Today we’re joined by Marc Gelfo, a self-described “Neuro-symphonic Hornist” who has played French Horn in some of the top symphony orchestras and is the creator of the Modacity music practice app which helps you practice music more effectively and enjoyably.
When we first came across the Modacity music practice app, we were impressed. But quite often the research and literature around music practice seems to end up being quite divorced from the actual expressive and creative nature of music itself, so since it’s quite a scientific and sophisticated app, our first assumption was that the creator was probably quite a technical guy. In fact, we discovered that nothing could be further from the truth!
Marc’s a fascinating guy and in this conversation we talk about:
- What an epic road trip taught him about what his French Horn could do
- How you can start connecting with the more expressive side of music-making, even if you don’t consider yourself creative or artistic
- The principles that can transform the effectiveness of your music practice and get you better results faster, and in a more enjoyable way.
Listen to the episode:
Links and Resources
- Marc Gelfo’s website
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck
- About Deliberate Practice in Music
- Interview with Prof. Anders Ericsson
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Christopher: Marc, I was joking with you before we started that I might have you record a little intro fanfare for us. Would you mind?
Marc: Absolutely. This is the intro fanfare for The Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Beautiful. Welcome to the show, Marc. Thank you for joining us today.
Marc: My pleasure. Happy to be here.
Christopher: I came across you through your fantastic IOS practice app called Modacity, but I discovered there’s this really fascinating individual behind the app who has a few different kind of hats that you wear, so I’d love to go back to the beginning and learn a little bit about your own musical journey and what it was like for you learning music.
Marc: Sure. Well, I started drumming before I was born, according to my mother. Let me out of here. And by the time I was five or so, I had climbed up on my grandma’s organ and figured out Take Me Out to the Ball Game, I think maybe with a little help. So my parents started me on piano, and I liked piano, but I don’t think I liked my teacher very much, and that’s when my story, that is like many other people’s stories, began, where I was learning scales and rudiments and fairly bored, eventually ran away from home to stop piano lessons.
My parents understood that protest and got me a new piano teacher, which I worked a little bit better, but it was very much the standard western story of learn to read music, do drills, and perform repertoire written by somebody else. Then I went from there, around age 10, to violin and cello, playing in youth string orchestra, and finally got to band, where I discovered the French horn. The horn stymied me initially, as it does many, it’s called “the divine instrument” because only God knows what’s going to come out when you blow it.
I couldn’t even get a sound on the thing for about a week. I didn’t have a teacher. I grew up in a small town in Florida called Vero Beach, and just the band director kind of helped me get started, but I really fell in love with the horn and with band. It was like I was becoming a teenager and starting to hear these movie soundtracks, John Williams, James Horner, that would sometimes just bring me to tears with their beauty or epic magnitude. I fell deeply in love with the horn and with music making.
At the same time, I was programming. I started coding when I was eight. I was writing artificial intelligence chatbot kind of stuff when I was in seventh grade for the science fair. I had these dual passions going. I wanted to do music. I wanted to do horn. I had some success. I was well respected and loved in the high school band, but I never really made it to All-State. I didn’t know what a music festival was. I didn’t have access to teachers who really understood the horn very much, and so it didn’t go anywhere.
I ended up going to Northwestern because I didn’t get into the music school there, but I got into their cognitive science and computer science program. That’s when I realized that what had been holding me back was not my lack of talent but, rather, my approach to building talent or my whole understanding of skill acquisition in general.
I can keep going from there if you’d like.
Christopher: Well, first let’s pause for a minute, if you wouldn’t mind, because it sounds like there was kind of a burst of fresh enthusiasm midway through that journey. After you had the drudgery of learning piano in a way that didn’t resonate with you, you moved to French horn and playing in band, and it sounds like you were enjoying things from that point on. Why was that such a change for you?
