The Musical U team discusses the importance of taking it step by step in music – and breaking your practice down into “chunks” that make sense for you.
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Christopher: Hello, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. My name is Christopher Sutton and I’m the Founder and Director of Musical U and I’m excited to be joined today by Stewart, Adam and Andrew from the Musical U team.
This is an episode following up on our 100th episode celebrations, where we asked 26 experts to share their answers to what’s one thing people can do to unlock their inner musicality?
There were several themes that ran through those answers. Even though each answer was interesting and different. There were a few things that came up time and again.
And so we wanted to take a few episodes to explore those themes and share some thoughts from the team on each of them.
In this episode we are going to be talking about taking it step by step. The importance of small chunks and making steady progress over time.
I’m really keen to dig into this one because I’ve seen the impact it can have for someone to shift their mindset including for myself, to shift your mindset from I must go big, I must hit that goal straight away, to, let’s break it down, let’s take small steps and work bit by bit towards that goal.
In our expert answers we had Casey Von Neuman talking about how it’s important to slow down and take things in small chunks.
Chris Owenby talked about how the great and accomplished musicians we admire all have a backstory and their expertise comes from the little things over time that add up and let them achieve those things.
Jeremy Fisher talked about stepped practice. The idea that when we’re struggling with a piece of music the trick is to take just that difficult moment, hone in on it and then gradually expand from there as you learn to play that part of the piece.
This is something that comes up in almost every context in learning music. It’s certainly something we remind members of regularly at Musical U and as I touched on there it’s come up for me, no shortage of times, in my own musical life.
Before we dive into this I’m gonna ask each of the team to introduce themselves incase you haven’t heard them on the podcast before.
Adam, why don’t you kick us off and say a little bit about yourself and your role at Musical U?
Adam: Hello everyone. My name is Adam Liette. I’m the Communications Manager at Musical U. I’m a trumpet player, guitar player and singer.
Andrew: Hello. I’m Andrew Bishko. I’m the Product Manager at Musical U. In charge of all the different contact and modules and things that we are doing there and I am the Content Manager on the Musical U blog. I’m also a music teacher, a songwriter and improvisor, a multi instrumentalist and a mariachi.
Stewart: Hello. My name is Stewart Hilton I am a Community Conductor. Most of you would know me as GtrStew777 inside the site and also I play guitar outside of Musical U I have a few different projects, a tribute one and the other one is a country thing. And there you go.
Christopher: Stewart, why don’t you start us off?
You play in a tribute band at the moment. You’ve played in other bands in the past and you also teach guitar. So I’d love to hear how you think about this topic or whether you think it’s important to break things down into small steps.
Stewart: Definitely. I hadn’t even thought about that until you just said it.
Yeah. With the tribute artist that’s a really good example. When he had contacted me. This guy does five different tribute acts so there’s a lot of music to learn. One of the things he would do and I was very thankful about is he said, learn these songs first, learn these second, don’t worry about these.
To take it up a level to of the tributes he does are Elton John and Billy Joel and for any guitar player who’s played or piano performers will know that piano guys love to write music much more deeper than just normal guitar stuff. There’s more chords, there’s more jazz chords, there’s more interesting rhythms they have. It makes it difficult.
My first goal was to just work through the rhythms and site out things and I had to chart em because there’s just so many chords. That you had to have the chart in front of you with words because you use words to cue off on the chords.
That was like my basic thing. At least get that, the rhythm and then build onto it, cos you have to get the signature lifts if there are any in and build on that.
When using that same idea, we always try and help that with the members. Most of us day to day even with the tribute guys. I heard it and I’m like, Oh God I gotta learn all this so much and in your head you build this huge mountain that you’re like, I gotta conquer this now, well you don’t really need to. You can piece it off one step at a time.
That really downplays the stress that you are currently going under and won’t help you lose a lot of hair from pulling it out of your head.
Yeah, so that’s definitely helped. In the long end of things.
Thankfully he would always tell me about shows coming up so I could work on one act, whereas just trying to learn em all I could just focus on this one show and then as another one would come up I could then focus in on that one.
