Music teachers need to adopt informal learning strategies, says award-winning researcher

It took a tin whistle given to her by her mother, 25 years of practice and a lot of time surfing the internet to teach Janice Waldron that there might be more than one way to teach a student how to play a musical instrument.

A classically trained saxophonist who teaches in the School of Music, Dr. Waldron was still living in her hometown of Houston, Texas, when her mother returned from a vacation in Ireland and brought her as a souvenir a tin whistle of the variety used in Celtic music. She figured it would be a cinch to learn to play.

“I figured I’d conquer it in a week,” she said.

She managed to find a book on the whistle, but due to a dearth of Celtic players in Houston at the time, she couldn’t rely on the informal methods — listening, observing and playing with other folk musicians — that more accomplished players had used for generations to learn how to master their instruments.

It took her years of immersing herself in those informal methods to improve her playing and now she can only imagine what it would have been like if the internet was available to her while she was still learning.

Besides playing and teaching, Waldron spends a considerable amount of time these days researching how aspiring musicians use on-line resources to learn how to play their instruments. Two recently published journal articles in particular focus on a web site called and some of the 51,000 members who use its videos, tablature lessons, forums, reviews and other resources to learn how to play Old Time and Bluegrass music.

After several weeks of “lurking” on the site, Waldron contacted its web master and then conducted interviews with some of its users to learn more about how their on-line experiences enhanced their off-line playing ability.

Waldron, who was recognized as an emerging scholar at last week’s Celebration of Excellence in Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity, says it’s time for musical academics to realize that students learn a great deal about playing through informal methods and to embrace the abundance of on-line resources that are available to them.

“It’s time for music educators to begin taking on-line learning methods as serious forms of pedagogy,” she said. “We know that people learn in these ways and we need to incorporate informal methods into the classroom or we risk becoming irrelevant.”

Waldron will discuss her findings today at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs on the station every Thursday.