QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
This seems like a no-brainer.
It is a long-standing theory that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Well, that is kind of true.
A popular misconception is that if a person sets their brain to autopilot and mindlessly puts in countless hours, they will eventually be touched by the music gods. BOOM, they are an expert!
This is not the case. Research now tells us that while improvement does take time, it is HOW a person practices, NOT HOW MUCH.
This is good news for those who have other commitments but still want to make music a part of our daily lives. We can achieve a high level of musical expertise with focus and intentional practice habits.
Smaller Ideas, Superior Sound, Better Than Last Time
The best way to practice is to play smaller musical ideas correctly and more often – a lot more often.
Musicians form a musical intention before they play (e.g., “I want it to sound like this…”). They play it and then reflect on what they produced. Did their musical outcome match the intention? No? If not, what specifically went wrong? What, exactly, are you going to do the next time to make your music better?
Be concrete. Each time you play, take the time to reflect on what you did and what, if anything, needs to change.
This is quite different from how most people practice. They play. They kind of get it right, so they do it again, again, and again. These people play on autopilot and believe something will change automatically, but what happens is that each wrong repetition helps them learn the bad thing.
Even experts mess up ALL the time, but experts learn to adjust quickly. They tell themselves, “That was not how I wanted it to go. I am going do it again, and I’m going change this certain thing about the music.” They do it again, each time a little bit differently. They refine tone, dynamics, phrasing, pitches, tempo, etc. And they keep playing until their outcome matches their intention. This is what changes behavior.
This is how experts develop expertise on any instrument or in any subject. They repeatedly perform small tasks with superior-level skills. So, don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can accomplish something incorrectly for 10,000 hours and still become an expert. You’re just going to end up a hot mess.
JOY… IT’S NOT AN EMOTION
Joy is not an emotion. Pleasure is an emotion, a temporary one at that. Joy is a state that comes from deep within you when you are engaged in something meaningful. When you’re a part of that, you experience Joy.
Here’s the kicker, you don’t have to be an expert at something to experience joy. You only need to be a part of it.
I want to talk about the joy of learning music.
When you open a book about learning music, the author usually speaks about all the technical and theoretical steps you must know. Then, on the last page, the author says something like, “Oh, yeah, by the way, have fun with it.”
I’m here to tell you that the joy of learning music always comes before you achieve expertise. You must stick with it to become an expert, and you must have fun sticking with it.
Fall in love with the idea of experimenting, learning, fixing mistakes, and constantly feeling as though you don’t know what you’re doing until you achieve your goals. That’s joy. You can experience the pleasure now or after 30 years of playing. It never stops feeling right.
Pick anybody that’s ever done anything remarkable in the history of human beings.
Consider the inventors of the light bulb, the airplane, or anything significant. Those folks did not entirely know what they were doing at first. They were having fun from the very start and were motivated by the idea that they believed was possible, and they had an end in mind. They experienced joy from day one and were driven not just by repeated failures but by repeatedly correcting each slight discrepancy until their outcome matched their goals.
Even experts make several mistakes, but they can correct their errors and move forward.
SHARING MUSIC WITH OTHERS
Expert musicians approach all pieces with a high level of joy musicality. But they also have the intention of sharing music with others. That is how music is intended.
Find a church band or choir or start a rock band. Even if you’re in your 40’s or 50’s, grab your instrument and show up somewhere. You can’t spend all of your time learning new things. You need to share music with others to experience the true nature of music. Grab your instrument and show up somewhere.
Find a community of like-minded music lovers and be a part of their group. You will immediately feel your value as a musician.
Music is a language. It conveys ideas and meaning to other people using sound.
Every genre, style, and culture worldwide uses music as a mode of communication that conveys feeling and emotion. The human condition is expressed more thoroughly and deeply through music than through words. Why else would we make music?
Music is a fundamental explanation of human existence through creative expression. That is the “True North” of music-making. To ignore it instead of accelerated skill development or theoretical knowledge is to ignore the purpose of music altogether.
So, what happens when people want to learn music? They get so bombarded with music fundamentals like knowing the names of notes or chords that they lose sight of the true meaning of music.
As a music teacher of 15 years, I’ve learned to utilize expressiveness to build technique and theory. We need to know to practice and perform with multiple musical dynamics to convey meaning every time we pick up our instrument throughout the learning process.
Let’s consider the performances of the works of William Shakespeare. You have a character who enters the stage, says his lines, and DIES. Or, if he’s lucky, he exits the stage.
None of that has to do with acting. None of that is art.
