The Inver Hills class that ditches fancy learning methods


After reading repeated articles about the newest, most efficient high-tech ways to learn, it’s almost startling to hear Inver Hills music instructor Andrew Martin tell me:

We don’t take notes. We don’t read music. We learn by rote memorization.


I’m in his class, where students learn how to play Trinidadian steel drums.

After just eight weeks, the students — many of whom are rank beginners — performed for me a full song despite having instruments that aren’t in the usual range that most American students grow up with.

So why the memorization?

Martin tells me:

“First, it’s part of the tradition of the Caribean and West Africa. Traditionaly, in Trinidad, where the drums come from, there’s no notation. And here, most of my students don’t read music. I get a fresh set each semester, so I don’t have the time to mess around learning notes. And the rhythms can’t really be reproduced in Western notation.”

And it enables those without experience to join in.

It’s tough, though. Martin may ask the students to repeat a piece of music they haven’t played in a couple of weeks. Without notes, that might be tough. It’s a test that requires “a depth of learning” not found in many other classes. Martin said it’s like learning a foreign language on the streets: You immerse yourself, listen to sounds and repeat.

Aram Ghomi, a 19-year-old who’s studying social work and wants to become a lawyer, tells me:

“You have to rely on memory — totally. But the music gets stuck in your head.”

Indeed, listening to Martin put his students through their paces, he emphasizes feeling — and the group dynamic — more than anything else. He tells one student:

“Don’t think too much about it. … Don’t focus so much on what you’re playing. Focus on what the group is playing.”