Book review: Talent is Overrated

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I recently finished reading a book by Geoff Colvin that tried to explain what enables someone to become world class in their field, whether it be music, business or sport. Written by Geoff Colvin, I was initially put off by a quote from Donald Trump on the front cover! Seeing beyond this, what followed was an interesting take on how to excel on your instrument. Looking  at successful people from all areas of society, the main premise was that talent wasn’t the factor, but that hard work was the key to achieving in any field.  With studies in relation to musicians it was how much they practiced, with examples from studies on how on average it took twelve hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5.

Colvin dispels the idea that factors we can’t change determine our ability or future ability in a domain. Whether it be genetic or our memory or IQ, he argues that people are not born with a gift, that it is instead hard work and practicing in the correct way that results in high levels of performance.

In relation to music this raises the question of if you are going to work really hard at practicing, what do you practice and how do you approach it? This is where deliberate practice comes in, the idea of tailoring your practice routine to your specific needs. This could be as simple as a guitar player being aware that they struggle with playing in time and that they then devise a specific plan of exercises to work improve this element of their musicianship. This goes back to something I blogged about last year; focussing on your mistakes and practicing what you are weak at, rather than doing more of what you can already do. Colvin summed up deliberate practice as:

‘Deliberate practice is characterised by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it is highly demanding mentally…and it isn’t much fun’

Whether it is fun is open to debate! I find repetitive practice fun and always vary how I practice things to ensure this. For me the most important aspect is how specific a practice session is at addressing a player’s areas for improvement.  He goes on to add how the greatest performers are able to ‘isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s onto the next aspect’.  In relation to the guitar this could be something as small as how you hold your plectrum, how you fret notes that cross strings or how you pick scales. Once an area is identified it then comes down to a lot of repetition with a specific focus on those weaknesses. This is only useful if you are observing what you are doing, rather than just merely repeating something.  Recording yourself or asking for your teacher’s or another musician’s opinion could help here.  Mindless repetition isn’t what we’re after, the deliberate element of the practice is focusing on specific ways of doing something. This kind of practice requires a tremendous amount of concentration. Colvin found that top violinists could only sustain 3.5 hrs a day of this kind of practice. With the guitar, muscle memory is a blessing and pain, it can lead us into mindless practice and repetition of an exercise.

Colvin goes onto add that ‘ultimately the performance is always conscious and controlled, not automatic’. This is where the word deliberate is important, mindless repetition isn’t guaranteed to help, as you might be repeating something incorrectly! Instead, repetition should be done with constant adjustments and feedback to yourself on the technique/ passage you are trying to learn. With music this might be something physical like the angle of your wrist, or the timing or a new technique. Recording yourself or filming yourself practicing could be a good option here. Colvin argues that those that go onto perform at exception levels have a a stronger sense of perception and make finer discriminations to improve on the finer details. This a presumably a result of habitually practicing in this way.

How could you employ deliberate practice?

  • Identify practice goals (this could be improving specific weaknesses or an achievement like a grade or performance).
  • Work these goals backwards e.g. what practice activities will you need to achieve them?
  • Work on what you can’t do. Practice things in different ways.
  • Practice consciously, giving yourself constant feedback/ self observation(try not to let the feedback be overly positive or negative, instead, be objective/factual)
  • Continue to develop your knowledge of the instrument (this could be harmony, repertoire/ listening/watching other guitar players).
  • Remember that any top players within the field will have put in the same kind of hard work that you’re going to have to do.

Overall, I agree with Colvin’s stance on practice, it is comforting for a beginner to know that sheer hard work and will power can put them on the right track to being accomplished at their instrument.  This one quote really stood out to me:

Auer: ‘Pracitice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in one and a half hours’.

This links back to the argument of quality over quantity. For me practicing with a high level of conscious self observation/feedback is essential.  Is it time to spring clean your practice routine?  I better get back to my own practice…..

