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Top Down and Bottom Up

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Top Down and Bottom Up refers to two approaches to learning. They apply, I think, to the learning of any relatively complex subject. People learn using a combination of these two approaches - some may learn more through Top Down, others through Bottom Up - most people learn using both in tandem.

Take an example. If you discover that you want to learn a musical instrument it's probable that this is because you've come across some use for it that is inspiring to you. The isn't necessarily the case - you might like the look of it without having heard it or any examples of it - but there's probably going to be an element of direct experience. This, I would call Top Down learning. You might want to learn the guitar - so you listen to lots of recordings of guitar playing and attempt to reconstruct it on your own instrument. This is great, but if you've only just started to learn, you might not be able to do anything too complex too quickly.

Rather than get frustrated, you might choose to tackle something a little less complex, maybe even getting a book on basic technique - A Tune a Day, Book 1, for instance. This is Bottom Up learning - when you learn and practice basic techniques. Unfortunately, in order to learn this way, you are not going to be dealing with anything particularly interesting or expressive.

In order to overcome this, you might, every now and then, find yourself trying that difficult, but oh, so atmospheric solo you liked to begin with. You're back with Top Down.

The point to bear in mind is that with any complex subject, you can't learn everything about it immediately, or in any method predefined by someone else. You must find your own way through. A piano teacher of mine eased my mind considerably when she told me that she would not be making me practice scales. She reckoned that one should learn scales as they came up in the repertoire. This is the case with most studies. We learn more complex practices as they become necessary to us, depending on what we want to do or express. In this way, you will learn most by switching between the two extremes of Top Down and Bottom Up.




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