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Maximizing Online Content (or how to learn ANYTHING!!)

Updated: Feb 10, 2022


Picture this! You're dead-set on becoming a better musician. You've got access to almost unlimited online content on YouTube, instagram, TikTok, etc, which could help you learn to be a better musician. Great! Or, better yet, you've subscribed to an online service providing bespoke educational content. Great!

Done deal, right? Now you just need to…watch all of the videos? Then what? Get really good somehow?

The incredible asset that is digital learning is tremendously inspiring. Incredible content from some of the world's greatest musicians, in your home, delivered to you. There has never been a better time to learn outside the context of a university or music school. Sometimes though, the overwhelming amount of stuff available at any one time can make it hard to curate your learning when you're operating alone. It’s easy to look at a lot of videos, but make no changes, to watch a lot of content, but never analyze what is being argued and—more importantly—why it’s important.


If you’ve invested time, money, or energy into improving your musicianship, you need a method for assimilating new information that will make the content stick and make it applicable to your own individual musical journey.


As someone with a lot of experience in the OG asynchronous resource—books—I've developed my own system for assimilating new material in a way that guarantees I remember it, can analyze and critique it, and can use it to create my own ideas.

Let's get some misconceptions out of the way:

A digital masterclass (live or not) is not the same as a lesson.

With online content, I draw a line between synchronous content, where the material is being delivered at one time, received by everyone in attendance simultaneously, and asynchronous, where content is available and can be accessed at any time. A digital masterclass or lecture is more similar to a book than a concert, in that they are infinitely repeatable, and infinitely parsable. Even if they first appear live, if the content stays online I recommend thinking of it as a recording. You might watch again and again, going at your own pace. The friction around encountering new ideas is low, and there are a LOT of ideas you can encounter quickly. (For more information on how recording technology has changed how people consume and create art, check out Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound.)

Unfortunately, this also means the penalty for being passive is higher, since you don't typically have a peer group supporting your learning and typically can’t interact with the teacher as easily frequently. At the same time, the sheer mountain of content available to you can make it challenging to actually learn something. In short, learning with online resources means you need an organizational structure to make sure you ACTUALLY learn rather than skim, and that you actually put into practice what you learn.

 

How to Learn


Let’s take a step back here and talk about what our goals should be when we learn ANYTHING, from reading a book to watching a YouTube video about knitting to working on your knife skills for more efficient cooking.

The end game is not simply to remember and parrot the material. You should be thinking of building from understanding to analysis to creation. Memory is an important skill in music making, but we also need to develop our abilities to analyze and evaluate ideas we encounter, as well as honing the ability to create new ideas that synthesize many viewpoints while articulating your own.


My method for assimilating content has three stages:

I. Organize/Remember/Apply

Be able to create a roadmap for the class/lecture/recipe/whatever you're trying to learn. Organizing the content helps you memorize the material and, more importantly, understand it. Then, you can apply the new information to your use-case. In this post, I will discuss note-taking as an effective way to organize and recall ideas, But, there are plenty of strategies that can be equally if not more effective depending on your learning style.


II. Analyze/Evaluate

Dissect the major arguments or points, breaking them into component ideas. Generate a critique of the material, and evaluate its effectiveness.

III. Synthesize

Use what you've learned to create your own content.

Thinking about your learning this way supercharges how you acquire new information. It makes you an active participant in your learning, and improves your recall by forcing you to organize and put into practice your knowledge.


Let's break down this process one step at a time:

I. Note-Taking/Outlining

First, create an outline of the lesson or masterclass, focusing on remembering content and understanding how it’s organized.


Note-taking is essential to my learning process. It forces me to focus on the specifics of the content, ignore my biases, and slow my brain down. These steps have the result of opening and priming your mind, making it easier for new concepts to stick.


My note-taking strategies are taken from my approach to reading books for understanding and permanence, and a LOT of writing before I ever had easy access to a computer. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I can remember a class from 20 years ago, and that those classes are the ones for which I took and reviewed good notes. In my opinion, note taking is even MORE important when trying to learn from online video content. Most people tend to listen passively to digital content, maybe even clicking around their computer as they watch. Note-taking forces you to be an active listener.

Here are some notes I took in my freshman year of college about timpani rolls. Note the organization on the page—I must have written this down after the lesson.

