My song – a learning challengeOctober 17, 2016January 25, 2017Gill Brabner



Recently I took part in a learning challenge. The idea was for a group of teachers, trainers and facilitators to learn a new, or improve an existing skill, and in doing so, reflect on what it means to be a learner.

For this challenge I chose to have some singing lessons.  I found a young and enthusiastice teacher who teaches locally and embarked on a series of one to one lessons to improve my singing ability.

Here is a summary of my learning:

First impressions

At my first lesson I was impressed by Rachele’s presence, her vitality and most importantly her absolute confidence that I could achieve the objectives I had set. I immediately felt safe and at ease in the space; teacher, pupil and piano. This sense of security was evident in my willingness to follow Rachel’s lead in vocalising sirens, and reaching for higher and higher notes. Within the first few minutes of the first lesson I experienced an immense feeling of liberation simply by releasing sounds. It was as if my voice was being unshackled after many years.

My weekly lessons reinforced three important aspects of learning.

  1.  Getting the basics right is crucial to future success, and a certain level of competence (Wenger 1998) needs to be achieved in these building blocks.  Initially this is experienced as being at the outer edge of resources as in Gee’s (2004) Regime of Competence Principle.  Good breathing technique and regular exercises to strengthen capacity became part of my routine, followed by vocalising vowels and consonants to locate the breath, exercise the vocal muscles and create the desired sound.
  2. Any new learning provides the opportunity to retrieve skills that have lain dormant for a long time: in this case my ability to read music and bring that skill back into my consciousness.
  3. Learning cannot be viewed as a purely intellectual exercise but needs to be embodied. Or as Stolz (2015) describes it: “we ‘come to’ an understanding of something from our own point of view as a result of experiencing it.” Muscle memory is something I am familiar with from the work of the renowned mime artist Decroux.  The meeting of mime and media is explored by Constantineau (2005) in his essay exploring “The Parallel Worlds of Étienne Decroux and Marshall McLuhan”.  Back at the piano I was consciously noting the formation of sound in my body whilst referring to sheet music and recording the session on my phone. An example of the use of artefacts and extensions and learning created in the body as well as the mind.

Learning strategies

My teacher employed numerous strategies to support my learning, this was especially fruitful when I struggled with complex rhythms.  Being offered different approaches helped me to remain positive and persevere with the music. The lessons were structured around guided practice with immediate feedback (Margolis 2004) and this provided a very clear set of achievable steps.

We used voice memos to record parts of the lessons and aid my homework, supplemented by listening to YouTube videos of the songs selected. Although immersed in the music, I found the technology hindered my ability to learn the lyrics and I eventually resorted to learning them from paper to get the knowledge in my head (Norman 2002).

In later lessons I was interested to see that my teacher restricted feedback to commenting on parts of the song that I had sang well,  as promoted by Wulf et al (2010) and where I had made mistakes we simply repeated that section, thereby increasing my motivation.

Private face to face lessons minimised any anxiety and apprehension for me as the learner and enabled me to make good progress in developing my vocal tone.  However the pure joy of singing was not realised until I shared what I was doing with family and friends one weekend, resulting in an impromptu karaoke session.  Playfulness and humour Bateson (2013) tells us “occur in protected environments and are intrinsically motivated”. This pinpointed for me the enormous value and attraction of social singing, where participation and belonging are part of the learning experience (Wenger 1998).


As we neared the end of my final lesson Rachele announced that it was time to record me singing the songs in their entirety, accompanied by her at the piano. She asked me to listen to the recording and then assess my progress.  I was astonished to hear my voice pouring out of my phone, completely in tune. When I expressed my surprise she replied with a beaming smile, “I knew you could do it!

Are you a tutor, trainer or facilitator? Would you like to join a learning challenge and reflect on what it means to be a learner, and re-energise your teaching?  If so, please get in touch and join us in the next learning challenge!



Ackermann, E., 1996. Perspective-taking and object construction: two keys to learning. Constructionism in practice: designing, thinking, and learning in a digital world. pp. 25-35.

Bateson P., Martin P., (2013) Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation Cambridge University Press

Constantineau W., (2005) Mime and Media: The Parallel Worlds of Étienne Decroux and Marshall McLuhan Vol. 71 (Summer 2005), pp. 115-134 Dalhousie French Studies

DiSessa, A. (2000). Changing minds: computers, learning, and literacy. Cambridge, Mass.  London, MIT.

Gee, James Paul, (2004) “Learning and Identity: what does it mean to be a half-elf?” from What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy p71, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Kolb, A and Kolb, D. (2009) On Becoming a Learner: The Concept of Learning Identity.  In Bamford-Rees et al. (eds) Essays on Adult Learning Inspired by the Life and Work of David O. Justice. Learning Never Ends. CAEL Forum and News 2009. P. 5-13

Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2004). Self-Efficacy: A Key to Improving the Motivation of Struggling Learners. The Clearing House, 77(6), 241–249. Retrieved from

Norman, Donald A., (2002) “Knowledge in the Head and in the World” from Norman, Donald A., The design of everyday things pp.54-80, New York: Basic Books

Roszak, T. (1994). The cult of information: a neo-Luddite treatise on high tech, artificial intelligence, and the true art of thinking. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Stolz, S. (2015) Embodied learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 47:5, 474-487

Wenger, Etienne, (1998) “Introduction” from Wenger, Etienne, Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity pp.3-17, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wulf, G.; Shea, C.; Lewthwaite, R. (2010) Motor skill learning and performance: a review of influential factors Medical Education, 2010, Vol.44(1), pp.75-84