Marc: I think that music originally is meant to connect people, and that band offered that experience for me of making music together, which string orchestra kind of had, but it was not so much. I enjoyed string orchestra, but band really wowed me. Oh, wow, what a huge collection of sounds. And it’s also just really fun, and people got along great, so that hooked me.
Christopher: Cool. You said something there about changing your viewpoint on talent. Describe, if you would, what had your viewpoint been through those first 10 years or so of learning music, and did you see yourself as someone who was naturally good at it, or how were you looking at things?
Marc: I saw it both ways at the same time. I had a lot of awareness that I loved music, that music would flow through me. I started improvising at the piano after I stopped piano lessons, and I felt so connected to what we were doing in band. I understood how to read music and I would move fast along the things that I was doing, but at the same time I was hitting failure, after failure, after failure, after failure when it came to societally defined milestones. I felt a ton of resentment and disappointment around that, and this sort of belief that I just must not be talented. It’s what Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset.
Christopher: Gotcha, yeah. And I think that might surprise some people having heard your credentials, as it were, as a French horn player these days, the kind of orchestras and philharmonics that you’ve played with around the world. You mentioned that in time you realized that the way you practiced or your skill acquisition was maybe at the heart of what was holding you back. Tell us a little bit about that.
Marc: Yeah, absolutely. And right before I do that, I’m going to share a tip, Gelfo tip number one, about these credentials, which is to this day, when I go … I played with the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time this year, and I took that experience, I treasured that experience, and I took the essence of it and I sent it back to little 17-year-old Marc who was sitting in front of these rejection letters from music schools thinking I’ll never get to play in an orchestra ever.
My tip is that as you inevitably get these milestones of beauty or connection or achievement in your musical journey, to really drink them in and send them to your past self and say hey, past self, I know you were struggling, but it’s going to be cool.
Christopher: Nice. I love that. I think all of us have a tendency to rush through the successes and not allow ourselves to really enjoy and relish and appreciate ourselves for having accomplished them. I love that tip to remember your past self who would have loved to experience what you just experienced.
Marc: Yeah. Yeah. Getting into the discovery that talent is not a fixed attribute, that’s pretty well known at this point. There’s books like Talent is Overrated or The Talent Code that disassemble that myth fairly comprehensively, but for me it was just being in cognitive science, learning about skill acquisition. At the same time, I was studying Chinese at Northwestern, and my Chinese teachers were drilling me in a particular way that I knew from cognitive science was the opposite of the most efficient way to pick up a language.
Music is a language, and it just all sort of started brewing in my head, and I realized at some point, oh, I just haven’t really been practicing like I should be, what if I really go for it and practice well. And that did, indeed, make a big difference, and I’m still learning to practice better and better all the time, and it makes a bigger and bigger difference.
Christopher: I’m sure this is something we’re going to talk a lot more about, but I have to ask you, at that point, what were those language teachers doing that was so wrong?
Marc: Massed practice is one of the things that was wrong. I would write the same Chinese character 17, 20, 30, 50 times. I would study upwards of six hours to plus per day on Chinese, writing these characters over, and over, and over, and over. In cognitive science, plenty of studies on this, your brain habituates to that stimulus each time you write it, so by the fifth or seventh time, it’s fairly habituated and there’s a very low learning impact.
I wasn’t practicing recalling it. I was only practicing stuffing it in, and stuffing it into my short-term memory. The book Make it Stick talks a lot about this, where you’ve actually got to practice retrieving information from your long-term memory by testing it, rather than just stuffing things into your short-term memory loop.
Christopher: Interesting. What happened when you took this kind of neuroscience understanding back to the world of music?
Marc: Well, I’m still doing it, but I would say I graduated Northwestern, and I went to Indiana to study French horn and audio engineering, and that’s when things started to turn around. At that point, it was a very bro science kind of approach, like yeah, I know these things about massed and interleaved practice, or whatever.
I’m not even sure if my concepts were that fully formed at that point, but I know that I practiced differently, and I knew that I was relentlessly in touch with what felt like a productive practice session versus an unproductive practice session. Within two years of focusing on the French horn, I’d won my first symphony job, my full-time symphony job.
