The Four Stages

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I have a confession – I am shamelessly republishing an article I published on my blog earlier this month. With very few modifications. Sure, it’s kind of cheating – but I could argue that the learning process for anything – horses, and music included – is universal and well worth discussing. And let’s face it most of you didn’t see the blog article anyways!

Mastering an instrument, endurance riding, and the horse sport of dressage all have in common what EVERY learning process has in common. Namely the “4 stages”. I’m sure most of us have come across this in some variation at one time or another, but I don’t think there’s any harm in doing some review.

The 4 stages can be described as follows:

(Stage 1) Unconscious Ignorance– You are doing it wrong and don’t even know it, because you don’t have the experience or knowledge to know better. Anyone learning something new falls in this category. Even if you have knowledge of something related (ie – coming into Bluegrass from another genre) you WILL spend a brief period of time here. An example of this might be a jazz musician that is jamming with a bluegrass group. He pulls off a riff that sounds GOOD – but it isn’t bluegrass and doesn’t have that “sound”. But he doesn’t know that because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

(Stage 2) Conscious Ignorance – You know you are doing something wrong, and may even have a good idea what it is. But you don’t necessarily have the tools to fix it. People in this stage can benefit greatly from a mentor or trainer. In our previous example, our jazz musician now knows what the “bluegrass” sound is, but isn’t sure how to achieve it. I think most people who are learning a new instrument also fall into this category. You know that you sound like a squawking duck, but you aren’t sure how to fix it!

(Stage 3) Conscious Knowledge – You recognize problems and inconsistencies and have the tools and knowledge to “fix” them. It takes conscious thought, and effort, but you can usually anticipate problems and take steps to prevent problems AND increase your chances of success (however you define that). People at this stage make the best mentors – they have the experience and knowledge, but are still having to make a conscious effort to put their knowledge into practice. The learning stages can be applied to individual songs as well as the overall musician. An example of this stage is a song that you have practiced and it is jam ready – meaning that the tone, tempo, melody is THERE – but you have to concentrate. Heaven forbid you start actually ENJOYING the music as you play – most likely it will fall apart – because it is still in the “conscious knowledge stage” and you have to concentrate to make it work.

(Stage 4) Unconscious Knowledge –At this level the musician can achieve things that seem positively magicial. They know what needs to be played before they *know* it and it seems to just happen. Most of us spend just brief periods of time at this stage. Those moments are magic and one of the reasons I continue to play. In my opinion, people who spend a lot of time in this category make the WORST mentors and are NOT a good choice for the stage 1 and 2 people to try learn from. They can be the most patient people in the world, but make leaps that seem obvious and easy to them – but leave the beginner frustrated and disheartened. Far better to chose a mentor that still plays with conscious knowledge. An example of unconscious knowledge is a song that you know so well that you can play it while thinking of other things, while smiling at your jamming partners and perhaps even lift a foot to signal the last round of the chorus.

Most people move between stages as new situations present themselves. Moving between stages 3 and 4, and even stage 2, is natural and is the learning process. Here’s an example of how the learning process might work with a fiddle player (and yes, I may be inserting part of *my* life here). Our theoretical (or not so theoretical) fiddle player is playing their heart out, as happy as a clam. They are blissfully in stage 1, not realizing their lack of tone is causing everyone around them to purchase heavy duty ear plugs when they play. Suddenly the fiddle player realizes that her notes are not in tune! Oh now, what to do? The smart fiddle player realizes that she has now entered stage 2 – she has identified the problem, but doesn’t have the tools to fix it. She grabs a mentor/teaches and learns some tricks of the trade for fixing her problem, like playing with a tuner. Our little fiddle player gradually enters stage 3 – the notes are tune, but Oh, it is so hard! Every note must be painfully adjusted. Gradually, almost without noticing it becomes more and more natural to play in tune. Occasionally the little fiddle player will play with a tuner to “check” herself, and voila! Her notes are in tune without thinking – she has moved into stage 4 (at least for that particular concept).

I think understanding the learning process is important. By recognizing where you are in the learning process in a particular concept, I think you can avoid the frustration that often accompanies trying to learn something new, or during times where is seems like you are “regressing”. It can be frusterating to pick up your instrument after a long absence, only to realize that what was once unconcious competence has turned into something you know have to concentrate on.

Where are you in your journey with (insert choice of sport/hobby here) in relation to the idea above?

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