This is the fifth, and last, in a special series of episodes on how to tackle the biggest sticking points in your music learning. We recently surveyed our audience to learn about their experiences with music practice. The results were astounding! Across several hundred responses, we found a handful of really common and painfully frustrating practice issues – including, “How can I know what to practice?”
To answer these big burning questions, we invited Gregg Goodhart, The Learning Coach, back on the show. Gregg is a leading expert on how to apply all of the latest scientific research and understanding of how the brain learns to skill acquisition, including in music.
Learn what to focus your music practice on in this episode.
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Christopher: And one of the things that really came out in the survey was overwhelm. And in the age of the internet more than any other time I’m sure, we feel like there are 17 different things we should be working on, and we should do our scales and arpeggios and our fingering and this passage, and we should prepare for that recital, and we should make sure we do a bit of this and a bit of that.
Christopher: And people are asking again and again, how can I know what to practice? If I’m going to set aside this time and I’m going to give it my goal, should I be doing four things in each session? Three things? Is it better to just work on repertoire for a month? And endless options and combinations. How can they know, how can we all know, how best to spend our practice time?
Gregg: Well, I always call it meeting the student where they’re at. For instance, I use an example. If you write on the board, “To be or not to be.”, and you say, “That’s Shakespeare, and the student looks at the board. “Okay, have you ever heard of Shakespeare?” “No.” “Okay. Can you read this sentence?” “No.” “Okay. Do you know what words are?” “No.” “Okay. Do you know the alphabet?” “Yes.” It’s time to make sure you know the alphabet and start learning how to form words. Stop trying to read Shakespeare.
Gregg: And the thing, and then I know the reaction to that is, “Great, you’re going to tell me I have to do stuff, little teeny things I don’t like so that in a year, maybe, I can play a song.” No. What actually happens is what’s keeping you from playing the songs you want are all the little teeny things that aren’t working for you. When you start taking care of one of them, you will immediately get better at everything you play. So I used to really drill down with kids, “Where’s your finger going? Check that.”, and there’s a process of deliberate practice, which is this plan, do, reflect thing where you reflect every time. How much do we reflect when we’re practicing? Do we really pay attention to where the finger is? Or do we just accept that the sound is good enough to approximate the song and move on. So that’s what’s going on.
Gregg: So what you want to fill your practice with, especially if you’re if you’re trying to build practice time, just a little bit of time working on one or two small technical things. If you’ll do this for about 10 minutes a day for about five days the results will be so significant and your playing will improve so much. No, you will not become a virtuoso in five days, but what will happen is these start to get out of the way between your brain, your heart, and your instrument. I don’t like these, they are my enemy. I’ve fought with them all my life, because I want them to do things that my brain and heart want to come out of the instrument.
Christopher: I’m sorry, Gregg. For the benefit of our audio listeners, I should mention your wiggling your fingers there.
Gregg: These, my hands, I’m sorry. And when you start working on the smallest areas that you think are meaningless, but let’s face it, you know they’re not because your fingers aren’t going where you want them to go, right? So doesn’t it make sense to start training the fine motor skills? When you start to do that, the fingers start to move out of the way, the hands start to move out of the way of your intentions, and they obey your intentions instead of resist them.
Gregg: When that starts to happen, even in the smallest areas, things that you’ve been working on for a long time, I’m not saying you’ll perfect them but they will get much better. And that’s where the whole idea of actually achieving things, creating motivation, when that starts to happen in the smallest way, and I can pretty much guarantee these type of results, if you do it correctly with 10 minutes a day, five days a week.
Gregg: No, you’re not gonna become a virtuoso doing that for years, but that will create the foundation from which you can play things you couldn’t play before, and will create massive motivation. So let’s face it, folks, you’re not motivated because you’re not getting what you want. As soon as you start to get what you want, the motivation will go through the roof. And if you start to get 10 times more, not than you want, but that you thought you could ever do, oh my gosh, you’ll have a hard time staying in bed in the morning.
