Monday, September 10, 2007

Good, Better, Best

One of my friends is a talented musician. He composes and performs and I've never seen him at a loss for how to coax nice notes from any instrument he's ever picked up. He is, by almost any standard, gifted. Extraordinarily, unfairly, majestically, gifted in the art of making music.

On the other hand, the only way I can carry a tune is in a bucket. Which is not for lack of trying; it is simply that I really stink. So sticking with it when I am so horrendously un-gifted is a challenge.

It used to be that I would just say, I'm not gifted. I don't have that talent. Why waste my time practicing? I'll never be that good. Since then, I've been reading.

If you read books like Satisfaction and The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance you begin to realize that the only thing standing in the way of your growth from novice to expert is dedication. If you are consistent in your deliberate pursuit of change, you will find the change you desire.

Science today tells us that almost anyone can develop expert-level abilities in almost anything (from which they aren't physically impaired). I don't think anyone is saying you can beat Lance Armstrong, that man is just genetically supposed to dominating the rest of us. At least on a bike.

But for most abilities, like being naturally gifted at music or math or languages, the big differentiator between the beginners and the best is usually only a focused, deliberate, and consistent exercise of that ability motivated by a simple desire to keep getting better.

The basic premise we can infer from the science is that if you are willing to do what is required to keep getting better, you will actually get better. The key is that doing what is required to keep getter better is usually the hardest things to do.
Superior performers use their brains to intentionally focus on individual components of a skill to gain increasing control over their performance. In this way more of their performance comes from long-term storage instead of requiring the coding of new information.
-- paraphrased, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson
When you consider that becoming good at a skill requires deliberate, methodical control over each aspect of that skill, it is no wonder so many of us are novices. We would rather spend time on the parts we can actually accomplish or understand, instead of grinding out the rough spots that are the most difficult for us.

This lines up with everything I've ever been told by other musicians: Practice, practice, practice. It also reinforces my elementary school piano teacher, and my good friend when talking about the guitar. Just learn the scales. When you can play them smoothly, fast or slow, and transition between them without faltering, then you can worry about playing songs.

It's back to fingering scales for me.

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