At the same time, outlining forces you to make decisions about structure and organization. While transcribing a class word for word can be valuable—that's how I still remember the order of US presidents—a transcript doesn’t show hierarchy or dependency, what information is most important and which ideas depend on which concepts. An outline forces you to work with the material in the class, articulating for yourself what is most salient, and reducing the ideas to their most significant elements.


I know what you’re thinking: “An outline? Are you kidding? That’s so old school.” Yes, but it works! Here’s how to get started.


Getting Ready


First, get prepped. Be as professional as possible here. You’ve invested your valuable time into assimilating and synthesizing this content, so take watching it seriously.


If you take notes on paper, have your pad and pen(cil) in a comfortable place near your video device. I recommend a high quality paper, and to use pen rather than pencil. You will refer to these notes for years to come, so make sure they’re at least partly legible!


I love taking notes by hand, and find it helps me slow down and focus on what I’m writing. In the past few years, however, I’ve started to keep outlines from masterclasses, lessons, and other material I read in an online database, where everything is easily searchable. That way, the next time I’m thinking about the types of timpani bowls, I can find my notes without too much hassle.


If you take notes on your computer, try out some note-taking apps. Make sure that you can easily search the text, sorting by date or other metadata is supported, and that it’s simple to copy and paste text out of the app. There are LOTS of good options, but try and steer clear of making a new document for each class, as it’s more challenging to keep yourself organized. I like OneNote for note-taking, mostly because it has a simple and powerful support for outlining, but it really doesn’t matter.


If you’re on your computer, make sure you can see the video and your notes, and that you can easily stop and start the video. Anything that can reduce the friction of watching is important to investigate. For Mac users, Magnet is a great app that allows you to snap windows next to one another with keyboard shortcuts.


Here's how I'd lay out my screen to take notes from a digital masterclass.

Pay attention to the environment in which you watch the class. The makers of the video most likely worked very hard to get a specific sound quality, and you want to approximate that as much as possible. Try headphones, speakers, or anything you can to avoid listening on your phone’s speaker, and listen in a location that’s as free from noise as possible. Finally, try and watch on as large a screen as possible. Discerning small movements on your phone’s screen is not the best use of your time—and will most likely make you need glasses in the near-term.


Now, it’s time to actually take some notes.


As you watch or read, keep a running track of the major points. Make these Roman numerals (or Arabic numerals, if you prefer). Sometimes, teachers will articulate the structure of a class, and sometimes you have to discern which arguments are the most fundamental. Nestle supporting arguments under the main points, with the supporting arguments’ supporting arguments under those. Depending on your learning style, you can include direct quotations from the material, or put the idea in your own words. Traditionally, points in outlines don’t need to use complete sentences, but since this document is for you, feel free to use it however you prefer. If you sight a quotation be sure to make a note of the time code or page number, to allow you to find the material again more easily in the future.


When starting out, I recommend using a piece of scratch paper to keep track of at least the major organization appointments, and then fill in the other arguments later in a more “official” capacity.

Here's an example from inside Georgina Born's Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Highly recommended book by the way!

If you are reading a book instead of watching a video, you can also take notes directly on the book, underlining significant passages and keeping track of your outline in the margins. I use my own abbreviations for notes in margins: th for thesis, © for century, “” for a quote I want to remember, and so on. Remember that your goal here is to articulate the ideas and concepts outlined by the teacher, not your opinions about them—that comes later. This is really challenging to do at first. You'll need to watch or listen a few times, stopping and starting. Take advantage of an archived class and stop the video frequently to write, rewatching key points for comprehension. With practice, you will be able to do this in real time.


Here’s an example of an outline for a class. Note that I've articulated the main points of the class, the supporting arguments for these main ideas, and given some examples of why these arguments are valid or salient. Some of the material is written as imperatives—”you should do this”—but other material is written as descriptive. Over time, you will find your own voice in the outline, as well as getting better at discerning which ideas from the teacher are innovative, and which build upon other people's concepts.


