Why My Computer Science Students Should Master the Guitar

When I was in middle school, it felt like every kid and his mother owned a guitar. I’ll confess, about less than a third of them could really play (sorry guys, but only knowing “Wonderwall” and/or the first part of “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t count), but it seemed that everyone was inspired to attempt the journey of acquiring this new ability. Of course, it’s not uncommon for boys to begin some hobby and then drop it right when things get difficult or less exciting; but think about how much they’d know how to do if they never gave up.

To set the record straight, I’m not saying the world needs more guitar players; quite the opposite, actually. I mean, I share an office with two other teachers, both of whom can play. In fact, if you put three randomly selected Heights teachers in a room with nothing but a guitar, I’d bet that two of them would get into an argument about whether or not the third one’s taking too much artistic liberty by substituting a natural minor chord with a minor 7 and that the decay of his palm-mutes is too short. The world has enough guitarists.

So What Does Guitar Have to Do with Computer Science?

The Heights Computer Science I Honors class is taught using the programming language, Python. While being one of the more accessible programming languages, Python can bring its own set of frustrations, especially to students with no programming experience. However, I have a theory that if every student in my computer science class taught themselves how to play the guitar, they would find the course to be surprisingly easy. Technically, this theory could be applied using any instrument or discipline, but I’m secretly hoping that my students read this, pick up a guitar, and on the last day of class we can play the greatest guitar-only cover of “Comfortably Numb” that the world has ever heard.

Now, if you’re guessing that the benefit of learning an instrument to computer science is increased dexterity, while true, that’s not what I had in mind. The real reason behind my theory is simply that playing guitar is hard. Hear me out: broadly speaking, most consumer technology serves to make some task easier to accomplish. With this end in mind, developers look for any task that takes effort, and try to find ways to make the process faster and less painful. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and theoretically it should allow us to do more. A side effect, though, is that we may begin to lose our tolerance for struggle. Learning guitar can help us regain this tolerance.

The Tolerance Factor

The graph above is a (rather poorly-coded) model to help explain the theory. Take a look and play around with it (doesn’t work great on phones, sorry). Let the x-axis represent the difficulty of some task associated with a given discipline, and let the y-axis represent the probability of failure. As examples, Programming tasks are represented by the red line, Guitar by the orange, and Carpentry by the yellow, while the brown line represents the learning curve of any new skill.

The theory is that by teaching oneself a new discipline and overcoming the associated obstacles along the way, we condition ourselves to be able to handle struggle (increasing our tolerance factor); thereby improving our ability to learn new things (lowering the probability of failure).

You can use the sliders on the graph to model what this might look like. We lessen learning curves by increasing our tolerance factor. We increase our tolerance factor by putting time into teaching ourselves new things. Teaching ourselves new things becomes easier as our tolerance factor increases. It’s cyclical, but the hardest part is getting past the initial hump, the failure of which is oftentimes manifested as a guitar that hasn’t been removed from its case in years, or a skateboard gathering dust under the bed.

Our Tolerance Factor is Under Attack

On countless occasions I’ve been guilty of saying to myself, “someone must have made an easier way to do this.” Or worse, I’ve spent more time searching for a shortcut than it would have taken to actually accomplish the task, and not only have I wasted time, but I have robbed myself of the experience that comes with doing something the hard way.

Naturally our appetites guide us towards the path of least resistance, but I’ve seen students who opt to spend more time looking for a shortcut than expend additional effort just attempting the task at hand. This is ludicrous. I can’t help but think that our instinct to resolutely search for an “easy way out” may be the result of being conditioned to think that nothing we do should cross a certain threshold of effort. Remember Apple’s “There’s an App for That” campaign? Apple was quite literally marketing the idea of a device that provides access to a repository of shortcuts for doing almost anything and everything.

Learning Guitar Hasn’t Gotten Any Easier

Even with advances in technology, learning to play the guitar is just as difficult as ever. With possibly the exception of a good teacher’s encouragement, there is nothing that makes the process any easier. Despite advertised claims, there’s no app that makes it easier to practice the guitar. No machine that quickly and easily forms the finger-calluses that would normally result from regular playing (though I’d love to be wrong on that one).

The most difficult obstacles to overcome when trying to learn something are the frustration and boredom that eventually settle in when we perceive that we’re not getting any better. However, continuing to practice in spite of that frustration is itself progress. We become better at overcoming the expectation of constant excitement and instant gratification that is so often provided for us. Practicing guitar, removing distraction and trying to play a piece, can act as a sort of rehabituation for the will; a reintroduction to struggle.

The ability to tolerate struggle, to be able to keep working when your find yourself “stuck,” is an important asset in computer science. Computer science is not the study of how to make a computer do something, but the study of what is possible using a computer. With that in mind, the true objective of studying computer science is to learn how to approach a problem and solve it using a limited set of tools. Oftentimes this involves getting stuck on a problem for which you know that an answer exists, but not knowing how to get there. Persevering through the “stuckness” to find a solution is a critical part of self-directed learning.

Why is Self-Directed Learning Important?

Because eventually people stop telling you how to do things. Education aims not to equip the student with a playbook of how-to’s, but rather to develop the intellect and will in a way that allows a student to figure things out for himself. When faced with a new problem, which is a better response: “nobody ever told me how to do this,” or, “give me a little time to figure it out”?

Teaching oneself builds academic confidence. A disabling attitude for students is when they resign themselves to the belief that they’ll never be able to learn a subject; that they don’t have the capacity. A great way to overcome this mindset is to pick up something to be learned completely independently. It doesn’t have to be strictly academic; it could be something like learning to cook, learning to sew, or learning to play the guitar. Plenty of studies explain the importance of a hobby, but I want to take it a step further.

Develop a Mastery

Whatever you pick up, learn it deeply. There’s a difference between knowing which red wine pairs well with a particular cheese and knowing how the rainfall during a particular year in a particular city in Europe affects the balance of a wine of that vintage. Obviously I’m not a wine expert, but the point is that it takes a lot more time and effort to master something than it does to be a novice, and it’s easy to recognize a party-trick from a passion.

Most of the time, developing mastery involves tying together knowledge from other disciplines as well. If you want to be a master chef, you should probably know some chemistry; if you want to be a master painter, it probably wouldn’t hurt to know some history. Putting these complementary subjects in the context of something you’re passionate about can also expand your interests. What was once plain and boring calculus and physics, could now be seen as the fundamentals of sound design and audio engineering.

In the end, the point I wish to make here is that the ability to overcome struggle when teaching oneself a new skill (e.g. playing the guitar) is a skill in and of itself, one that’s becoming increasingly desirable living in an age where access to information is no longer a barrier of entry. Improving this skill has compounding benefits. The ability to tolerate frustration and stuckness, can make one into a “swiss army knife” individual: disciplined enough to refine the unlimited educational resources made available by technology into usable knowledge.

About the author:

George Martin


George Martin joined The Heights faculty in 2014, after graduating from Catholic University with a degree in Philosophy. He teaches Computer Science in the Upper School and oversees the Programming and Robotics teams. George is the producer of HeightsCast, and is the webmaster of the Forum.

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