 

The paradox of successful practice

‘There is one common theme..that underpins success of all kinds; the capacity to learn from our mistakes’  (Matthew Syed)

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In last weekend’s paper there was an interesting article by Matthew Syed, a former table tennis champion turned journalist on what makes people successful in whatever they do. It naturally made me think of the guitar and the art of successful practice.  Whilst practicing it can be incredibly frustrating making mistake after mistake and often it’s easier to simply move onto something you are comfortable with playing. Being able to learn from your mistakes will ultimately lead to an improvement in technique and ability, but one thing will often prevent people from doing so ; their mindset. In his article, Matthew discussed his own battle with success and society – in particular aviation and the mistakes that led to progress (after some disasters)! The point that stood out for me is the idea that the ‘paradox of success is that it is built upon failure’. This could be regarded an obvious statement, but how many of us confront this and treat failure as a necessary step to progressing on our instruments?

For a long time I don’t think I every really thought how i actually felt/thought about practicing, it was just something I did.  Perhaps that is due to when being younger, failure isn’t such a worry. Whilst teaching and through my own practice I think the following points can help you in your pursuit of the best mindset for approaching practice and maximising the potential of your mistakes:

  1. Ditch negative self talk for logical problem solving: Instead of listening to the voice that says negative things like: ‘why do I bother with this?’, ‘why can’t I do this?’, treat each mistake as an opportunity to problem solve.  Your instrument is simply providing you with some information that something needs either slowing down or revising the way you play it. Logically, analyse what you are doing eg. the right hand, the left hand fingering, is the technique required not fully developed?, are you going to quickly? do you need to look back at the music? or is it a case of poor memory of material?
  2.  Embrace your mistake; Isolate, slow down and repeat: If there is a problem passage and it can be easy to think, ‘oh it should get better the more I play it’ or ‘I can do most of it and get away with that one bar not being quite right’.  What you want to do instead is deliberately focus on your mistake, use step 1 and then slow it right down to a snail’s pace. From your problem solving, focus on the element(s) that are causing you to make a mistake. It is then a case of gradually building up the tempo, perhaps with a metronome. The gradual increase in speed is essential, if you ramp up the speed too quickly you will go back to making mistakes. Slowing down is one of the most vital strategies of a practicing musician. Ignore the final tempo of the piece, yes that is your ultimate goal, but it won’t always happen as quickly as you’d like. The isolation could be of two bars or maybe even four notes! At this point you have to consider how you will practice the material effectively.
  3. Visualise: visualisation is a technique often used by athletes, but I’ve found it to be appropriate to the world of music. This can work in two ways with mistakes. Firstly, imagine how you would feel when you can it play it perfectly, use that feeling to fuel your motivation to practice and take your mistakes for what they are; information to inform practice.  Secondly, imagine playing the section perfectly, imagine this in detail, how relaxed your right wrist is, how the notes are played effortlessly and most importantly, how it sounds. This will act as positive reinforcement.

Tackling your mistakes will help you overcome any problems you face on your instrument. However, sometimes you may have to accept that a piece is perhaps too challenging for you currently and again, treat this as information to inform what you practice. For example, a song might expose your technical deficiency in playing triplets or hammer ons. In this instance it might be better to work on those aspects in isolation before returning to the piece. Overall, analyse what you do  with an inquiring rather than negative/judgemental mindset.  Remember that any of your favourite guitarists will have made countless mistakes before, don’t ignore them, welcome them and then determine what area of your playing you need to work on. I think we all know deep down that success is built on failure, it’s just that sometimes we don’t want to face it or it is simply nicer on the ego to play something we know and can play flawlessly.

Tip 3: Practice in short bursts

There is a longstanding image of budding guitar players working away for hours on end to master their instrument. Hiding from the outside world and playing for maybe 7 or 8 hours straight. Is this an effective way to practice? If the guitarist has thought out what they’re going to work on and allowed time for breaks then yes. There is no magic answer to how to practice, I say you should go for what works for you and try  and take ideas from how players you admire practice. The main thing I’ve learnt is that it is better to work on something for a maximum of 20 minutes and to then have a break.  If you have an hour or half an hour a day to practice then try and break it down into chunks. It could be something like this:

0-5 min Warm-up

05-20 min Scales/arpeggios

20-40 min Song that you’re working on

40- 60 min Improvising

What’s important is that before you even strum a chord or play a note, you know how you’re going to use your practice time. It’s far too easy to waste time playing something you know inside out!  Next time you practice try and break your time down into 15-20 min sections. Playing in short bursts is also sensible as it helps avoid any annoying strains or pain in the right arm/wrist.