I will never be as good of a guitar player as I am the day of an engineering test. Why? Because I’m a procrastinator. Hell, I’m procrastinating doing some things around the house this afternoon, just to write this post!. And when I procrastinated in school, my distraction of choice was playing the guitar.
So to this day, I still associate the two. Learning guitar as a hobbyist and learning electronics as a hobbyist. And my learning process for the former was strikingly similar to how people learn the latter (at least in the practical, hands-on sense). Even more similarities exist when you include institutional learning in the mix.
While this article will not be a treatise on the benefits of institutional over hobbyist learning, it will point out where weaknesses may develop and how to possibly better merge the two for an overall more well-rounded student of electronics or guitar. I also limit the focus to electronic engineering because I work on electronics personally (as opposed to the other types of engineering covered on Engineer Blogs).
I learned guitar as a hobbyist. I learned electronics in school. However, I have seen and developed upon my own electronics skills as a hobbyist. How are they similar?
- The very beginning — This stage is characterized (in my experience) by watching experts and wondering how you’ll ever do what they do. You look on in wonder as someone plays a guitar riff. You look at people like Jeri Ellsworth making a full Software Defined Radio in a few weeks and wonder how you’ll ever be able to piece it all together. Or you look at a guitarist like Trey Anastasio playing guitar riffs and are clueless as to how he’s making his instrument sound like that.
- The early stages — This is all about replicating what others have done. For electronics, this means following the directions on a kit that you might buy from Adafruit or Sparkfun. For guitar, this means guitar tabs (and yes, all of the sites that have tabs are crappy). They are text representations of the notes that people are playing, so you can quickly learn how to play something, without any clue as to why you’re playing it that way. “Day Tripper“, by The Beatles, looks something like this:
- The intermediate — This stage is characterized by repetition. You grab onto a concept and practice it over and over again in order to not have to think about it anymore. For electronics people, it might be applying Ohms Law (V = IR). For guitar people, it would be learning the different scales and chords so you can quickly recall them with muscle memory. You won’t necessarily be able to be elegant with the knowledge you contain, but you should be able to recall it quickly.
- The expert stage — This is when adaptation and experimentation really begins to take hold. Though you won’t be a master when you first begin this stage, you will be able to execute all of the necessary skillsets in order to find your own style. For an electronics person, this might being able to quickly recognize the need for an op amp in a circuit, and to know how to apply it in a non-standard way. For a guitar person, this would be playing non-standard chords and scales that add richness to the music. It is in this phase that you’ll be able to truly create something new, because the basics should come so naturally. In music, this would be a song (hopefully that is different from other songs). In electronics, this would be a novel circuit that no one has thought of or no chip vendor has a silicon solution for at the time you require it. While there are many examples of people in both fields that do not go back to school, often these experts needed to re-train themselves or break of bad habits in some way
Institutional learning is different in that it provides a lesson plan upfront. With both electronics and guitar, the lessons often focus on the building blocks first, without much regard for the context of those building blocks. You learn about something because you’re “supposed” to know it, and you’ll get to find out why it’s important once you get there.
- The very beginning — You read the beginning chapters of your books. You try to piece together why you might need what you’re looking at and are frustrated at first, wanting to be better. Like above, you may watch experts and long to be like them, but your teachers will likely discourage this at first because of your need to learn the basics.
- The early stages — This will be formulaic and simple. In electronics, you’ll jump right to the math and make sure you understand the basics of KVL and KCL without necessarily knowing why you need them. Ohm’s Law will also be an early teaching topic. In music, you’ll begin by reading music and playing single notes in a linear fashion. Learning which notes correspond to which and how you might play them on your instrument. In both, homework is the method of reinforcement and there is a definite right or wrong answer for each assigned task.
- The intermediate stages — You begin taking on more difficult tasks. In music, this means you begin learning more difficult pieces (by memorizing them) and begin learning how to sight read (playing music as soon as it’s placed in front of you). In electronics, you take on more difficult math and branch to alternative subjects that will be useful for learning overall systems; this might mean you learn the mathematics behind signals so you can understand how they travel through a circuit or how they are represented in the frequency domain.
- The expert stage — Perhaps the best example of an expert in the institutional environment is the PhD student, in both electronics and music. Throughout their education, they have begun learning the more practical side and applying the techniques as necessary (both to give context and to practice). However, the true expert in the institutional setting is one that can take abstract concepts (such as formulas or scales in music or something like electromigration in electronics, specifically chip design) and apply them to derive completely new conclusions. This is the theoretical student at their best.