My Journey with the Piano and the Learning Cycle

Alicia Burson

Mimi Wang, MS-POD and Certified Kolb Experiential Learning Profile Facilitator, shares how Experiential Learning has helped her to make sense of her musical journey, and guide her future development for the piano and life.

My Journey with the Piano and the Learning Cycle

While I was nestled under my blanket this past weekend, I delved into a book titled “A Soprano On Her Head” by the unconventional music teacher, Eloise Ristad. As Ristad passionately preached about the essence of “feeling”, “dancing”, and wholly experiencing music, a sudden realization dawned upon me. My recent foray into the world of piano and music as an adult resonated profoundly with the Learning Cycle, a framework I’ve come to deeply appreciate.

A Prelude to My Musical Journey
My tryst with the piano began when I was just 6 years old, with eight rigorous years of classical training shaping my formative years. Yet, it was a hiatus that spanned decades before I returned to the black and white keys two years ago. This rekindling, as an adult, has been a symphonic revelation in its own right. The teachings of my recent maestro Dr. Fan Zhang were pivotal in gently transitioning me from an anxious achiever to a realm where music became an evocative tapestry of emotions, imagery, and soul.

Harmonizing with the Learning Cycle
It struck me that this transformative phase in my musical journey was a living embodiment of the Learning Cycle’s four states: Experience, Reflect, Think, and Act.

  • Experience: “Learn to Listen to yourself” is a constant reminder from Dr. Zhang. My approach shifted from mere playing for the teacher to judge to a deeply immersive and internalized experience. Every note was an exploration, every melody a journey into the myriad emotions and visions they evoked.
  • Reflect: “Use your imagination”, another creed from Zhang to nudge me away from the tyranny of focusing on avoiding mistakes. After each rendition, worry less about the wrong notes, but let introspection become second nature. What is it that I wanted to create and the underlying sentiment I wished to convey? Is there a color, a shape, or an imagery? Did the tonal quality mirror my intentions? What is the bigger gesture here from the composer? Such moments of reflection enriched my bond with both the instrument and the melodies.
  • Think: The gears of cognition meshed seamlessly with reflection. Pondering over how to shape the desired sound, I formulate an integrative act connecting various parts of my physicality – optimal finger placements and movement, engagement of my elbow, shoulder, lower back and even my breath with a deep presence at the center of it all.
  • Act: Armed with insights and revelations from the preceding phases, action was the crescendo. Be it through meticulous execution of my formulation or spontaneous improvisations, what is created becomes the source of a deep experience again.

As I cast my mind back to my youthful days of practice, I discerned a pattern. I was predominantly oscillating between the ‘Think’ and ‘Act’ quadrants, pouring hours into achieving technical mastery,  using logic and judgement to figure out what is the “right” thing to do, whatever “right” means. And doing things “right” means not getting scolded and ridiculed by the teachers. In a fearful space, the experiential and reflective facets were regrettably muted. It felt like a duet between my brain and fingers, sidelining the intrinsic essence of the melodies. Without the participation and nurturing of Experience and Reflect, Think and Act do not have the necessary lift towards magic and beauty.

Yet, thanks to the sagacious guidance of my recent teacher, the once-muted facets of ‘Experience’ and ‘Reflect’ were rejuvenated. Instead of remaining ensnared in the confines of precision, I evolved, embracing music holistically and growing as a musician in spirit and essence.

In sharing this introspective journey, I wish to underscore the universality and transformative power of the Learning Cycle. Not just confined to academia or professional spheres, it reverberates even in the melodious world of music, enriching and elevating the experience.