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Laurie Niles

2009 Starling-Delay, day four: Robert Duke on music education

June 9, 2009 at 9:39 PM

What is the point of learning to play the violin – are we clear on that as teachers? Do our students know? And how do we teach musical decision-making? Or perhaps the question is: Do we teach it at all?

"Very seldom are music students invited into that process," said Robert Duke, Professor and Director of the Center for Learning at The University of Texas in Austin. He gave a series of lectures called "My Brain's Busy Even Though I'm Not: the cognitive neuroscience of skill learning," at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Robert Duke

More often, a student – of any discipline – receives information from a teacher, writes it down and spits it back.

"That's not learning," Duke said. "Learning is deeper than that, and it involves more from the learner than that."

The key to true learning is to know what is at the heart of any subject – what is the point? Why would I want to learn this? Why is it interesting? And then everything flows from that central point.

"But somebody's decided that before you get to the interesting stuff, you have to get through all this uninteresting stuff. That's school – that's music school," Duke said.

In music, and specifically in violin playing, the point can get very muddled, for all the set-up, the fingerings, the bowing techniques, the shifting, the scales, the historical heaviness of the music...

What exactly is the point?

It has to do with every human being's deep need to express himself or herself. People are innately motivated to express their thoughts and feelings, and their ability to do so reaches a high level, well before they start playing an instrument.

For example, Duke described his young granddaughter, who had gone on a field trip to a farm. When she returned, she bubbled with excitement as she described the animals to him: the chickens, the sheep, but most of all, a huge Clydesdale horse that she'd seen tethered by the barn, on her way out.

"It was E-NORMOUS!" she told her grandfather, sweeping her hand over her head to show how big that horse really was.

Her language and gestures came directly from a need to express herself, and from all her young years of experimentation with language. Similarly, when we teach music, we are teaching a means of expression. When we neglect to connect the means with the expression for our students, we lose their attention. And we lose the chance for real learning to occur.

"The 'using it' part needs to be woven seamlessly into the 'learning it' part," Duke said. "Real learning is a mess; it's not orderly, it's not linear." If your goal is to make sure your students always know where they're going, you may not be giving them the chance to learn how to get there on their own. "All the things we are setting up, with the best intentions, actually obviate the very experiences people need to learn – the messy muddling."

Duke showed a video of an 11-year-old boy playing Saint-Saens' "The Swan," from the HBO series, The Music in Me. The video overdubbed the boy's playing with his eloquent description of the piece: the feelings, the pictures and the soul in this music. Undoubtedly, his strong connection with the "story" he was expressing allowed him to enjoy and focus on the real point, expressing something that anyone would understand and appreciate.

"That only happens if that's the focus throughout their study," Duke said. In this case, the boy was thinking about his audience, and how to convey the feelings of the swan: the smooth gliding, turbulent emotions, the swan's last song. "What's most advantageous is thinking about how what you're doing is affecting other people." Though it might sounds like Ivory Tower hair-splitting, "it makes a tremendous difference."

Unfortunately, the educational process often beats this out of people.

If you walk into a room full of kindergarteners, you'll find children brimming over with enthusiasm, Duke said. Ask them a question, and whether they know the answer or not, their hands shoot into the air, "Call on me, call on me!" Take those same students, years later, in college. They sit, huddled and hunched, taking notes, heads down. Ask a question, and they'll practically duck under the table to avoid being called upon.

"The only common variable is: they all went to school!" Duke said.

The whole point of a musical education is to learn to express something to other human beings, Duke said, "and even when you have very little skill, you are perfectly capable of formulating musical ideas and trying them on your instrument."

Language is highly goal-directed, and that's one of the reasons we learn it so early, and so well. But even when learning a foreign language, it helps to have a goal. There's a difference between taking a Berlitz class and being plopped into a foreign country, and, say, needing to know where the bathroom is.

"¿Dondé está el baño?" Duke said. "I have goals!"

And why does context matter so much, when we are learning?

"The extent to which we can retrieve memories is affected by the context in which we learn them and encode them," Duke said. For educators, it's important to realize that that "every moment in a learning experience has to have a vivid representation of what the point of that learning experience is."

The brain is a pattern-seeking, associating machine. Saying that a brain is like a computer hard drive "is a terrible metaphor for human memory," Duke said. That's because there is no empty memory in the brain. "Memory is extremely dynamic. Whatever was in (the brain) already will color this experience, and future experiences will color that," Duke said. "Learning is change; it changes the way people think."

Duke talked about an idea from an essay by the mathematician A. N. Whitehead: that any subject matter can be taught in an intellectually honest way to any child, of any age.

"From the very beginning, every child can be taught expression," Duke said. Even if the child can only play two notes: choose the two notes best suited for the instrument, and an expressive goal that is achievable.

"If you can't make a kid sound beautiful in your presence, they're not going to go home and sound beautiful," Duke said. Students go through three stages of learning, the "romance," when they are unrealistically positive about a new endeavor; the struggle to achieve precise goals, and then "generalization," when they can do it and they've achieved beauty in their playing.