Yeah. It’s definitely doing it in small chunks at a time is a huge thing and makes things much easier in the long run on ya.
Christopher: I think you touched on the major thing there which is overwhelm. We have a lot of material in Musical U about planning and goal setting and for a large extent it’s really about helping members avoid overwhelm.
We touched on this in our recent episode with Sarah Campbell and we were talking about keeping it simple, the importance of keeping it simple.
Likewise taking it step by step or breaking it into chunks is just critical if you’re not gonna get to that state where you like, oh my gosh, there’s just so much to do, I need to look at every website, do every exercise and I’m not gonna be ready until I’m done.
Anything you can do to simplify or to find the one piece of it that you can do today it’s so essential.
Stewart: Oh yeah. You just build onto things.
This year I took golf lessons at the beginning of the year. I like to play golf. I’m not that good. My wife got me three lessons at a real nice place that gave lessons.
He gave me first some tips and there was a lot of stuff he was going through. But there’s three I’m trying to remember and of course, at the end he goes, well you can pay for more lessons and we haven’t even got in the golf season and I’m like, I have enough to worry about right now.
It’s knowing that, because a lot of people we are, we’re like well yeah lets continue. But, I don’t even have the other three things smooth yet. If I add anything more it’s just gonna get confusing. I even get on the golf course and golfers – everybody has a tip for you when you have a bad swing. They are like, you know, you need to do this. And I have to calm them down, like look I have so many things going on in my head right now I have to focus on those little things.
The same things with music, we wanna just do it all and it’s like no, just focus on this, these two or three things or it’s just the whole book.
Christopher: Yeah. That’s a great observation. Not all small steps are created equal and chunking it down is great but it’s not a magic bullet. You can still end up overwhelmed, you can still end up going down the wrong path.
One thing I particularly wanted to touch on when we talk about this is that you can do it yourself but there are definitely cases and particularly in music education where it can be really valuable to have an expert show you the step by step.
I definitely feel like this is a valuable part of what we do at Musical U. Is with our modules and our road maps.
It’s not that you can’t find that information in other places, certainly some of what we do is unique but a lot of it isn’t. The value is in a clear, broken down, sensible step by step method for it.
Having someone who’s gone there before or ideally someone who’s helped other people do what you’re trying to do can save you a lot of time because chunking it down is not enough. If your chunks are wrong or they’re heading in the wrong direction. You are not gonna be any further along and as you point out there Stewart you need in yourself and in your teacher to be aware of the pacing of it and the chunk size and when you’re ready to move on.
In that case with the golf, him giving you another tip or doing another lesson, that would be another small chunk but that’s not the kind of chunk you needed right then. The chunk you need is to play 9 holes and see how it goes.
Stewart: Yeah. I think you wanna get to attainable goals.
I always like talking to people about celebrating things.
Find a goal. Hit it. Celebrate it. Then you can move on.
For me in golf I wanted the break 50 for my hole. That’s my attainable goal and I’ve done it a few times this year so I can celebrate that.
The same thing with music. Find some quicker attainable things and when you get there celebrate it, be joyful about it and then move on.
That makes it a lot more fun.
Christopher: Absolutely. That is huge for motivation and I think also it’s important in terms of avoiding getting totally stuck.
If you just have one big goal in mind. It’s so easy to get stuck and not even realize you’re stuck. Whereas when you’ve broken it down more and you’re taking small steps forward you really notice when you stop that momentum when you hit a sticking point.
You’re thinking about it in a level of detail that allows you to see, okay, it’s not that I’m rubbish at this topic, it’s not that I’m failing at my big goal it’s just that this step is causing me a problem.
Again I can’t help but think of it in the context of Musical U and the training we provide where hopefully. And I think in a lot of cases, when a member gets stuck, it’s very easy to say, this is why you’re stuck or this is what you’re stuck on and it’s even easy for them to self identify and not just say oh, I’m rubbish at your training or oh I can’t figure out what I hear.