Christopher: Wow, fantastic, and you put that down to this changed mindset to practicing?
Marc: That’s part of it. I think that mentorship and environment were a big part of it. Indiana has more than 1,000 music school students, and all of the people who play symphony instruments are gunning for jobs, so it put me in an environment where it was expected that you would audition and care about audition success. To be honest, that’s a double-edged sword, but yeah, it got me an audition.
Christopher: Great. You said something in the early part of your story about having the music flow through you. I think most people would kind of assume that a symphony job is, I don’t want to put it too strongly, but almost the exact opposite of that, in the sense that you are required to play with such technical precision and discipline, and play exactly what is written on the page and what the conductor tells you to. You are performing at a very high level and producing incredible music, but it’s not that kind of instinctive, free, I am in control of this spirit of music.
I wonder if you could share a bit about your experiences as a professional symphony player and maybe compare or contrast with that kind of free-wheeling spirit.
Marc: Yeah, thank you for saying that. The way that you articulated it brought deep compassion to me, because that has been my experience, and I think that that’s the experience of a lot of very dedicated musicians who spend an entire career in a symphony. I remember that I had grown up listening to a recording of Mahler’s 3rd, and me and my buddy would come back from high school every day and go to his room and put on Mahler 3 and listen to it and just be amazed with the brass playing. That was the piece that I dreamed of playing.
Finally, when I was in the Hong Kong Philharmonic, maybe by my third season or something, we played Mahler 3, and I was so excited, but I wasn’t really able to enjoy the performance, even though I knew the music so well from years and years and years of listening to it, because I was so focused on executing it, all these little details. My mind used to be so active while playing the horn, and to an extent in symphony it still is.
I think you’re absolutely right that the demands of symphonic playing, the way that most people approach it, leads to a lot of mental activity which cuts off a flow state, which cuts off the connection from that flowing music idea. It’s not true for everybody, but unfortunately it gets a lot of people.
Christopher: Yeah. For you, has there been anything that balanced that out?
Marc: Yeah, a lot has balanced it out. I would say some of the most profound experiences that I’ve had with respect to the other side of just being in complete flow and complete mental silence or awe or connection with what’s going on has been, for one, after a Vipassana meditation retreat, 11 days of silence, and when I got my French horn back I just made sound on it and was amazed at just the beauty and consistency of the sound, no judgment about positive or negative, right or wrong.
That started when actually my sister introduced me to the concept of sound healing. She studied that at the California Institute of Integral Studies, which is sort of a beacon or center for more esoteric arts and studies. And this idea that sound can be for healing, not for playing right notes, struck me as tremendously different from what my training had been.
I started to get into just playing music for the act of expression and for cultivating a particular energy or essence, rather than a particular note or rhythm, and that’s a big shift. I would be overjoyed to demonstrate that difference briefly on the mouthpiece, if you’d like.
Christopher: Please do.
Marc: Okay. I’m going to focus on notes right now, and I’m going to play some right notes and right times, and I’m going to do just some little … okay. And now I’m going to focus on expressing joy and presence with no regard for notes or time or accuracy. And I don’t know, would that feel like a different sort of musical experience to you?
Christopher: For sure. It was certainly different for the listener.
Marc: Yeah. One was pretty controlled and the other was pretty free. And you can bring the two together, but the big step for me was moving all the way to the other side, of being completely free and disregarding my concern for notes, rhythms, tone quality, any of those traditional characteristics, and focusing purely on the essence of what I want to express and allow in the space.
Christopher: That is fascinating. I think inadvertently we may have given an example of combining the two at the beginning, when I half-jokingly asked you to play us a little intro fanfare. I have to say, in the moment, I was a bit surprised that it was a bit more loose and joyful than I was expecting an international symphony player to produce. I thought it would be kind of tight and regimented, and that’s not what you played at all, which I’m sure just shows how you’ve internalized this joyful aspect of musical expression.
