On The Care, Feeding, and Education of Nerds of All Types

We can say that Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first lesson was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad'Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson. -From "The Humanity of Muad'Dib" by the Princess Irulan[ref] From "Dune" by Frank Herbert [/ref]

I know I'm late in posting this, but I wanted to write about a post on John August's blog from several weeks ago about music education. John argues that instead of teaching kids traditional band instruments like trombone, clarinet, French horn and the rest, everybody should just learn piano or guitar. The whole thing is here, and I encourage you to read it. The response was overwhelmingly negative, but while I disagree, I want to be constructive. Here goes.

I don't think John wants to destroy music education- he wants to give students a love of playing music they can use their whole lives. This is admirable. Isn't the point of education to give children the skills they need to be happy and successful in adulthood[ref] That goes for you too, Abstinence Only Sex Education. You know what I'm talking about. [/ref]? However, I do think that in order for a child to have a life-long love of playing music, they need to have a greater choice in the instrument they play.

"But why?" you ask. First, a bit about myself. I was born with some nerve damage on the right side of my body- it's only noticeable in my right hand, and even then not much. The main issue is that I can't move my right fingers as easily as my left. I had physical therapy for it when I was younger and it's not really a problem.[ref] I don't think it has a name (paresis?), and isn't really a scourge, but if you feel moved to help find a cure, please, give generously.[/ref]

Fast forward to first grade. My brother Jeffrey and I started taking piano lessons. As hard as I tried, and as much as I practiced, my right hand kept me from playing music that I wanted to. It was incredibly frustrating. Especially when you have a twin brother who also plays the same instrument.

In fourth grade, we got to pick a band instrument. I picked the only one without any valves or keys to trip up my right hand- trombone. And I loved it. Finally, there was nothing to hold me back from playing as much as I wanted to. I played all through high school with the Colts Neck Community Band. Then in college with the IC Campus Band, IC Sinfonietta and IC Trombone Troupe [ref] Ever hear forty trombones all playing at the same time? Oh, you're missing out... [/ref].

I went farther with trombone than I ever could with piano.[ref] More than once, people asked me, "You're left handed? How can you use a right-handed slide?" Ha! [/ref] Then I went back to piano and played better than I ever did- thank you Bear McCreary's BSG piano book! The point is, students who choose their own instrument, whatever the reason, will be more invested in sticking with it. Piano and guitar have a very high learning curve at the beginning, especially if you're learning to read music- two hands doing two different things takes a lot of coordination. By contrast, after a couple weeks on most wind instruments, you can play a simple melody, no problem.

That's not to say music education couldn't be improved. For one thing, a lot of band music is terrible. In general, I would say less Sousa [ref] Except the Liberty Bell March, because the concerts could use some fart noises. [/ref], more Bach [ref] If you like that, try this.[/ref], Holst, and the like.

I think exploiting children's natural enthusiasm for certain subjects is important for

learning in general. It would make the teacher's job easier- if the kids are motivated to learn on their own, they'll do the hard stuff themselves, just because it's fun.

I had read every book on dinosaurs by the time I was ten because dinosaurs are frakking awesome. I tried inventing what amounted to a perpetual motion machine in fourth grade because I was deathly afraid we would run out of electricity. I had my dad explain special relativity to me as a middle schooler because I wanted Einstein to be wrong and warp drive to be possible.

I'm not the only person  who thinks this is a good idea- check out Vi Hart's channel on YouTube, where she encourages math students to play with numbers, and maybe learn something too, through doodling. Preferably during math class. A kid's interest in a subject comes from having the chance find out the answers to their own questions about it, not just going down a list of topics because someone told them to.

"But wait!" you cry. "Won't this turn everybody into a bunch of nerds?" YES! Nerds are at their nerdiest when they gush about the nerdy things they love. And at least for people like me, that enthusiasm is infectious.[ref] And what about the kids who "just aren't motivated?" I don't know. Only thing I can think of is to find out what they're most interested in- video games, sports, movies, make-up, etc- and encourage them to learn more about it. Start early. Don't stop.[/ref] The more, the merrier.

And on that note, I think I'm going to go teach myself calculus so I can learn Newtonian mechanics properly. It would certainly make writing action scenes easier...