They come to us and say, listen, I’m struggling with, you know, distinguishing and perfect fifth and perfect fourth when they’re harmonic and at that point it’s really easy to help them find a solution because the chunk size was small enough. They saw they got stuck. They knew why they were stuck and they could look for a solution.
I think that’s a huge part of the value of breaking it down into small steps like that.
Stewart: Well. I gotta say, you just reminded me of something and that is what the tribute artist, we had no rehearsals so there’s a term that we use and we had to use especially when I first started with him and that is, when in doubt, stay out.
There have been moments when I’ve gotten up and I don’t remember the song, but it was the first time I played with him, and I wrote the song out and I got up and I hit the first chord and I’m like, good Lord a cow just died somewhere, and I was like, what the heck’s going on. I’m looking at the guitar and I’m looking at the music and I’m like, this should be right, so I hit the second chord, still terrible and at that point I moseyed off the stage and let it go.
Afterwards he was like, you did the right thing.
So then the next week I got with that song and figured out. I can’t remember exactly what had happened. I may have come in on the wrong beat or the chords on the sheet weren’t lined up with the words which can create a mass of bad moments.
It helped me out and that’s kind of a good way of going at it.
Also not getting negative and beating yourself up if you do have a mistake and just go, okay I just need to take it back, figure out what happened, and then go forward.
Christopher: Yeah. I think that’s a great case where. By the sounds of it, because you had approached this is a step by step way I’m sure you were able to come away from that gig thinking oh, that one song, something was off.
Whereas if you’d psyched yourself up into, this is a job and I need to nail the whole job perfectly you probably would’ve come away from that thinking, oh *bleep*, I’m not good enough at that job.
Adam. How do you think about this or use it in your own musical life. The idea of taking it step by step?
Adam: Well to be honest I haven’t always been the best at it.
I think we all have those stories of going to the music store. For me it was Dream Theater. I was like, I wanna play like John Petrucci from Dream Theater. If you are listening to this and you haven’t heard John Petrucci yet, go listen to Dream Theater, they are incredible. Then after a couple of weeks, I threw the book away because I couldn’t do it.
I like to think of what Forrest Kinney in episode 100 talked about. We need to approach music like a child and I think about when you’re talking about step by step, small chunks. I think about learning the music language. The music language which has a lot of similarities to learning another language.
I’m bilingual, I know that several people on this team are. Probably a lot of our listeners. When we think about learning a new language. There’s a popular cartoon here in the States, Ni Hao Kai Lan and the kids that watch it are like, I can say Chinese, Ni Hao. Like that’s the only thing they can say in Chinese but they are like so excited by it.
That’s how we first start approaching learning a new language. I speak Indonesian and the first time I could say “Good morning, how are you?” in Indonesian, I was like wow, I can say this, right!
I think, sometimes if we just find joy in that little moment and understand that great, I can speak this one phrase that doesn’t mean I’m ready to read a translation of Danté. Very high level stuff.
You are not gonna go from a simple major scale to Mozart. There’s a lot more along the way. Just like with a language, you have to learn the root words. You have to learn the prefixes, suffixes, male and female and proper chord structure and verb, oh my gosh, it’s a long, long process.
We are not learning those little bits as a means to get to that end point. We learn little bits cos it’s more fun along the way. We can put things together and before you know it we’re speaking full sentences and then we can tell a story. Yes we still might be using simple words, we’re not using complex words yet but we’re still able to tell a musical story with very simple parts, elements of musicality.
I think that’s a great way to approach learning a language cos if you went to go learn Chinese tomorrow you wouldn’t expect to listen to Chinese radio tomorrow or the day after and be able to understand it. You would understand it’s gonna take a long time to learn Chinese.
If we really think about that with our music training I think we’ll find more joy in the little things and we’ll be better well served for it.
Christopher: Absolutely yeah. That’s a great analogy.
I think part of the challenge and part of why this is worth covering on the musicality podcast is that in the case like learning a language or with a child learning to walk or most skills in life. We get that. It’s gonna be step by step. You need to take it slow.
