How We Learn: Communities of Practice

As a guitarist I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning alone. Most classical guitarists perform alone too. It might seem that being a part of a community of practice is unimportant in the guitarist’s learning process.

Not true.

For many guitarists there seems to be no community of practice. Musicians who study with a private instructor have a limited community composed of instructor and student. If they play in an ensemble, the community of practice is larger. Guitarists, more than most musicians, tend to spend most of their time as solitary learners.

No one ever learns in a vacuum. Though we seem solitary, we are surrounded by examples of good technique, online repositories of music, tips, tricks, and of course, the sound of our favorite players. But this is not enough.

There are plenty of amazing players out there who learned completely alone, but the learning that happens in groups is far more profound.

Communities of Practice, according to Etienne Wenger, are:

groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and (who) learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

The last piece of Wenger’s definition is crucial. Online, we see information from thousands of players who share our interests, but there is little or no interaction. When you get 5 guitarists in a room discussing their art, sharing their triumphs and challenges, and teaching each other new things, the learning process increases in ways that are amazing. And because there is regular interaction, the solitary practice has more meaning as the guitarist prepares for the next meeting.

It’s absolutely true that you can learn anything completely alone if you have the right information. Learning within a community of practice can take you to a higher level than you could ever achieve alone.

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Student Centered Teaching – Guitar

Over the past 20 years I’ve been teaching guitar. I’m a licensed public school teacher, and I’ve found that the traditional methods weren’t enough. I’ve adopted six tenets to make my guitar instruction more effective. I’ve also posted these tenets on my website

First, students need autonomy. Students should be learning exactly what they want to learn with the instructor guiding the process and teaching proper technique to make sure the student avoids injury.

Second, students learn better in community. I work to create communities of practice for students to share and test what they’re learning.

Third, creativity is essential! Students create music, write songs, and are encouraged to find their own rhythm. Studies have shown that creative ability is a stronger indicator of future success than IQ.

Fourth, students should play, not practice. The word “practice” sometimes has a negative connotation attached to it. We are, in most cases, learning guitar for personal enrichment, not to become professional guitarists – if it’s not fun, then we should try something else. Music shouldn’t be another chore that our overburdened kids are saddled with. And the students I’ve had who went on to become professional guitarists love to play!

Fifth, keeping the goal in view, we need to recognize all the successes that lead to it. We need to understand that even though we haven’t reached the main goal, we have made progress that we can be proud of.

Last, it’s important to be able to use everything you learn to enrich your life. Most teachers just focus on technique alone. I work hard to help each student gain confidence, learn more about themselves, and acquire skills that will be useful for the rest of their lives. On top of that, the simple act of learning music has been shown to help people socially, academically, and psychologically.

Following these tenets, I work to teach each student exactly what they want and need to grow as a musician, an artist, and as a person.