Marc: Yeah. It’s really wonderful to be able to pick up the horn and to blast some joy through the neighborhood.
Christopher: Tell me, there’s a phrase used on your personal website a bit, which is neuro-symphonic hornist. Can you tell us a bit about what that means?
Marc: That’s the idea. It comes from symphonic, and I added the neuro on later when I felt like I’m not just a symphonic player. The things that I love about symphony is this element of teamwork, and elite achievement, and honoring the artistic greats of history with highly refined music making, but not necessarily just refined the way that 18th century defined that.
The neuro part is honoring the 21st century where neuroscience is an important part of our daily experience, whether it’s the ads that we see on YouTube, or the binaural beats that we used to get focused, or just a different light that we buy from Philips that we can use to control our mood.
I think that for me and my music making, I very much consider what’s going on in my brain, what’s going on in the cognitive systems of those who are listening or participating, and the cognitive system goes far beyond the brain. The brain’s just one organ of the cognitive system. But that’s the basic idea. Does that explain it?
Christopher: It does, yeah, and I think it’s great to unpack that a little and understand everything that’s included in that unique phrase neuro-symphonic hornist. You give the example that-
Marc: Can I add one more thing?
Christopher: Please do, yeah.
Marc: Yeah. The brain is this incredibly interconnected almost microcosm. It’s like a universe on its own. And that as a metaphor for the world informs my music making, where we’ve got an entire globe of people, and ideas, and subsystems, and collectives, and individuals, and as a neuro-symphonic musician, my goal is to connect and make music with all of these disparate parts, to make the music of these disparate parts, and not just one particular section, like Europe.
Christopher: I see. To that end, I think the way you’ve described it makes clear that playing as a freelancer or a full-time symphony player certainly pushes certain parts of your musicality to the extreme, but maybe neglects other sides of what you would like to be doing in music. You gave one example there of after a silent meditation retreat where you, I assume privately, just enjoyed some time with your horn.
Have there been other outlets or other opportunities for you to explore that side of your musicality?
Marc: Burning Man. Can we talk about Burning Man?
Christopher: Of course, yeah.
Marc: Well, I had the longest drive ever to Burning Man. I drove for three weeks to Burning Man, from New-
Christopher: Where were you starting from?
Marc: Mars. I was in New York. And I took it nice and slow. I drove across the country for fun. A buddy of mine joined me, a great friend of mine. I couldn’t play my horn in the car, so I made this hose horn with just about five or six feet of plastic tubing, and a plastic funnel on one end, and a mouthpiece stuck on the other end, and it slots. I mean, it actually has a harmonic series, and you can play all kinds of exercises, flexibilities, melodies, but it’s a funky, wonky instrument.
By the end of that three weeks when I got to Burning Man, it had really opened my mind, almost forced me to think about music making in a different way, because I didn’t have scales. I didn’t have French horn tone quality. I couldn’t play any western music on this thing. I could only play funky, out-of-tune harmonic series, fanfares, and dirges. So I got to Burning Man. I had a horn.
You were talking about sort of other elements of music making, and there’s this part of Burning Man called the Temple, and the Temple is a structure that’s built out in the deep playa, the deep desert, far away from where people inhabit on the other side of the Man. You make the trek out there through the dust to mourn, to grieve, to let go. It’s a very sacred place. Generally, the Temple is manned by meditators, all day long, all night long, people meditating in the Temple, holding space for the crying or even the wailing that’s sometimes happening there. It’s a very, very powerful, powerful spot.
One particular day I went to the Temple, and I brought my horn to be of service, and outside the Temple there were someone playing a gong, and you could imagine it’s like Mad Max, people wearing the bandanna and the goggles and like a gong, and another person had some sound healing bowls, crystal bowls, and then outside … they were at the entrance to the Temple, and it could have been 2,000 years ago, aside from the plastic on their goggles.