Mike C Snare Drum Class

  1. Color and expression on Snare Drum

    1. Timbre and beating spot

      1. Nuanced, wide timbral palette

      2. Beating spot ≠ dynamic!

      3. Practice without a muffle to hear impact of beating spot more dramatically

    2. Timbre and stroke type

      1. “The Sound of Your Muscles”

        1. muscle groups have unique sound profiles

        2. Arms/wrist/fingers overlapping domains

      2. Grouping/Bowing, Throwing/catching

    3. Timbre and Grace Notes

      1. "Grace notes are notes too”

      2. Focus on constant motion in your sticks

      3. Work to find and remove tension in grace notes

      4. Volume of grace note is less important than rhythmic placement

    4. Timbre and Rolls

      1. Unite color of rolls color of other strokes

      2. Rolls ≠ Straight Lines

      3. Triple Strokes

  2. Rhythm and Expressive Character

  3. Rhythmicity – Color and Character of Rhythm

    1. Rhythmic Realization

      1. pulse control

      2. verticality

      3. rhythmic hierarchy

    2. Look to period performance

  4. Rhythm and Sticking: Using all Tools

    1. "Use the natural tendency of stickings to accentuate and highlight phrases."

    2. “natural” vs. “domesticated”

    3. The Joy of Alternating or NOT

    4. Syncopation

      1. Stickings in syncopation

      2. Think of matching musical ideas to tendencies of certain stickings

    5. Arms make the phrase, fingers make notes




As you're working on the next phases of the learning process, refer to your notes. Change them as you dissect the material, updating your organizational ideas and adding nuance to your outline. This reflective process is vital to making sure what you learn sticks. When I was a student, I reflected by typing up or rewriting my notes from significant classes. While time-consuming, I found this process made sure that I knew the material cold.


In addition to being a multi-modal learning strategy good note-taking helps you create a resource you can refer to for the rest of your life rather than running to Google every time you need a refresher.


Mastery


Finally, learning to watch or read for structure helps you assimilate material more quickly.

Once you get into the habit of separating theses from supporting arguments, you can read more carefully at structural moments, places in the class where the teacher lays out the most significant arguments. Then you can watch or read faster in sections where someone is spooling out their argument or listing “reasons why” something is the way it is. In your quest for mastery, theses are the most applicable part of your teachers’ arguments. You can apply a central concept to a number of situations, but it's more difficult to find a lot of applications of a very specific or niche concept.


Application


The next phase of mastering new ideas is to put them into practice, applying the lesson to your own physique and turning the hypothetical into the practical.


Take the material and try it out. Here, focus on doing what the teacher espouses, in the way they’ve demonstrated it. Can you try those different beating spots? Use more arm on your snare drum roll, or move your left hand more when playing crash cymbals? Incorporate a new fulcrum placement, or think more deliberately about hinges when you play?


At first, you should model or mimic the teacher, developing muscle memory and mental representation. Try to sound and look like the teacher, using all the tools at your disposal. Start small, with trying out a little bit of the class at a time, recording yourself and watching back, or checking your progress in a mirror. Refer to the video frequently.



At this stage in the process, your goal is to try out new ideas without judging them, embodying them physically. Remember, the most important thing we learn as musicians is mental representation, our idea of what something should be like which encompasses all of our senses. By imitating something exactly—physically, visually, sonically—you are helping to add complexity, nuance and depth to your own mental representation. Later, you’ll assess the effectiveness and consistency of the ideas you’ve learned while adjusting them to your musical sensibilities.


As you’re developing expertise around new concepts, focus on accuracy and precision. Accuracy is your ability to do exactly what you want with your sound. Precision is the repeatability of the result. You want both in your playing.


The key here is to keep trying. Practice these concepts for at least a few days (I recommend a week). If the class mentions a practice strategy, try it out for a significant period of time. If the teacher recommends a time-management technique, give it a shot for long enough to make a difference. Make sure to try things out long enough for the ideas to physically take hold, or else you’re doing yourself and your teacher a disservice. While our minds can grasp new concepts fairly quickly, our bodies require more time and attention to develop mastery. Good thing you already know something about Deliberate Practice, no?


Along the way, make changes to your outline to reflect and clarify the points.


Combining a performative physical memory with the visual memory of your notes, and the physical recall of having written the notes, is a powerful cocktail of knowledge building techniques.


Most people will stop here, leaving what they know in an ambiguous holding zone. You know the content, and you can do it like your teacher does. But, you can’t fold it into your own voice or apply it to other situations. The real secret to learning is analysis and evaluation, which is easier than ever with online resources.


So far, we’ve become experts on the content we’re trying to learn. We made our own organizational framework, and we can reliably recreate the material, sounding uncannily like our teachers. Now, let’s talk about analyzing and breaking down what you learned and making it your own.


