Apprenticeship: Practice and teaching insights


One thing you have to keep looking for as a teacher are insights into how to teach better and how to help students learn better.

I recently was reading a number of things related to studio teaching methods that did not speak to me particularly. But then, randomly, I stumbled upon a link to an online article titled “Gaining Mastery: The Three Vital Steps of the Apprenticeship Phase,” a selection taken from the 2012 book Mastery by Robert Greene.

Apprenticeship was the one of the main methods of learning skills for centuries. A development of the Middle Ages, classically an apprenticeship lasted seven years to learn some craft. In short, the three steps toward mastery described in the article are:

  • Step One: Deep Observation—The Passive Mode
  • Step Two: Skills Acquisition—The Practice Mode
  • Step Three: Experimentation—The Active Mode

It seems to me that most students and teachers of the horn spend most of their time in step two. Let’s look at each one in turn, with a focus on how you can apply the ideas to applied lessons.

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A big part of Step One from the standpoint of the horn student involves listening to music. You have to vividly have in your mind how this music is supposed to sound that you want to perform. It is an information gathering stage that can’t be skipped. For the horn student it gets as the larger topic of building your audiation skills, which must be at a high level to achieve a high level of performance.

For the teacher this phase of learning also involves modeling at a high level what the student needs to play. But also teachers tend to take it for granted that students actually listen to music like they are studying. Perhaps in response to this, I know for example one of my colleagues, Brad Edwards, is incorporating group listening sessions with his students as part of their trombone study. Also, absolutely the teacher teaching you should be able to play the music you are learning, or you need to find a teacher who can model it at a high level.

Step Two seems self-explanatory, as a student you have to practice! Building skills requires a lot of repetition, and with those repetitions the skills become more and more automatic. But also the teacher needs to guide the student in some logical way towards their goals. That includes studying music that builds your technique overall. In the big picture most experienced teachers have in fact some method they employ towards building technique and, for motivated students, practice is not really the issue. As to quantity, from the article,

Although it might seem that the time necessary to master the requisite skills and attain a level of expertise would depend on the field and your own talent level, those who have researched the subject repeatedly come up with the number of 10,000 hours. This seems to be the amount of quality practice time that is needed for someone to reach a high level of skill and it applies to composers, chess players, writers, and athletes, among others. This number has an almost magical or mystical resonance to it. It means that so much practice time—no matter the person or the field—leads to a qualitative change in the human brain. The mind has learned to organize and structure large amounts of information. With all of this tacit knowledge, it can now become creative and playful with it. Although the number of hours might seem high, it generally adds up to seven to ten years of sustained, solid practice—roughly the period of a traditional apprenticeship. In other words, concentrated practice over time cannot fail but produce results.

That leaves us with Step Three. A lot of what this is for us in horn is performance, as in performing music that we have learned or new works that we continue to learn. There is a difference between playing excerpts and actually performing them in an audition or performance situation. As teachers what we need to do is maximize the performance situations so that our apprentices, I mean students, get the most benefit from their study.

To close, it is an interesting idea to think of horn students as actual apprentices. I’m going to give this some real thought as I go forward this year in my teaching.

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