It was 1985, and I sat on the wooden floor of the expansive hall with several hundred other college sophomores. We were all scouring the student catalog of class offerings, trying to sort out our schedules for the spring semester. Each time I was tempted to take a “safe” direction with course selection, my dad’s words rang in my ears: “Try it all, Susie. College is a time of great experimenting. The odd, the weird, the fun, the intriguing, the thing that you’d never think you’d like. Try it all.”
I landed on Music Appreciation 101 and read the description. We would be studying and learning in detail several pieces of classical music, not from a performing perspective, but from a deep analysis of composition, instruments, and intention of the composers.
“Well, this is certainly something I know nothing about, and it sounds intriguing,” I thought to myself. I signed up. I rounded out my schedule with social theory, literature, a course in modern art, and anthropology. I headed to the student store with the anticipation of a kid going to a candy store. I was off to shop for course books, notebooks, pens, highlighters, and other paper products.
I fell in love with my professor immediately.
His passionate love for music oozed from every pore. His entire hope for each day’s work was to intoxicate us with the same passion, reverence, and delight of classical music. I grew up listening to classical music and already did appreciate it on one level. But it wasn’t until my music professor took me under his spell that I truly understood and fell in love with the intricate puzzlery of classical composition.
As much as I enjoyed the course, learning the material was the most challenging work I had ever done. I had to learn how to hear on a completely different level. I’m much more of a visual learner by birth, and auditory processing is a distant third behind visual and kinesthetic learning strengths for me. I felt like a toddler trying to parse the difference among subtle foreign accents.
My beloved professor announced during our third week of class that the exams would involve him “dropping the needle” on a record and playing a minute or two of a symphony. Our job would be to name the composer, the work, the exact location within the piece the selection was from, the instruments involved, what came before and after, and the reasoning behind the particular composition.
We were all horrified. No small amount of panic set in. I didn’t dare look around the room and “catch” even more anxiety from my fellow classmates. I stared down at my paper and blinked.
Holly Golightly’s zone of safety was window shopping at Tiffany’s. Mine was being in the student store. Back I went. I paced the aisle’s of Tarheel regalia and student supplies in every shape, form, and color.
“How in the world am I going to learn this?” I paced some more.
I stopped in front of an entire display table of notecards. White, blank notecards. Ruled notecards. Color notecards. Notecards in spiral bound books.
“We are your breadcrumb trail to sanity,” they whispered.
I gathered up notecards, highlighters, construction paper, tape, and glue, and took my haul back to the apartment I shared with my sister. I sat in front of the stereo system in the living room and began playing the records of the pieces we were to master. I took copious notes on each section of each piece and literally mapped out each symphony on notecards. I used odd notations, funny mnemonic devices, color, and class notes to form a visual map to help my untrained ears.
I played the records over, and over, and over.
My sister sat in the dining area (where she studied) and observed the scene of borderline madness that went on for weeks. I listened, I wrote notes, I howled at the ceiling, and I listened again. I cried. I taped notecards together. I glued sections together on construction paper. I listened again.
There was a moment that felt like a divine kiss when I got it.
I remember laugh-crying when my ears awakened and shook hands with my brain. Synapses that had been stubbornly resisting connecting, leapt into each other’s arms in ways I had never experienced — in an instant. An instant that took two months to forge, but nonetheless, an instant.
I marched into the final exam with the confidence of an undefeated champion going into the ring.
The professor dropped the needle, and I watched my classmates glaze over in defeat. I put my pen onto the paper in my exam “blue book” and wrote furiously for an hour. If I could have dunked my blue book into the basket on the professor’s desk, I would have. When I received the graded blue book, I had earned an A+ — something the professor made a point of saying he had rarely given. He wrote a tome to me, praising my understanding and devotion to the subject.
While I loved the high marks, I knew the greater lesson was how I had made that material my own through a creative approach to mastery. I had found a path for learning challenging subject matter that I would employ over and over again during my college years (both as undergraduate and in my graduate studies) and then later in my professional life. I could construct new understanding by completely deconstructing the material and then, like Victor Frankenstein, put it back together using color, notes, drawings, sketches, and stories so that I could master it.
So, when I came across the story of the Japanese student who earned highest marks on his exam by creating an artistic masterpiece of a notebook comprised of notations, art, sketches, color, sticky notes, tabs, marginalia, and the like, I was completely enamored. I gasped at the intensity of his effort, the cleverness, the complete consumption of the material. The student made that material entirely his own through ingenious, determined, creative mastery.
There is no shortage of research that points to the power of writing notes to help cement information in your brain. It is clear writing notes will take you to one level of learning and understanding. But when you tear apart, break down, reconstruct, and shape the information in a uniquely creative fashion, one ascends to a new height of subject mastery that is unsurpassed and indelible.