For the most part, students see only the "struggle," and sometimes as teachers, we inadvertently magnify that sense of insurmountable difficulty, setting up a mountain of prerequisites our students will have to fulfill before they can starting playing the "good stuff."

But what if we made it all "good stuff"?

Duke talked about an experience he had as a public school band director, trying to push kids through a method book that had everything to do with basics, but not much with making music. The book was full of exercises, whole notes, dull stuff. And the kids were not responding.

"Most kids are kind of 'Allegro,' they aren't 'Largo,'" Duke said. Whole notes did not excite their imaginations. No one was having a good time, including him, and everyone was avoiding playing. He was even giving them longer and longer to pack up at the end of the day.

That is, until one day, when a sax player went in a back room and started picking out the bass line to Louie Louie. Pretty soon another kid came back, and when the bell rang, both were so engrossed in their music-making, they had to be chased off to class.

It gave Duke an idea, and the next day he came to class with an arrangement he made of the bass line for Louie Louie. Suddenly, everyone was interested in doing it, and doing it right. It was "real music," at least in their view. "I taught more in that day than I'd taught in all the weeks previous," Duke said. Suddenly the trumpet player was interested in embouchure, the trombone player was interested in articulation – students were even interested in what Duke himself could play.

"Now this isn't about popular music versus serious music, because at the time, 'Louie Louie' wasn't that popular, and 'Master Methods for Band' wasn't that serious," Duke said. "My point is that all those students signed up for band class with the bizarre expectation that they were going to make music every day, and I was busy teaching them 'how to play their instruments.'" At the time, he thought the students weren't ready to make music, that they needed to get skills down first.

From that point on, he started approaching things from the musical end, and arranging pieces that would fit their skills and build on them.

That way, "they're thinking about what the audience will think, right from the beginning," Duke said.

That's where the motivation comes from, for building skill: from expressing something to an audience. A student may not be motivated to practice shifts when a teacher say, "Shifts are important, so practice them." But what if the shift is what is needed, to create a musical picture? "You know, your swan doesn't sound like it's gliding gracefully over the water when you miss that shift; it sounds more like it bumped into a rock."

And as a student's musical motivation and skill increases, so the teacher helps that student build a foundation in beautiful, expressive playing.

"Until they can play a lot of pieces at the same level, beautifully, they aren't ready for a piece at a higher level," Duke said. "We are not trying to make this more difficult than it is, that's not our goal. But most students, most of the time, are playing repertoire that is too hard. The reasons have more to do with human ego than with sound pedagogy."

Learning is a process of error correction. Errors can be obvious, as with a beginner, or they may be very detailed, so that only an expert ear would hear them. But at any level, learning takes place through error correction. What does that mean? That to a certain extent, there must be some messy muddling, some confusion, some discrepancy.

"There has to be error for there to be learning," Duke said.

Everyone has a range in their playing: one's performance on a good day vs. one's performance on a bad day, and everything in between. Advancement does not involve stretching to reach a new high as much as it involves doing away with the weakest performances; striving to make more performances match one's best days. For a teacher, "you have to become intolerant of doing less than they're capable of."

Duke gave the example of a fictional student, Clive.

"It would be cruel to take Clive at his best moment and say, 'You know, that's out of tune,'" Duke said. But if you know that Clive is doing less than he can, it's all right to demand more. In that case, it's all right to make those fixable flaws vividly apparent. Don't exaggerate, just create a clear picture. "It's only appropriate if the student can do something about it, in the present moment," Duke said. "It's just mean, if they aren't capable yet."


Okay, because of popular demand, here is Robert Duke's telling of the above story about his experience teaching band. He is such an engaging speaker! Enjoy!

From Margaret Lee
Posted on June 9, 2009 at 11:10 PM


   I listened to the youtube clip and it's really interesting stuff!  Is there any way to get the rest of the presentation? maybe i need to buy his book. :) (I looked up your previous blogs on Robert Duke's other lectures.)

From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 1:38 AM

Hi Margaret,

No, I don't have the entire lecture on video; you'd have to come hear him speak live some time! But I added one more little snippet at the bottom, just for you. :)

From Margaret Lee
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 4:46 AM

Thank you, Laurie! That's a generous snippet. I appreciate it.  --Margaret


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 10:30 AM

This is really great.

And I like how he differentiates between when you should push a student and when it's mean to do so. 

But I wish he could expand a bit more on how he knows when a student is capable of something and when not.  There's so much confusion around that, in my opinion, because students these days are never allowed to say, or even to think, that they're not capable of something.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 7:03 PM

Laurie, thanks so much for posting this.  I think that Duke has reached down into the heart of teaching.  "More often, a student – of any discipline – receives information from a teacher, writes it down and spits it back" and "Unfortunately, the educational process often beats this [the joy of learning] out of people."  My father used to say those two things that Duke said, and his approach to learning was very similar to Duke's over all.  My father was my first and best teacher.  He didn't just teach me things.  he taught me to love learning.  I know some of the things he did in teaching, but not all of them.  He is still my role model as a teacher, although he passed away years ago.

"The leader of the band is tired, and his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument, his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man
I'm just a living legacy of the leader of the band."

by Dan Fogelberg


You can hear him sing this on
Warning: This song is very emotionally charged.

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