Archives for posts with tag: unschool

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get someone started playing music. One of the conclusions that I’ve drawn  is that learning to play music is a lot like learning a new language.

Now, I’ve read a bit about how we learn languages. I love learning about how we learn and language is such an important part of that! If you’re interested in learning a language and are looking for an alternative to years of classroom study, try searching for Benny the Irish Polyglot, Tower of Babelfish, or Where Are Your Keys. All three offer interesting tools and specific ways to practice your new tongue.

One of Benny the Irish Polyglot’s rules is “don’t be afraid to make mistakes.” Actually, on the contrary, he advises language learners to go out and make as many mistakes as they can. That way you’ll learn what doesn’t work. The key thing here is to just try. Instead of just worrying about having the perfect grammar and syntax before you’re willing to open your mouth, just do your best and be ready to be corrected. Have fun with people… and listen to closely to how they string words together.

Right now I have a very young friend who cheerily talks and talks to anyone who will listen. Actually, to be honest, I’m not sure she needs a listener. While she has a growing vocabulary of English words, when she really gets going, not very much of her communication is part of the grammar or vocabulary that I have. I trust, though, that someday soon things will click I will be able to apprehend more of what she has to say. I really look forward to that — she obviously has something interesting to tell us!

Parallel to that, I’m recommending to S- that she spend as much time as she wants to just *playing* at the piano. Try to make sounds that she finds pleasant. Try to make sounds that she finds jarring. Right from the start, I’ve shown her that even the same notes can express different ideas and I plan on leaving her each week with a new challenge to express an idea or image through music. Try and play a thunderstorm… or snowflakes… an excited puppy… a lazy cat, asleep.

Of course, my toddler friend isn’t just babbling with no correction or examples. She has people in her life who will slow down and enunciate the words that she’s almost added to her vocabulary and she’ll overhear conversations and hear books read aloud.

In the same way, with S-, I want to give her constraints for her free play to help her find what works more quickly. “Try starting and ending on C and playing mostly white keys.” “Use the same keys but play an A with your left hand.” “Try playing mostly black keys… what note seems to be the ‘home note?'” I hope that these suggestions, these constraints, help her to more quickly find pleasant combinations without just being overwhelmed.

And let’s listen to music like we dream of making! I’d like to learn to “speak” jazz.  S- is interested in classical music. So, just as our toddler listens to grown-ups, let’s listen to players who are already fluent in the language we want to speak. I think that I want to find two sorts of recordings for her. First, recordings of ideas that are within or just beyond our reach — like the words that we slow down and enunciate for the toddler. And second, brilliant performances that inspire us to dream about what we might be able to do in a year or two… or 10.

Next up, I’d like to write some about goal setting. It’s one thing to dream, but how do we find the path to live those dreams?

P.S. Listen to this *brilliant* performance of a familiar song. I think that it lives in both categories. Playing these notes is relatively easy, but Lisitsa makes them beautiful and elegant and graceful and alive in a way that’s outside of my present reach.


I think that I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been giving piano lessons to a few of my young friends. It’s been a lot of fun: I really enjoy trying to understand how we learn. I’m new at this, and I have a lot of ideas that I want to try out. Even though I spend a lot of my time trying to help kids learn ideas or concepts, I’m excited to try teaching an actual skill. I’m looking forward to being able to say, “Did you hear what you just did? Remember when you didn’t know how to do that?”

I’ve just begun meeting with a completely new pupil. S- has never had any lessons before, and I’m especially keen to give her a solid start. I’ve been brimming over with ideas but I haven’t made the time to actually pin them down… until now. Let’s think this through:

Joby’s Principles of Anarchist Piano Pedagogy

Wait, what? What’s anarchism got to do with piano practice? What, are you starting with atonal post-modern noise? You might well ask. I think of myself as an unschooler and an anarchist. I don’t believe in “have to.”  I want to find a way to help my pupils learn what they want to learn without coercion. That is, I choose  not to use fear, guilt, reward or shame to motivate people.  It’s not just that I’m an idealist and want to be a nice guy. I’m convinced that people learn more easily when they enjoy what they’re learning and they choose to put in the time and effort rather than spending that time out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or “have to.”

Of course, we’re on the right track in this case. S- asked me for lessons. I’m not imposing anything on her… but I want to be careful not to put her in a position where she feels guilty if she hasn’t practiced as much as she thinks she should. I’d so much rather see her determined to put in the time because she sees how it’s helping her than have her worry about disappointing me.

It’s a simple idea, but it will require effort and planning on my part before we meet so that she has a clear idea of how to spend her time the rest of the week. That’s okay, though: I really want to do it!

So, I guess my  first principle is:

Have fun!
Practice because you want to, not because you think you have to. In fact, there is no such thing as “have to,” only “choose to.” You can put a lot of effort into learning to play the piano, but it doesn’t feel like work when you choose to do it.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about my ideas of how to accomplish that. I’ve got a lot to say about goal-setting, mastery and the idea that music is like a language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment space below. Have you ever taught music to teens? Did you ever take music lessons? What was your experience: was the effort fun or tedious? Do you think I’m crazy? Tell me about it!

you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young, whatever life you wear

It will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love

whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

that you should ever think,may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation’s dead undoom.

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance

— e e cummings

I adore e e cummings. I’ve loved this poem for years; it never gets old. I’d love to hear what you think of it. And also, if you have any advice how I might post audio of me reading it to you.


Tonight, I’m going to start an orchestra. I’ve been meaning to do it for years. I’ve always thought it would be fun to find people to play chamber music with, but tonight I’m finally going to make it happen. It turns out that Alexander McCall Smith (the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books) stole my idea… way back in 1995. He was with some friends at a school orchestra concert and remembered how much fun it was to play music with other people. They looked around for a just-for-fun amateur orchestra and when they didn’t find one, they started the Really Terrible Orchestra. It’s about the joy of music without pretension.