Shakespeare gives us the character and the plot. Still, the acting, the ART, the suspension of disbelief is accomplished by the actor’s interpretation, movement, facial expressions, tone of voice, and creativity. None of that is written in the script, but it IS the most essential part of acting.
It’s the same with music.
If you think you want to learn an instrument, that’s what you should focus on. Making great sounds that move your listener in some way. Play for people. Make your music sound cool to your listeners.
Don’t play for your music teacher. Play for your friends, family, and coworkers. Human beings are all expert listeners. Can you give someone goosebumps? Make them cry? Relax them? Make them feel something through music?
I remember meeting a famous piano player. I asked her, “How long do you practice every day?” She replied, “At least 20 minutes every day. How about you?” I said, “Uh…like three to four hours.” She said, “Wow, that’s WAY too much.”
There are several reasons why longer practice sessions are more detrimental than helpful.
Our bodies can’t physically handle long practice sessions. Several world-class musicians’ careers have been cut short because of the wear-and-tear of over-practicing. It leads to injuries to the hands, fingers, wrist, and voice. That’s why you must be very deliberate and precise about your practice habits.
Short little bursts with very intentional musical ideas every day.
The second reason practice sessions should be shorter and more deliberate is that your brain can’t maintain that high level of cognition for long hours.
Suppose I asked you to work on the following math problem:
9876 x 1234 =???
Your brain would immediately shift into a different cognitive state because the cognitive demands being placed on you are more intense. There is a lot of incredible research that measures the biofeedback of people when they are given a demanding cognitive task. Although the above math problem is likely within your skillset to solve, your pupils would dilate, and your heart rate would rise because you are being challenged.
By the way, the answer is 12,186,984.
The same holds true with music.
That’s why you can’t practice for hours on end. Even if you are lucky enough to handle the physical demands, your brain can’t stay engaged at such high levels for hours.
So, you must practice in a way that challenges your brain for a short period but with maximum benefits.
Try one or two 20-minute sessions every day, with the intentional goal that the second session will be a little better than the first. Ask yourself: Did your outcome match your intention? If not, try to fix it and move on. Twenty minutes a session, 1-2 times a day, depending on what you want.
Nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever done, nothing is ever perfect. You just keep making better music every time. That’s is a GREAT thing.
People have asked me, “How do I become a better player?”
You need to know what’s on the other side of your instrument. I like to record myself and my students playing.
If you’re playing an instrument or singing, it sounds different to you as the performer than it does as a listener. This is because human beings cannot pay attention to two things at once.
A few months ago, I was driving through a bad rainstorm. It began to rain so badly that I turned the radio down. Why? Because driving a car under ideal circumstances takes minimal cognitive effort (habituation). But going in inclement weather demands my full attention. I could not move and listen at the same time. Too many stimuli.
Most human beings cannot focus on two things simultaneously; their attention oscillates very quickly between competing stimuli.
When you are playing, at least during the learning process, you pay great attention to what you are doing while listening when you can. As you get better at playing, your attention goes from a 100% physical aspect of making music to a deeper listener.
Instead of focusing on doing and occasionally listening, Become a deeper listener early on in the learning process. This will raise your awareness. You will give yourself feedback while your attention is focused on your musical product, not the physical demands of playing your instrument.
Use your device or computer to record yourself often. You won’t be selling these recordings. They just need to be of high enough quality to give you a good understanding of the sound that you’re producing on your instrument. So, record yourself every day.
CHUNKING AND CHAINING
When practicing, don’t start your song from the beginning every time. What ends up happening is that you’ll learn the beginning of the song really well, but as the song progresses, it becomes evident to listeners that the rest of the piece hasn’t been practiced as much as the beginning.
That’s because every time you sat down to practice, whenever you messed up, you went back to the beginning and did it again.
The beginning ends up getting practiced on every attempt, but the rest of the song might not get played at all.
Break the piece of music into logical ideas, phrases, sections, variations, etc. This is called chunking. It allows you to start at different points within the song during each practice session and learn the middle and end just as much as the beginning.
Chaining refers to the process of putting all the chunks together in order and memorizing the piece. You are linking all the fragments together in a chain. It’s a problem if you try to start with chaining.
Don’t do that. Instead, break the music into chunks, practice each piece, then put them all together. Section things off, then work on each section for short periods of around 20-30 minutes each.
This is how you learn, whether you’re new to music or an expert, a student in school, or an aspiring musician. You know by having fun playing music with focused, intentional practice and sharing it with others. That is the goal.
I hope this report is beneficial for you. I want to drive home this idea that the true purpose of music is to be shared with others.