Then beyond the gong and the crystal bowl, there were people sitting and meditating and just holding the vibration of support and love. Some of them were grieving. Some people are offering blessings. And I sat down, and I asked if I could join, and brought out my horn and just started playing these long tones to go with the gong. And again, not focusing on notes.
You don’t play Mary Had a Little Lamb, or you don’t even play the most sophisticated Elgar funeral march. It’s not right. Primal. I was playing primal notes and purging grief from my system through the horn. It’s very simple to do on any instrument. You just take that feeling and you let it come through you, cut viscerally through you, and out through your hands or through your mouth, or whatever you’re using to play that instrument, without censoring it, without interfering, and without intellectually controlling it.
I was doing that on the horn, and eventually … I had my eyes closed a lot … opened my eyes, and there was a huge crowd of people that were sitting, arcing around me, listening, and someone came up and he looked really sad. I said can I play you a blessing, and he said yeah, please, and shared what was up in his life. I closed my eyes and just tried to kind of like feel compassion and understanding for what that person was going through, meet them there with the tone of the instrument and the emotion that I was playing, and then used the sound of the horn to transform that feeling from sadness to joy, to take that path over.
When I opened my eyes, the person in front of me … tears were streaming down his face. I just got chills. I had never done anything like that before. I don’t think I’d ever brought anybody to tears, except my sister when I practiced too much before. And to do it in such a non-traditional manner was a striking moment, and I’ve never been the same since then.
Christopher: Wow. I’m really glad we went down this avenue in our conversation, because I think a lot of what we talk about here on The Musicality Podcast is trying to get people away from the technicalities and equip them with the ideas or the skills or the techniques that will let them have that kind of deep connection with the music they’re playing.
I know that for me, I always struggled with this because I was so brought up in the note-by-note, play the right notes at the right time mentality, very sheet music based, very robotic fundamentally. I feel like on paper you’re the same kind of personality type. You’re studying neuroscience, and you’ve done some computer science along the way, and you had that background in very careful note-by-note playing and not going beyond what you were told to play.
I’d love to just ask, was there anything in your journey or any insights you have that could help someone who’s feeling kind of trapped in that analytical world, and maybe has never felt they were trapped until they hear someone describe the kind of thing you just described, and they realize they actually might be missing out on that deep connection with music?
Is there anything you could share that might help them take their first steps in that direction?
Marc: I think the first step is maybe … the first step may be to acknowledge the shadow side of this analytical rigorous learning, which the way that I see it is that it creates a lot of fear, a lot of constriction, a lot of anxiety, potentially, disappointment, shame, guilt for not holding up to standards. Those may be, if you were like me, as unconscious patterns and habits that I had brought to my music making from years of being wrong, from years of painful failures, from years of being told no, you can’t make music with us because you didn’t play the notes well enough.
Taking a second to acknowledge that, that that’s deeply painful, and I don’t think that’s in the spirit of music, that’s a personal decision that anybody who wants to go down the road of having full access to their musicianship and their emotional power needs to acknowledge and to come to terms with, and then transform.
The step after acknowledging it is to transform it, and the easiest way that I know how to do that is to get back in touch with the innate musicality, and do that by making sound and learning to feel your emotions, and then learning to channel them through an instrument. You can do that through the voice, which is our innate instrument for that. It’s our built-in instrument, and we know how do it. We know how to be really sad, or really happy, or angry.
I just put three emotions through my voice, and I can learn to do that on a pitch now, or on some kind of pitch, or even use pitch to take it to the next level of excitement, joy, or angry. Does that make sense? Is that a little too off-the-cuff?
Christopher: Not at all, no. That was perfect. Thank you. And I love that exercise of really stripping it down and not jumping straight to how can I play this piece with more emotion or feel more in the flow when I play this complicated repertoire, but really just sitting down with your instrument and finding way to bring out that emotion you instinctively know how to express with your voice on your instrument instead. I think that’s a fantastic suggestion.
