Effective Practice: Lessons from Neuroscience and Psychology, with Gregg Goodhart

Innovative music educator Gregg Goodhart eschews the idea of “natural talent”; instead, he believes that passion and hard work are at the root of musical learning. Armed with this knowledge and a background in neuroscience and psychology, Gregg has developed a pragmatic teaching method that emphasizes acquiring talent by repetition and making good use of practice time.

Last time we talked with Gregg, he shared new paradigms for learning, competence, and talent. This time we asked him about how to actually acquire talent, the smart way to practice, the neuroscience behind repetition in learning music, and the secret to effective music learning.

Q: How can someone choose to be gifted? Do you feel that anyone can be successful musically?

This is a very complex answer. So, let me explain it like this: developing high-efficiency skill development or learning is like developing instrumental skills. It takes a lot of time, repetition, and mistakes, and you usually need to get coaching to do it well. A few figure out how this process works, and can coach themselves. However, even the “independent” learners may have someone walking them through this learning process; someone to teach them to teach themselves.

These students make radically better progress than their peers week-to-week. It is this very few we call “talented”. By putting these things to work early on, we can begin to develop and refine skill development the same way one develops instrumental skill, and we participate in “acquiring talent”. It’s pretty cool.

Beyond the basic ability to operate the instrument, there are many psychological factors that get in the way of learning, and you have to understand this to coach yourself, or a student, through it. If you’re curious about it, the free material on my website can give you plenty of information on the subject.

Q: Tell me about it! I experience those psychological factors first-hand, but often don’t know how to handle them. I know that one “way out” of that mess is deliberate practice. Can you please more about what “deliberate practice” is, and what its benefits are?

Since we are talking about music, let’s use the repetition process as an example. We know we need to repeat small bits of music to be able to play a piece fully.

Here is a diagram I use to explain how the repetition process should work:

This should occur for every repetition. How often your practice time looks like this is directly correlated with how good you will get. Now, how rarely do you think practice looks like this?

Probably about as rare as the occurrence of “talented” individuals.

For instance, what if every college music student entering a program had to take a course called “The Art and Science of Learning Music”, in which they are taught the skills of efficient practicing, and the repetitive, varied, reflective way learning works over time?

In the same vein, I do something called Practice Coaching by Skype for eight-week sessions. These are essentially one-on-one lessons on developing highly skilled practice habits, and they’re open to students of all levels. We address everything from how to start practicing more to how to train your brain to improve the way you practice. Here is a before-and-after from a pre-college student at the top music education college in America:

Here is a student before the eight weeks, not bad…

…And at her first prize-winning performance, eight weeks later!

Q: That’s amazing, Gregg. What sort of practice regimen do you feel is most effective for musicians?

Be curious about your practice, and your regimen will take care of itself.

This question has as complex an answer as, “How do I get good at the violin”, but here are a few quick tips:

If you want to practice 30 minutes more per day, don’t jump in whole hog with the full half hour. Start with 5-10 minutes and stop without guilt. Then, after two weeks, increase the time a little every week or two until you hit your desired practice time.

Making a little tweak, like recognizing we need to build a habit pattern for getting started, can be a game changer.

During that short practice time, be extremely focused on improving one or a few small things, over and over, constantly adjusting. Your teacher should be able to walk you through this. You will notice improvement in certain areas in the first week, and that will create more motivation.

There is far too much to answer here, but I have a free 34-page PDF with in-depth answers to developing practice regimens students and teachers. The section on “Habit Pattern Development” goes into some detail about building practice.

Q: So starting small, building up in increments, and continued repetition is a good approach. For those wondering about the science behind this method, what are the neurobiological changes that occur after many repetitions and much time spent practicing?

Everything we do or think is actually groups of neurons (brain cells) communicating with other neurons.

So, the first thing we have to do to learn a new skill is build a neural network. That is, we create connections between neurons.

