and one more…

Sometimes I am amazed that we can learn how to play an instrument at all. Fortunately the overarching mitigant in this daunting task is that it can also be a lot of fun. It is absolutely true that there are no short cuts in learning to play. However, sometimes by discovering facets of our personalities and applying them to learning we can effectively distract ourselves similar to a magician using illusion. A little bit of obsession for repetition for instance can make Practice magically disappear while at the same time building a strong foundation.


Unconscious Competence and the Competent Teacher

It is interesting to note that the 4th level of Unconscious Competence represents what could be described as the intuitive artist. Sometimes

placing this level 4 intuitive artist in the position of teacher can cause dissonance. Some experienced artists who extensively operate at this automatic level can become so intuitive that they forget the logical steps in their own development and are therefore incapable of communicating processes. After all, it is not like the intuitive performing artist needs to know how they got there, they just need to know what to do while they are there.

levels and learning

In order to help successfully navigate another through the stages of learning the Unconscious Competent has to become a teacher, a teacher is able to move freely to a position of conscious awareness of levels and processes in order to clearly comprehend and empathize with the student’s difficulties and then in turn provide strategies. Once strategies are defined then these have to be effectively communicated and confirmed and reconfirmed for true progress to take place.

Layers of learning, layer upon layer, one layer at a time, one level at a time, one supporting the next.

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