What if you could learn music so fast, people would assume you’re a genius? Imagine jumping over any learning hurdle, breaking through any plateau, and gaining professional-level instrument skills in a fraction of the time. These things are possible.
One of our most popular recent interviews by far was with Gregg Goodhart of Learn Like A Genius. Gregg specialises in taking all the latest research and understanding of how the human brain can most effectively practice, and actually putting it to practical use, in music lessons and classrooms.
There was so much packed into our conversation with Gregg that we wanted to make this dedicated recap episode to make sure you didn’t miss out on any of the major takeaways.
Dive in to this episode for insights from a world-leading expert, and how you can to get access to the detailed training to put it all into practice yourself.
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The first thing to say on this topic is: it’s never too late.
What Gregg teaches can be applied to children – and produce the kind of amazing results that has people thinking they’re magical prodigies – in fact it all applies perfectly well to adults too.
These aren’t techniques that must be incorporated from the outset, nor learned at an early age.
It’s all stuff that any adult music learner can begin using and benefitting from, whatever stage they’re at.
There is one wrinkle though… And that’s the psychology of adult learners which can mean we actually get in our own way.
Gregg explained that as adults we’re used to leveraging a lot of general-purpose education and mental models when we try to learn something new. That means we can watch a YouTube video or two and understand the new thing, maybe even carry out a new process. For example, a home improvement DIY project, where we may not be a handyman but with a tutorial or two we can figure it out and get the job done. And we take pride in that, it’s part of what makes us feel competent as adults.
But music is different.
If you’re coming to music fresh, it’s going to take you a year or more before you can do something that looks even a bit like what you’re aiming for!
And we are really not used to putting ourselves through that kind of embarrassing struggle for so long. It is really not comfortable.
Gregg says it is always going to take longer than we think it should and we’ll probably feel like someone else could have got further with the same time and effort. That’s normal – but the good news is that if you can get through that, it’s guaranteed that you can get very good.
“Let me say to any adult who wants to play out there, it is totally normal to struggle. It is also very normal, and please be aware that you will think you should make more progress than you do while also using inferior methods. So you know you’re learning sometimes when it hurts, slow down so slow that you’d be embarrassed for anyone to hear you, concentrate on the smallest things and never let it go. If you don’t want to do that, you’ll be experiencing what makes most adult beginners want to quit. And you can either give in to that or go through it but this is normal. Nobody picks it up. Don’t talk about, I know this guy down the street, you bet… You don’t know. Look at it, there’s evidence out there that empirically investigates how quickly people learn stuff from the beginning. Look at that.”
At the heart of what Gregg teaches is the concept of “deliberate practice”. This is something we’ve covered a few times before here on the show – and we’ll put links to those episodes in the shownotes – but it can still be a bit tricky for music learners to wrap their head around enough to actually make use of it.
Gregg shared a really neat bitesize summary of it when he showed his diagram of “Plan, do, and reflect” in a circular, never-ending loop.
He noted that the vast majority of music learners skip the “reflect” step every time. They understand the need for a plan, and they understand the need to put in the repetitions, but they don’t take the time to analyse what’s going wrong and consider what could be done differently.
It’s not necessarily three big blocks of time either, we’re talking in-the-moment, minute to minute, getting yourself to focus on the thing you should focus on rather than whatever your mind naturally wanders onto. This can also be seen from a perspective of mindfulness, and check the shownotes for links to other episodes on the benefits of mindfulness and that kind of self-aware reflection during music practice.
This “deliberate practice” can be key to improving fast – but there is a cost.
Practicing this way takes a lot more energy and effort than the more mindless practice of purely putting in the repetitions according to the plan!
And hitting the wall, that block of mental confusion and frustration that I’m sure we’re all familiar with, is going to happen sooner.
When this does happen, it’s important to take a break, not just force yourself through it. Gregg’s rule of thumb from the scientific research is a ratio of three to one, meaning if you practice for 15 minutes, take 5 minutes off, if you practice for 45 minutes, take 15 minutes off, and so on.
This is one reason that the kind of “little and often” approach of spreading mini practice sessions throughout the day which we advocate here at Musical U for ear training, can be so much more effective than the big-block-of-time approach that we tend to assume by default is the “correct” way to approach music practice.
“So one thing that’s important about [deliberate practice] is, the less you’ve done of it, the less you’ll be able to do of it. That means it’s going to frustrate you and you’re going to get to a point where you just can’t… Do you know how you know when you reach that point, when you reach mental confusion, I should be able to do this but I can’t. I think we’ve all had an experience where we’re repping something and then all of a sudden we just can’t do it. That means take a break.
