January 15, 2021

There is never a bad time to talk about education. So much of the trouble I’m worried about is because of a lack of, or just bad, education. With so much information available to us, we should be getting smarter and better. Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, we seem to be getting dumber and worse. Since my areas of expertise are trumpet and music, I’ll do my best to illustrate my points within those contexts. I’ll leave it to you to see if you find them applicable in any larger sense.

Education is really just two things:

  1. Acquisition of skills and knowledge
  2. Facilitating learning

This means that pointing someone in the right direction and telling them to “just figure it out” is not good enough. It also means that telling someone to learn a bunch of facts is also not good enough. We have to help students gain skills and provide them with good information. There are certain things that students need to know. If a student shows up to college hoping to major in music, and they don’t know their major scales, that’s a problem. That same student also needs to show a level of proficiency on their instrument. That’s the “skills and knowledge” part. To succeed in their career, that student also needs to know how to learn. Otherwise they will be stuck with only what is given to them, with no way for them to continue their growth on their own. They will be limited because, from their perspective, “no one ever taught me that.” At that point, there can be no more growth.

So what can we do? I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at the first part: skills and knowledge. There has been a shift in education away from memorization of facts. I agree that rote memorization isn’t all that helpful, but learning facts is.

Here’s a quick example of the difference between learning and rote memorization. Quickly answer this question: What is the 12th letter of the alphabet? A lot of you are now singing “a b c d e f g….” in your head to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” while counting on your fingers. So you think you know the alphabet, but you really just have it memorized in one way. That’s not the type of learning I’m going for. That’s rote memorization. Useful…but limited. Learning provides a depth of understanding that allows to use the information, not just recite it exactly the way you learned it. If I ask you to play the fifth note of the Db major scale, and you have to count up to Ab instead of just playing it, you have a lot more work to do on your major scales.

Education also needs to include learning to separate facts from fiction and opinions. I’ve written about this a bit before here:  You’re Not Always Entitled to Your Opinion, and here: Expertise. Recognizing that facts are true whether or not anyone likes them is vital. I don’t like that about 1/4 of the bones in the human body are in the feet (yes, 26 bones per foot-so 52 in both feet- and 206 in the human body). It seems they should be more spread out. But I don’t get to disregard that, or choose not to believe it. Just as vital is recognizing that anyone that says “I get to believe whatever I want” is acting stupidly. Yes- stupidly.

I’m seeing WAY TOO MUCH of this kind of stupidity right now. In trying to figure out why, I’ve come to a conclusion. For a lot of people, it’s much more comfortable and convenient to believe what is easy, rather than what is true. Let’s take a really simple example: high notes. I’ve had a lot of success teaching trumpet players how to extend their range. There are lots of players around the world that have dedicated time and effort and had success extending their ranges. Despite all of that evidence, there are lots of people that still believe that “you’ve either got it…or you don’t.” That’s just stupid. But it is comfortable and convenient. Once someone believes that, despite it being demonstrably false, they have a built in excuse for themselves. They can easily think “see, it’s not my fault.” Comfortable…convenient…and stupid.

You might be asking: So what? If they don’t believe in facts they’ll just get left behind, and that’s okay with you. Well, it’s not quite that simple, and it’s not okay with me. As there are more and more people that don’t believe in facts, some of them start teaching. And what do they teach? They teach what they believe, which is not based in reality. Then they have students that have been taught information which is provably false. If you “know” that trumpet range is something one is born with, as you’ve been taught that since you began playing trumpet, how can we have a discussion about how you could gain range, as you’ve already decided you weren’t born with it? This leads to people only associating with others that share their beliefs. At this point, overall growth is stifled, as we have no place to even start a discussion.

This is why facts are so important. Facts give us a foundation, a reality, that we can agree on. This is what allows us to get to the second part. As students gain skills and knowledge, focus can shift to application and continued growth. In music, as in all areas, there is always more to learn. So as we gain skills and knowledge, we can learn more pieces of music. In learning how to apply the skills and knowledge, we also learn how to continue learning. As I’ve told my students many times, it’s really a simple process: we practice the fundamentals of the trumpet so that we can perform music. When you find music that you can’t perform because of technical limitations, there’s more to practice on the fundamental side. This process is never-ending.

If you do this correctly, you can keep growing for a very, very long time.



  1. Yep. Well done once again, Sarge.

  2. Yep.

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