I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends who used to play clarinet (or french horn or trumpet or…) but haven’t had any opportunities to play since high school. Starting tonight, I want to give them that opportunity. Does this describe you? Are you in Chicago? Feel free to drop by tonight at 8:30 and we’ll see what we can make happen.

And now, something completely different:

Once upon a time, I posted favorite poems here now and then and called it the poem of the week. I don’t think I ever made it by any sort of weekly deadline, but I’ll give it another go!

Here’s one by Roald Dahl, read by… some guy on youtube who’s been reading me poems for years. Roger Ebert introduced him to me ages ago.

Anyone who knows me knows that I want to learn everything. I’m seldom very
organized about it but lately I’ve been thinking about how to be more deliberate in this quest. This week, that’s taken me to a few fun places. Have you heard of Coursera? What a sweet idea! They set up internet based classes with teachers at prestigious universities for free. I’ve signed up for Cryptography, Astronomy, and “Think Again: How to reason and argue.” Want to join me in any of those? Don’t let the math in the Astronomy class daunt you — I can help you through it if you need it.

I’m coaching a dozen kids in this year’s science fair. We’re at the research paper stage, which means that I’ve been taking them all in pairs to the library. I *love* the library. I feel like I grew up there. I haven’t had a regular library habit in the last few years, but that’s going to change. Here are some of the books I’ve brought home over the last few days:

  • The instant physicist, by Richard Muller. A Physicist at Berkeley gives bite-sized lessons on physics, like: “You are radioactive, unless you’ve been dead for a very long time” and the fascinating tidbit that the ATF has a *minimum* radiation requirement for liquor. I think that in the future, I want to start the physics class with this book or something like it. I’d love for kids to catch the fun and magic in the ideas behind physics before we jump into the math.
  • The botany of desire : a plant’s eye view of the world, by Michael Pollan. I loved the Omnivore’s Dilemma and I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while. Is the gardener’s relationship to plants fundamentally different than the honeybee’s? That is to say, have we really domesticated our veggies and flowers or do they have us trained?
  • What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young. I think that this book is going to change my life. I’ll write more about it later. It’s about learning to be more fully aware of the world around you.
  • Disasters : natural and man-made catastrophes through the centuries, by Brenda Z. Guiberson. One of my 12yos is doing a project on germs, and his paper will almost certainly be about the black plague. This was a book we pulled from the shelves that he rejected, but I thought looked like fun.
  • 1603 : the death of Queen Elizabeth, the return of the Black Plague, the rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Birth of the Stuart Era, by Christopher Lee. This book came up because there was plague that year. I really don’t know that much about history but I love stories. This one focuses in on England during that one year. Lee seems to say that traditional historians focus on the eras before and after this year but this transition year is interesting in it’s own right.
  • Faith and treason : the story of the Gunpowder Plot, by Antonia Frasier. Another student is doing explosions and his paper is on the story of the invention of gunpowder. Of course we found books about the gunpowder plot. That’s outside of the scope of a 3 page paper but not beyond the scope of “I want to learn everything.” I couldn’t resist. Front cover blurb: “Such a good yarn that one wonders why nobody has tried to popularize it before.” Really? No one remembers?
  • Minders of make-believe : idealists, entrepreneurs, and the shaping of American children’s literature, by Leonard Marcus. I don’t know that I’m really going to get to this one this time, but it’s interesting. Like the title says, it’s a history of American children’s lit. I’m interested in children’s books (in a parallel universe somewhere, I’m actually a children’s librarian) but I’m also really interested in studying the history of our culture’s attitude toward children and this will be a good book when I delve into that.
  • The miracle at Speedy Motors, by Alexander McCall Smith. I love McCall Smith. I haven’t read him in a few years and I don’t remember what I last read of the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency books. I thought I’d jump back in here.
  • The right attitude to rain, by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the third Isabel Dalhousie book. Have you read her? I love McCall Smith’s characters. Isabel is a bit, well, her neice calls her nosy, which helps her find and solve mysteries. She’s a philosopher by training, though, which makes her internal dialogue unique and wonderful.
  • The dog who came in from the cold, by Alexander McCall Smith. So… when I ditched the kids to run over to the fiction section, I only had 5 minutes. Mcall Smith is prolific and I’m years behind! This one was serialized in the Telegraph. I read the first book day by day as it came out. This is the second novel.
  • Your inner fish : a journey into the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body, by Neil Shubin. This is from the anatomy section. I haven’t spent much time with it but it seems explain human physiology in terms of similar physiology in other animals. I’ll let you know if I get to it and what I think of it.
  • The Isaac Newton school of driving : physics and your car, by Barry Parker. I haven’t read this one yet, either. I’m looking for diversions from the math-heavy physics textbook I’m teaching from.
  • The world is flat : a brief history of the twenty-first century, by Thomas L. Friedman. This  “brief” history is over 600 pages. It seems to be about how technology is changing our worldview faster than ever. I’ll give it a chance to see if he makes any interesting points, but I bet this one is going back.
  • Bodies in motion and at rest, by Thomas Lynch. Mr. Lynch is a 3rd generation undertaker. In a culture that I think really doesn’t know how to deal with death, Lynch grew up with death and other people’s grief and I remember thinking that he is much healthier and saner than most of us for it. It’s been years since I read these and I’ve wanted to reread them for a while now.

So, er, that’s what’s on my “out from the public library” shelf. I’ll let you know more as I spend more time with them. What are you reading?

P.S. Here’s a great video by one of my favorite youtubers on the future of education. He’s looking forward to more things like Coursera.