Marc: That’s right. That’s the next step, is you get the instrument. And if it’s a guitar, you strum it really angry, and you don’t care about what sound comes out, or if you’re feeling really grateful and just full of love for life, you give it a very satisfied strum, and then you tame that. You tame the beast of your emotions and learn to put it through chords, and chord progressions, and phrases, and arrangements of phrases, and eventually you have entire pieces of music.
Christopher: Having heard your story, which to dramatically oversimplify we could describe as going down a route of technical perfection and the highest levels of musical performance, and then or maybe along the way discovering this very different side of musical expression, it would be easy for someone to assume, I think, that at that point you just kind of drew a line under it, and you picked one or the other, and that was that.
But you’ve developed this fascinating app that I think combines a lot of what we’ve been talking about, and so I’d love if we could talk a little bit about Modacity, and maybe I can begin by just asking you to introduce the app and what it can do for people.
Marc: Yeah, sure. I want to talk about these different areas of music first real quick, because you made it sound like okay, I’m climbing the ladder of technical perfection, and then I discovered the ladder of emotional authenticity, let’s call it, or musical truth. I want to propose a different model of understanding, which is that they’re kind of the same ladder. It’s like the yin and the yang in many ways, and that in order to unlock the next level of technical proficiency, you need to raise your musical truth. And in order to access the next level of music truth, you need to work on your technique.
That’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to manage a practice session. None of us, me included, can even begin to approach what’s possible, what science has proven is possible, with the learning curve, because managing a practice session is an art and a science on its own. That’s what led me to create Modacity.
Modacity is a mobile app right now, and it allows you to organize your practice sessions into practice items. Whatever it is that you want to practice, whether it’s relaxation, or joyful screaming, or major scales with added ninths, you just list that in Modacity, organize it into practice sessions. You can budget time with timers, set notes, watch your stats, and then actually practice with the app.
This is where it takes care of allowing you to let go of the analytical side, because you can’t analyze as you perform and be 100% performant. That’s where self-recording comes in. When you’re practicing with Modacity, it’s all about self-recording and then listening back analytically and deciding what your next steps are using the deliberate practice protocol.
Christopher: Cool. Well, you mentioned a few things there that we definitely have to unpack a bit. Any longtime listeners of the show will know that at Musical U we totally advocate for self-recording. There’s definitely a kind of psychological emotional hurdle to get past at first for some people, but it is unparalleled as a tool for improving your skills more quickly.
I love that you put this at the heart of Modacity, but I have to ask a question that might be on some people’s minds, which is when you play in your practice session and you record it and then you listen back, don’t you need a teacher to listen back to tell you what you’re doing wrong or what you need to improve?
Marc: Absolutely not. You need feedback. You can’t do without feedback, but you can do this in some ways without a teacher. I’m a huge advocate of teachers, but for a different reason. I think of yoga, where you constantly are finding your edge. Do you know what I mean? You’re stretching, and you’re like okay, there’s my edge. And you can always imagine what a little deeper version of a stretch might be than you can actually go.
And it’s the same way with music, where if you listen back to a recording of yourself, almost anybody, I’m going to bet on this, can hear one thing that they’d like to improve about that. If they ask themselves honestly, according to all of my artistic sensibilities, all of the music that I’ve heard and love, everything that I hold to be aesthetically true from my most internally authentic place as an artist and creator, what’s one little improvement I could make on this?
That’s all you need to ask, because that’s all you need to be working on anyway, is one thing at a time, one improvement at a time, and deliberate practice. Modacity walks you through that process and allows you to gauge whether you’ve made that improvement, and then save the strategy that caused that improvement to happen so that you can make it automatic.
Christopher: Terrific. I’ve been playing with the app myself and just have to commend you, because it’s the first and only time I think I’ve seen deliberate practice systematized in this way. I imagine a lot of our podcast listeners, if they heard our episodes about deliberate practice, probably had the experience I did when I first came across this idea, which was you get super excited, you think that makes so much sense, I’m going to practice that way.