Gregg: And I had this experience when I figured this out. It was a summer and I didn’t have to be at class or work or anything. And I was trying to sleep in in the morning when I started figuring this out and I couldn’t stay in bed because I would be thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m probably a half hour away from finishing this section.”, and I would have to pull myself out of bed to go do it. And that’s how much enthusiasm. And I’ve been through this, even though I have music degrees, I’ve been through this the play and pray not knowing, and boy, when that happened, I was surprised when I couldn’t sleep more when I wanted to, and forced myself out of bed. And that’s how much motivation it provides.
Christopher: Amazing. I’m sure that sounds like a dream come true for a lot of people who are grinding away at that practice, to genuinely feel like that enthusiasm to get back to their instrument on a consistent basis over time. And I want to just underscore something there, because based on everything that was said in the survey, I know a lot of people will have been expecting the answer to that question to sound something like, “Well, spend 10 minutes on scales, and then you must make sure you do bars one through 10 of each of your three pieces, and then you must do this other thing.”, because that’s so much of what we hear. When we have a good teacher they tell us what to practice and it sounds like that minute-by-minute schedule a lot of the time, but your answer wasn’t prescriptive in that way. It was much more generalizable and personalizable than that, I think.
Gregg: Going down to the very basics. What is it your fingers are doing that you don’t want them to do. If every time I go to play a scale passage, several of the notes are muted, then let’s work on that, whatever it is. In fact, if you’re studying with a private teacher of your instrument, my advice would be just go ask them, you said, “I will do anything you want and I don’t care about playing music or anything. What two things would you like me to work on?”, I can almost imagine, “Well, your finger placements a little bit off. We’ve been talking about it every week, but I let it go because you want to play entire songs because you think that that’s the more motivation. Okay, let’s work just on your finger placement for five minutes.
Gregg: And you know what? The way you’re holding the pick or the bow. You have to change your pinky here and you’re not doing that because to do that would take away from learning the whole song, which you’re not learning. So if you fix those two little things, then you can learn the song more easy.” So it’s prescriptive in that you want to break it down to something that you’d like to do a little bit better. But no, it’s not like one of those, you have to play scales for this amount of time and arpeggios for that amount of time.
Christopher: And I think, again, that’s quite liberating, right? Because if you were given that recipe, as it were, you’re always going to be second guessing it a bit and wondering, should I adjust this or do that? Whereas taking this problem solving mentality to it, I think makes everything approachable and you realize it doesn’t really matter if you do it this way or that way or focus more on this this week, and so on.
Gregg: It makes it so simple. That’s the thing, make it simple. And if you think about it, the brain cannot multitask. If anyone thinks they can, read the research on this, I’m not going to go into it, but the brain can’t multitask. And if we’re trying to learn a song before we’ve developed five or 10 skills that we need to do the song, the song isn’t going to happen.
Gregg: So the idea that we just take care of one problem at a time is simple. How hard it is to play an entire song, how easy it is to just check that my finger is in the right place? And then another one, just check my finger is in the right place. Before you know it that five minutes has melted off the clock, because you will be involved in flow, constant problem solving. Before you know it, the timer goes off and the 10 minutes are up.
Gregg: Before you know it five days are up and everything is working better, and now you’re sold on this idea. But to piggyback on what you were saying, it’s incredibly simple to do and it’s not that hard to get going. It will become harder when your motivation is so massive that you want to do two hours a day and hit five different areas. That’s great. We can build up to that.
Gregg: It’s always simple though. It’s always about solving whatever the problem is. And you just drill down until you find what the problem is, and then you build up from there. And once you learn and you say, “Well geez, I don’t know. I don’t know everything about my instrument.” Well, you can get that. That type of instruction is out there. It’s how you go about doing it.
Gregg: And you’ll figure it out on your own, “This doesn’t work, I’ll work on just that. That doesn’t work. I’ll work on just that.” And it’s how you work on it. Pay attention to the small details, you will become engrossed in that because there will always be a question-answer going on in your mind. Before you know it, five days is up, and you’re a lot more motivated because you’re getting results.
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