II. Analyze and Evaluate

In this stage, break apart the component parts of the arguments the teacher is making, asking WHY the teacher is arguing what they are arguing. How is someone doing something? Based upon what they say and do, what might be the larger rationale for this approach? What other approaches could accomplish these goals?


Why should analysis be part of your tool kit? Because when you dissect something and analyze it, you understand it on the atomic level, instead of just in one direction. It’s the same concept as practicing horizontal and vertical, but brought to bear on the building blocks of ideas


Plus, you get better at quickly dissecting arguments and ideas by practicing this. You start to recognize patterns, which allows you to determine what information is new, what is expected, and what is innovative in each argument.


In this phase, you are trying to be as objective as possible. Disarm your biases and dogmas, and work on understanding dissecting the teacher’s arguments.


I keep track of these in a searchable document called “stuff to think about,” but you can also add them to your outline or stash them in your practice journal. (What? You don’t have a practice journal? Here are some reasons you should)!


Here are some sample analyses:

  • “Mallet heights are quite low relative to other players. How is the power in their sound generated?”

  • “Wrist seems to activate at the end of the arm stroke. Is this a conscious motion?”

  • “Uses fingers on 32nd notes in m. 32. Does this apply to all fast passages?”

  • “Uses 5"x14" drum for excerpts X, Y, and Z. Could that mean that I could try the same drum for piece A, B, or C?”

It seem like overkill to articulate this to yourself consistently. It’s not! If you’re investing your time and money in your improvement, you want to generate the highest possible return on investment, and that means applying it to your unique musical goals.


Ask Questions

As you can see, the act of analysis requires asking questions of the material. Keep a list of your questions, which should range from hyper specific to larger themes.

These questions form the “themes” of your inquiry. Much like your practicing has themes, your broader learning should also pursue the answers to larger ideas (and nagging small issues). As you investigate new ideas, actively seek out answers to these questions to take command of your learning. Work to answer these questions yourself—watch the material again, and seek out additional resources. Exhaust all the possibilities available to you!


Consider joining a community of fellow learners. Communities are a great way to explore answers to your questions. Plus, when you join a group of like-minded people, you feel pushed along, motivated, and part of something bigger than yourself.


Critique


After you’ve taken apart the material you’re trying to learn, develop a critique. Generating a critique based upon the materials themselves is a great way to develop your ears and mind, and helps you hone what you are looking for when you play.


What are the problems with the teacher's ideas, demonstrations, assumptions? Does it not sound that different when a different mallet is used? Does that supposedly even roll not sound so even to you? Does one solution seem to create more problems? Are the ideas consistently applied to multiple scenarios? If not, what could explain this?


Again, this might seem to be overkill. Who wants to read a Yelp review of a masterclass? Being able to meaningfully and thoughtfully critique an idea is essential to understanding it and applying it to new situations. It helps you remove bias and find value, and enriches your learning.


With an impeccable understanding of the materials and rock-solid analysis of the class, you will be able to make meaningful critiques, and the ability to evaluate and dissect new information is key to making it your own.

III. Connect/Synthesize

The final step to fully assimilating a skill or concept is to create something with it. Apply the material to yourself, putting into practice your awareness of the concepts, your analysis of how those concepts work, and taking into account your critique of the material.


Some ideas:

  • Put into practice a new phrasing idea, but place it within your own musical voice.

  • Create exercises inspired by the class around developing your technique

  • Adjust a technical idea to your unique physique.

  • Apply what the teacher said about cymbals to your bass drum playing

  • Take that advice about mallet selection and adjust it to your unique playing environment.

  • Try that new stroke type on a different instrument

  • Use that practice strategy, but add something you deem essential

  • Take what the teacher said about phrasing 32nd notes (“don’t crush them”) and think about articulating all small notes in your playing

I think of synthesizing new ideas as adding tools to my toolbox, techniques I can draw upon and move around as needed.


Along the way, strive to move beyond "domain specific" information and draw larger conclusions: what can you learn about music making from this material, beyond playing percussion?


If this sounds like a lot of work, it is! Learning is hard, active work. You owe it to yourself to maximize the resources to which you have access: you are responsible for your own learning. You can skim or commit to learning deeply, and I hope you choose the latter. Treat online pedagogical content like a precious commodity, taking the time to analyze it and dissect it.

Happy learning!

 

If you enjoyed this content from The Percussion Conservatory, consider becoming a member of our PC Studio. We offer weekly live masterclasses with leading percussionists from around the world to help you augment your current education and advance your career.




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