And you spend a week with these principles or ideas really firmly in your mind, and your practice goes great, and then a few weeks later you’ve just kind of got the vague idea still in your head, and you’re mostly back to practicing in the old traditional way and not being all that mindful about what you’re practicing in each session.
And I love that Modacity makes it so easy to keep this kind of framework front and center so that you really know okay, what am I actually trying to improve here, what am I doing to try to improve it, and then afterwards reflect and say well, did that improve it or not, and based on that, what’s my next step.
Marc: Glad to hear that from you. It’s true for me as well, and I’ve been making incredible gains in my playing, more so since I launched Modacity than the rest of my life.
Christopher: I commented in passing on how it’s tricky at first sometimes for people to record themselves and listen back, because we do have such, I guess, emotional barriers to accepting the bits that are good and being able to recognize the bits that are not so good.
I did just want to mention that this deliberate practice framework is also super helpful for that, because it just reminds you you’re not expecting to listen back and hear a perfect performance. That’s absolutely not what you’re sitting down to do. You’re trying to work on one particular thing, and then really just ask the question did this particular thing get better or worse this time.
Marc: Yeah. Yeah. I was complaining to my roommate the other day about my articulation, and I said I’ve been playing French horn 25 years now, you’d think I’d have something simple figured out about articulation. He said isn’t that cool that you’ve been doing it all this time and you’ve still got major, major things to unlock and new things to learn, that’s amazing. And I said yeah, oh, yeah, you’re right. And then I went to Modacity and I typed in articulation and I started to solve this problem that has been bugging me for 15 years.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, to pick up on that, I think that’s a beautiful mindset to take to it, and a really positive spin to put on what could be a really frustrating situation.
But I’m sure some people listening are hearing about a practice app and thinking that’s great for someone who’s doing really well with their music practice and wants to accelerate it and do phenomenally well, but I’m not doing great with my music practice, and I feel like I’m not really learning that quickly, maybe because I’m later in life, or maybe just because I’ve always been a slow learner, it’s not even worth me trying this app. What would you say to someone who’s got those kinds of thoughts running through their head?
Marc: I would say take a breath, take another breath, and maybe we can question some of those assumptions, because everybody has progress available to them. Neuroplasticity has been documented in the elderly. It’s available to anybody. People lose half a brain and they relearn skills. It’s not about the inability to learn. Everybody can learn. Everybody can grow. I would say definitely check out Carol Dweck’s book on The Growth Mindset. Open yourself to the possibility that you can learn, and then give these tools a shot, because there’s better and better tools for organizing and optimizing your practice.
When you see your star rating go up in Modacity over time, you’re like oh, wow, I went from 10% mastery to 40% mastery in two weeks, this is working, I’m going to make it to 60% mastery in another two weeks. It really does work. Keep an open mind and use the best tools that are available to you. And yeah, be positive about the possibilities.
Christopher: I think that’s really good advice. You started to paint a little bit of a picture there of what it’s like to practice with Modacity week by week, and maybe you could just do a kind of before and after, or compare and contrast. What would your average hobbyist musician’s practice look like without using an app like this versus what it could be if they did pick up Modacity and start training with it day by day?
Marc: My guess is oh, I should practice but I don’t really want to, or I should practice, okay, I’m going to go practice, what do I play, I’m just going to noodle a little while to get warmed up, oh, wait, that sounded bad, oh, that sounded bad, okay, that’s cool, noodle a little bit, oh, I want to listen to this tune that I’ve been working on, cool, I’m going to listen, oh, I’m going to listen to another tune, okay, now I’m going to noodle a little bit, oh, my teacher said to work on some things, but I don’t really remember, I think it was scales, massed practice, massed practice, massed practice, get a little better, forget everything, get distracted, and put away the instrument because you’re feeling discouraged. That might be one path that some people have taken.