With the inner skills of music we have these cultural assumptions about what it takes and I think that leads people to expect either they can do it already or they are gonna suddenly click and be able to do it.
We offer a masterclass occasionally called how to play by ear with zero talent required. In that I talk about playing notes or chords by ear and make the analogy to reading. I’m like, look, if you are learning to read, you don’t begin by taking War and Peace off the shelf and trying to read it. You don’t hand a kid War and Peace on day one of learning to read and expect them to do it. But, somehow with music we do, we’re like, I listened to a song, I couldn’t figure out the chords therefore, I can’t play by ear. The reality is it does need to be broken down. We start reading with the letters and a few simple words like ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ and eventually you work your way up to the literature.
It’s the same for these inner skills in music. You can and it needs to be broken down into small chunks and I think a neat example too of what we were talking about before about it needs to be the right chunks. If you are learning a language a foreign language that is, don’t open the dictionary and start by learning all the ‘A’ words one by one or whatever the first letter of that language is. That is not the way to master the language. Having a tutor book or a teacher to point you to the most important things to learn first and the sequencing of it is really critical.
It’s the same in music. It’s not a matter of I want to play chords by ear, therefore, I’m gonna start today by learning to play C Major by ear and tomorrow I’ll do C Minor and then I’ll do C Major 7.
I bought a book once that was pre porting to teach you to play by ear and it took that kind of approach. It was like, here are the eleven kinds of C Chord. Now let’s try playing them by ear. I was like, what, what, what, complete, almost gibberish to me anyway. Maybe it works for some people but I always have that in mind of an example of how breaking things down in small steps in itself doesn’t help you. There are wrong ways to do it and you need to choose your resources or your mentors or your teachers carefully.
How about you Andrew. What are your thoughts on breaking it down step by step?
Andrew: Well. I’m gonna start with something that seems contrary here.
In my teaching when I’m doing a piano lesson. A lot of times the first thing I do is say wave a pencil in the air and I say this is my magic pencil, and I point it at em and I say, you can now play anything you ever wanted to play on the piano. What is it?
They’ll pick a song and I’ll say, okay let’s start learning it now. You know and they are like, oooh, you know?
A lot of times the song is Fur Elise, Ludwig Van Beethoven you may have heard it before.
What we do is we take that song, that person might not be able to read a lick of music or anything like that or may not have played but we break it down for that particular person.
I have learned how to break it down into small little steps in a pattern. And, gosh, doing that I’ve discovered so much about these pieces of music myself.
The student is highly motivated because it’s a piece they really wanna play. Okay, they won’t know how to play the whole thing, we’re just gonna play the first little, deedle deedle deedle deedle dum, whatever but they’re really motivated.
We’ve figured out ways to do it and they have nothing to do with the standard piano technique or standard practices or anything like that. Picking out patterns, bringing out music, singing to…Using all these little techniques these little, step by step by step by step and suddenly the student realizes they can do it.
We become impatient with the process and we procrastinate on our musicality and playing music. We enjoy the process. We had a master class with Lisa McCormick it really encapsulated for me. She says, note to self. I love this, why are we doing music, why are we wasting out time with these ridiculous sounds when we could be mowing the lawn or something, right Stew?
It’s because we love it, we love it and learning to love the process. Learning to love the little learning steps like Adam was saying, appreciating that little step, really loving it really appreciating it.
I understood this on a certain level, but, I too have pieces of music where I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall. Trying to learn a certain part and I asked about this in Lisa’s class and she said do it because you love it and I realize this goes so much deeper, so if I can’t get through this one passage and I can’t play it because there’s something going on with my fingers. Well then I have to learn how to re position my accordion and maybe I have to do some work on my muscles I have to take two years of yoga classes in order to play this passage to get my technique up or something, whatever it is but I love it and I wanna do it, I wanna make it happen.
It’s a voyage of self discovery. You learn things about yourself and you don’t know where it’s gonna take you. It might take you on a side journey that you weren’t really aware of.
