Visual Learning by Roy Burns

A famous tennis coach tells the story about his early efforts to teach one of the most complicated skills needed to play tennis: the serve. As the story begins, the instructor, with youthful zeal, sets out to teach his students-in a really thorough manner-how to serve. He makes notes on every vital aspect of the serve, listing each point in order of importance. He finally comes up with a list of more than twenty-five critical points involved in a successful serve.

The coach now begins to instruct a group of students. When it comes time to teach the serve, he tells everyone, “Really pay attention. We are going to learn something that is most difficult!”

The first person steps forward. The coach, carefully checking his notes, begins with his carefully worked out verbal instructions: “Watch your back foot! Careful with the ball toss! Get your racket back! Extend your arm! Watch your grip! Careful with your balance! Hold the racket steady!

Slowly the coach realizes that he has paralyzed the student with an endless stream of suggestions. The harder the student tries to follow the instructions, the tenser he becomes. The coach has been guilty of over-teaching; it would take a computer to remember and sort out all of his instructions.

In frustration, the coach grabs the racket and says, “Just watch me and do what I do.” The student watches carefully a few times, then steps up and hits a pretty good first serve. At this point, the coach realizes that a picture is worth a thousand words….even a mental picture (especially a mental picture, I might add). This famous coach now teaches visually; he no longer issues a steam of verbal instructions. He understands the value of creating a “mental picture.”

We’ve all had the experience of listening to a great drummer on records and saying, “What is that he just played?” or “I wish I could just see what is really being played!” One of the great things about the era of the jazz club was that you were close to the band. You could watch the world’s greatest drummers up close. You could make your own “mental pictures” of the evening to learn from later, fixing certain movements firmly in your mind. You could then rerun the evening over and over again, remembering and reinforcing the images and mental pictures.

There are fewer clubs today, although they do still exist. But today we also have videos. You can watch and learn from many of the world’s best drummers in the comfort and privacy of your own home. The video is the “next best thing to being there.” The current crop of instructional videos is probably the most educational so far. The educational accomplishments in the video field have been very helpful to students who live far from a major city. At least these students can see the best in action and learn something as well.

Another benefit of the VCR is that you can tape concert performances and watch them again and again. This gives you another opportunity to study the world’s best players. It gives you the opportunity to make those mental pictures that are so important for improvement.

A good mental picture is an important learning tool. You can also make your own mental pictures of yourself. If you have a big concert or audition coming up, try to picture yourself in the situation. Imagine that you are doing well in the situation. See yourself as calm, collected and prepared for success. See yourself performing well. Then see people complimenting you on a good job. This mental picture will help you perform with more confidence. A word of warning: A good mental picture will not take the place of practicing or preparation. There is no substitute for doing your homework. Think of developing positive mental pictures as just one part of your homework.

One of my students brought an album to his lesson. He wanted to know what the drummer was playing on a blues shuffle. The shuffle pattern the drummer was playing was relatively simple but very effective. I showed the student the pattern and he said, “Is that all? It sounded like much more!” It sounded like more because of the total musical effect. The drum part was not complicated but it was appropriate. “Seeing it” made it much more understandable to the student.

This is why it is important to get out and “see” good drummers. Records are a great help and great to practice with. However, seeing and hearing at the same time is really the best of both worlds. If you can see and hear, the images stay with you much longer. By remembering and rerunning these images and pictures, you reinforce them again and again. In this way, they can become a source of inspiration for years to come and that you can draw upon any time.

I was fortunate enough to see some of the late greats play in person: Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Zutty Singleton, Philly Joe Jones, Geroge Wettling and many others. I still carry my mental pictures of these great drummers next to my heart. Because of this, these great drummers are always with me.

Make some of your own mental pictures and make sure they are positive ones. After all, they are your pictures. What you see is often what you get.