Christopher: I’m hearing a 13-year-old me in my head going yep, that sounds about right.
Marc: Yeah. Yeah. I’m hearing versions of myself. With Modacity, it would be like oh, there’s my instrument, cool, it’s time to practice, oh, my … oh, finally time to practice, I’ve been waiting all day for this, pull out Modacity, put on do not disturb mode and open up my Tuesday playlist, cool, okay, today I’m going to do long tones, I’m going to do scales, I’m going to do some visualization, and then I’m going to work on these three pieces that I’ve got for my recital, and I’ve got time budgeted, okay, this is like 45 minutes, and then I have an open-ended improvisation practice after that, and then visualization, all right, cool.
Start, practice, record myself, make improvements on each thing, make notes for what I’m going to do next time, give myself a star rating so I can track my mastery, flow through the practice session, hit the finish button, and be congratulated on the amount of time spent and see that go into my practice bank.
Christopher: Love it. Well, I’m sure everyone listening can imagine the impact that would have on their musical life. You don’t have to read the literature to realize that practicing in a smarter way can deliver better results quicker, and I think you’ve implemented some of the leading research on effective practice and self-assessment into the app, so that’s really fantastic.
What’s coming up next for Modacity? Where do you take it from here?
Marc: Very excited to start offering practice packs. Those are going to be curated practice sessions. For example, I’m building one right now on how to practice multiphonics with the French horn, a very extended technique for the horn. You’ll be able to download those practice packs … they’re part of a subscription package of Modacity … and practice, say, how a certain trumpet celebrity practices trumpet, or how a guitar player practices these things, and have embedded videos that walk you through a sort of hybrid of curriculum with built-in time to practice those things as long as you want to practice them.
From there, we’re going to be going social, which I’m very excited about, and start connecting musicians around practice, around sharing, around getting more feedback, and starting to accelerate the social component of music learning and music making.
Christopher: I see. Well, that is an exciting horizon to have in store. I think you mentioned earlier in the conversation the importance of context of you getting that spot in the symphony, and it’s something we’ve certainly seen time and again at Musical U. We hammer on about community, and I know some people hear that and they’re just like look, I don’t do Facebook, I don’t want to instant message people, I’m not into that social thing online.
But what we try and explain is this is not chitchat for the sake of chitchat, that this is leveraging the fact that you can learn incredibly quickly when you take advantage of other people’s learning journeys. When you learn from each other and share what you’re working on, we’ve just seen time and again in Musical U, when a member is willing to kind of take that leap into the community and make use of that side of things, it really is transformational on the results they get. I think that’s super cool that you’re including it in Modacity in the future.
Marc: Yeah, and I love that about Musical U, by the way. I really appreciate that.
Christopher: Thank you. Cool. Well, Marc, it’s been such a pleasure to talk with you, and I feel like we’ve pulled back the curtain a little, and the man behind such a technical and, what’s the word I’m reaching for, kind of sophisticated app also has this incredible spiritual, and mindful, and loving side to him that comes through in the way you’ve talked about your own musical journey. I think that will only encourage people to dive into Modacity, give it a try, and see what it might be able to unlock for their musical life.
Marc: Yeah, very excited to share that, very excited for more people to practice with Modacity. You can hear the difference. I went to an opera concert a few months back, and one of our kind of star Modacity users is a great opera singer, and she was singing at that show. There was a particular passage, very difficult coloratura, moving around, jumpy, jumpy, and I could hear … I thought for sure she practiced that with Modacity. I could hear the Modacity in it. And we got together afterwards and she said did you hear that passage? I practiced it with Modacity. I was like yes.
So definitely encourage people to try it out and see how much progress they can make and how much more they can enjoy and relax into their practice.
Christopher: Amazing. Well, for anyone wanting to check that out, you can search the app store for Modacity or go to modacity.co, and of course we’ll have a link directly to that in the show notes for this episode.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Marc.
Marc: My pleasure, Christopher. Thank you for having me.