One of the great things about Musical U is that we have such a variety of material. There’s so many ways to go at it. And the beautiful thing I tell so many members. They say, shall I do this or shall I do that? Should I do this? I say, do whichever one you want to do, whichever one stimulates your heart because it’s all going to the same place, just coming from a different perspective.
We all chunk things differently. In my teaching experience I’ve seen certain students can take things in big chunks. Understand something all the way and certain students have to have it broken down.
I’ve had to break things down in ways that I didn’t know that you could break it down so far. It’s like splitting the proton or something. But sometimes you break it down that far and sometimes its boop it’s all one chunk.
It’s similar with your own learning you discover these things about yourselves. With Musical U with all the different varieties of approaches and training and the vast quantity of material you have the opportunity to explore this and what’s more is you’ve got feedback and you’re being guided along the way.
You’ve got Stew in there. Rooting for you every step of the way, answering your questions and myself, sometimes.
It really is about learning to love the process. To enjoy the process and remember why we are doing this. We are doing this because we love it.
Christopher: Fantastic. There was a ton packed in there that was really insightful but I particularly love that you noted the need for it to be personal.
I mentioned you should have a teacher, make sure you are doing the right steps or the right chunks but you’re absolutely right that what’s sensible for one person is absolutely not for another.
Of course that’s why we are so personal about it at Musical U. Whether you are thinking about it musically or not I think this is something to keep in mind that just because something is step by step it may not be the right steps and that doesn’t mean they’re bad steps it just means they’re not right for you.
That’s why having a teacher, a mentor or a guide or even just a musical buddy to talk it through with can really help because you do need to find the method that suits you and you do need to be willing to pivot and change and observe when things are going off track and that is the beauty of having someone more expert or more advanced or even just along side of you to talk it through with.
Stewart: I was going to say teaching about the teacher issue. That one of the things I always like to ask when a student starts is, what do you wanna do? What is your goal? Because not everybody wants to be a John Petrucci or an Aldi Miller or a Les Paul. Some of them are like a woman I taught who just wanted to play chords with her kids so they can sing along.
There’s all these arrays of all these different goals that people wanna do with their musicality and tapping into that and adjusting how you wanna go about your journey and how you wanna go about it and learning it is so different from one person to another.
Christopher: Yeah. I wanna make sure we don’t end up this episode with the listener feeling like, you know, we started out by saying this about avoiding overwhelm and I think from some of what we’ve said you might be ending up feeling a bit overwhelmed in the sense that we’ve said there’s no one perfect method.
This isn’t a magic bullet and just chunking it down isn’t gonna solve all of your problems but I think there are some concrete things there that everyone can take away.
The first is that you should chunk it down. It’s almost never right to just try and leap straight for your goal. It’s almost always valuable to try and chunk it down. Take it step by step. Doing so gives you the opportunity to see your progress. It helps keep you motivated. It helps you observe when a sticking point is coming up and be specific about what you’re stuck on.
The other major thing is those steps may or may not be right for you and you can try different methods. That is something you can do all by yourself. Just try different courses, or different approaches or just keep changing tack until you find your way forwards.
Or you can take advice from and expert in whatever you’re trying to study so that they can help you skip some of that experimentation. Ideally with some human involvement. We have a past episode of this podcast about choosing and succeeding with online music courses and one of the points made there is that there is a human factor required. There is no perfect one sized fits all course.
A big part of that is that a human can talk about it with you, they can understand why you are getting stuck and they can recommend a new step by step path that’s gonna get you where you wanna go.
I hope that that’s sending people away with a bit of encouragement that this is not a simple thing but it is an essential thing and it is a powerful thing.
Whatever you are working on in music do just take the time to think through, alright what are my steps? How can I chunk this down and how am I gonna do my best to ensure those are sensible steps or the right chunks for me and keep monitoring that over time?
A big thank you to Stewart, Andrew, and Adam for sharing your thoughts on this episode.
It’s been great to have the chance to chat through this topic with you.
Thank you to everyone to listening and we’ll see you on the next episode of the Musicality Podcast!