During this process, the neo-cortex of the brain is lit up like a Christmas tree. We are in a state of confusion, trying to figure out where the network should be built. As we push through this initial confusion (an integral part of learning, not an indication of lack of ability), areas of the brain drop out of the action, and the skill becomes represented by a very small area. Researchers call this a process efficiency change. You have just built a connection in your brain that was not there before (i.e., you have learned the basics of a new skill!).

Q: How exactly does this “connection” get made?

Neurons communicate by sending electrochemical impulses (called action potentials) down a tube called an axon, across a gap called a synapse into another neuron. The axons in this newly formed network are uninsulated, and the action potential leaks out and travels slowly.

Attached to axons are cells called oligodendrocytes that produce an insulating substance called myelin. So, each time you do a repetition of, say, a short melody, if fires off an action potential that triggers the production of a little bit of myelin which insulates the axon so that the signal can stay strong and travel faster.

So is there anything you would like to be able to do stronger and faster on your instrument?

If you practice it even a little bit incorrectly, you are myelinating the wrong axons. Do you see why slowly and accurately works, and why the method many use – trying to play fast – does not work?

It takes a lot of wraps of myelin over a long period of time to get super fast and accurate. Therefore, working on something and getting it right once does not work. This process of myelination needs thousands of repetitions in the developmental stage. And no matter how talented they seem, students are in the developmental stage for years.

There is a lot more to this from cognitive psychology such as varied repetition and interleaving, as well.

Q: How can teachers use this information to help teach students how to learn?

Gregg Goodhart, The Learning CoachAny good music teacher already knows much of what I’ve talked about here. What is new are the terms and concepts from cognitive and behavioral neuroscience and psychology, and how they fit together as part of a larger model. This information is powerful.

My advice for teachers: be curious and learn how to read the research. Be suspicious and don’t accept any idea without investigating it. I wrote a blog post for teachers about this.

Understand, like you want your students to understand as they progress, that it will never occur as quickly as you would like and that it will take experimentation and some failure, returning to old “failed” ideas, and small victories. The good news: if it is done right, there will be a steady improvement along the way that is always satisfying.

Q: Terrific, Gregg. Tell us more about your workshops and presentations about improving the teaching/learning/practice of both teachers and students.

I’ve done everything from one-hour presentations to 10-day residencies at both the college and pre-college levels, including educating teachers of all academic subjects and coaches, based on my findings.

We do private practice consultations in which teachers can observe as we break down student practice methods, as well as refine and strengthen them. There may be days of workshops on how to use visualization to eliminate performance anxiety, large overview lectures for the community, and advice for professional development for academics.

I’ve developed a unique eight-week cycle of hourlong coaching sessions by Skype between lessons I call Practice Coaching. It is like rocket fuel for getting to a new level in one’s playing. More info can be found at Feel The Blearn.

Another thing I do is called a Practiclass – a masterclass for practicing. We take those few sections that never seem to be playable during performance and lessons, and fix them in 30 minutes or less. While we do this, I teach the audience the relevant neurological and psychological areas at work, and how they can use this knowledge in their teaching and practice.

Here is me doing one at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University (this student is pretty advanced, but it works with all levels):

I also employed the Practiclass method while working with a pianist on Beethoven at the Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts:

Both of these followed a detailed lecture to the group of teachers and students present. The feedback for these classes has been overwhelmingly positive, with young students and professors alike praising the lectures.

Thanks so much, Gregg! Your clear-cut approach to practicing music is certainly very encouraging, placing musicians right in the driver’s seat regarding their musical progress. It’s clear that your research into how psychology and neuroscience concepts can be applied to music practice has really changed the way your students view learning.

Practice Smarter, Not Harder

With the way our brains are wired, it’s important that we recognize that there’s a right way and a wrong way to practice. Shortcuts may save you time in the moment, but will prove to impede your musical progress further down the road!

And remember: this thing we call “talent” is really just a cocktail of hard work, self-reflection, planning, and good practice habits. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from mastering that difficult piece of music if you’re willing to practice, the right way.

Are you ready to find out how modern neuroscience and psychology can make you a better, more satisfied musician? Visit Gregg’s website to check out his writing on music learning, learn more about his teaching methods, and find out about his upcoming talks and workshops.



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