We learn through playing.
Okay, we learn through other methods also like practise, repetition,experience and tutoring, but play is surely the most joyful and, more importantly, sub-conscious method of them all. Playing is a broader term for me than sitting down with a board game, or playing tag in the playground.
As I watch my children who are now 5 and 7, I see them playing, arguing, making and breaking rules, cooperating and fighting, all within the boundaries of play. Very few of their conflicts or agreements will have any effect outside of the house, but they are all laying the foundations for future scenarios when they might need to make an intelligent choice of whether to aim for sympathy or obedience, strictness or compliance.
So it is a poorer learning environment, wherever we might be, that does not contain an element of play. When I am teaching piano, I find it can give tremendous freedom to a student who is struggling with a piece, to let them improvise their own tune,or just play some blues for a while. It frees up the fingers, unblocks the creative mind, and lifts the energy in the room. All of these things are directly transferable to learning a piece of music, and can help with the attitude of “I cant play this” or “I hate this piece”, which mostly comes from a frustration of not being able to play it.
I use an exercise for learning scales on the piano in which I make the student play just 3 notes up and down perfectly, then 4, then 5
and so on. If they make a mistake, they must go back to the previous number. I cheekily call this “the scale game”, although it more resembles torture. However, immediately the student will brighten up and see the exercise as a challenge and an achievement,
rather than an exercise or just hard work, simply because I have called it a “game”.
Playing also allows us to make mistakes in a safe environment. We learn so much faster from making our own mistakes than trying to learn from others’. Again, watching my children, I can tell them a hundred times not to touch a hot cup of tea, but it is only when they do it that they really learn the consequences. Perhaps I should have let them play more with hot water when they were young? Hmmmm.
Role-play is commonplace in adult learning, and this is an important aspect of play. But for me, improvising is like role-play, but with joy and fun. It does not have to be funny, but it should be more free and experimental than your standard role-play scenario.
Improvising can infiltrate any area of life, and so far I have not found anywhere it does not enrich. It has certainly livened up many a taxi ride for me!
Let’s play, and play with joy, learn while we are not aware of learning.
Then maybe we can grow without having to grow up.
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.