Well if sometimes that happens in a Practiclass, what I do there, because obviously we can’t take a 10 minute break at that point. I say stop everything you’re doing. Stare at the back wall for 30 seconds and think about nothing music related, thinking about what you’re going to do this weekend, think about it, whatever.
And after 30 seconds, it’s amazing – because they go back and they can play it.“
Somewhat ironically, it’s this kind of training yourself to take breaks and stay only in the most productive phases of learning rather than getting lost forcing yourself through the wasteful head-bashing, which in time leads to the “flow states” where you are so lost in the activity’s natural engagement you lose track of time.
As anyone who’s experienced it will tell you, this is one of the most enjoyable states you can find in music learning, and it isn’t a random lucky occurence, it happens because your brain is so perfectly matched to the problem-solving task at hand.
So how do you get into that flow state?
Gregg shared an idea called “contextual interference” which can let you intentionally create this perfect zone of what you can call “desirable difficulty” – where you are, as one research paper put it, “making things hard on yourself but in a good way”.
Simply setting yourself up with challenging situations can help a little, by forcing you to focus more of your attention on the task at hand and prevent you from zoning out because it’s all familiar. But there’s actually a bit more subtlety to this idea which is what makes it so much more powerful for breaking through plateaus than pure “mass repetition”.
The trick is to use small adjustments to the task, such as changing the rhythms to all be dotted, like swinging the beat – or even playing through the passage backwards!
Gregg has a variety of these ideas up his sleeve and it’s important to have a whole toolkit because they will lose their effectiveness over time as your brain gets better at handling that kind of variation.
But the trick is to force your brain to re-learn the same task in a slightly different way, to produce what Gregg so vividly described as the “universal sign of learning” – meaning your brows are furrowed, your eyes are narrows, your lips are pursed – you’re really concentrating and even struggling a bit!
So how does this all relate to the idea of learning that we’re all so familiar with: that at first you should practice passages slowly to get the correct version ingrained in your brain, and then you need to put in the reps to get it up to speed.
“Old thinking was, and by that I mean the way I practiced for a long time and it will work to some extent, was now do that thing a hundred times in a row every day until it feels good. And I would do that. I used to have what I call a hundred rep scheme that I used to go through keeping track of my rep and it worked.
But boy, Oh boy, if I only knew how much time I was wasting and having my students waste by doing that. There is a place for mass repetition and we don’t have time to get into it here, but there is a master repetition, then contextual interference, then spacing and all this other stuff. There is a place for mass repetition one after another help refine and initially get it in, but we all know that we seem to hit plateaus, we do repetition and we wait with all music teachers and anyone who’s been studying music for a while knows about the plateaus.
The thing about the plateau is it can be broken. “
Gregg explained that the ideal learning sequence uses all of these techniques, and the order is important.
You do begin by figuring out how to basically play the passage, slowly, so that you can be sure you’re teaching your brain just one single way to play it, for example one specific pattern of fingering for the notes.
After that you can use simple repetition to get up to target tempo – and in many cases that will be enough to get you there.
But when you’re plateauing, when the mass repetition isn’t getting the job done, that’s when you introduce contextual interference – when you’ve already settled on one correct version and done the repetitions to reinforce those neural networks in your brain.
That’s when contextual interference, meaning trying to play all these different variations of the same passage, can help you break past the plateau.
Gregg also teased that beyond that lies ideas about how to structure and schedule your practice like spaced repetition and interleaving – but in his view those are really the icing on the cake, and you can go a really long way just with those first three components: the slow learning, mass repetition, and contextual interference to break through plateaus.
One thing I love about Gregg is that he doesn’t just talk in high-level abstractions. Just like we do here at Musical U, where we try to spread the headline message about musicality – but also back it up by actually providing real, concrete training to show you it’s possible for you.
Gregg does this in person with his Practiclass sessions where he’ll tackle a problem area in a piece with a student, something they might have been struggling to get up to speed for months, and in 20 minutes will have them playing it flawlessly at tempo. And he also provides 1-to-1 Practice Coaching via online videocall – we’ll have a link to information about that in the shownotes.
Now Gregg has kindly agreed to come and present a special masterclass for us at Musical U, which you are invited to attend, for free.
If these ideas about learning faster and breaking through plateaus get you excited then don’t miss this chance to learn in detail how to apply it all yourself.
Learn more about the masterclass at musicalitynow.com/genius – and I hope to see you there!
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