Today’s guest, Gregg Goodhart, takes all the latest research and understanding of how the human brain learns most effectively, and then puts it to practical use, in music lessons and classrooms. Through his innovative Practiclass project he’s able to prove by on-the-spot demonstration with real students, just how effective these techniques can be for breaking past longstanding plateaus and reaching new heights of instrumental ability.

Gregg’s YouTube channel and project is called Learn Like A Genius, and with good reason. When you see the virtuoso instrumentalist, the person who seems like a musical genius, and wonder how they got so good, the chances are that they either consciously or unconsciously have been using some of the learning techniques that Gregg shares today.

We talk about:

  • The two disastrous ways that the idea of “talent” sabotages music learners and can hold you back from reaching your true potential.
  • Gregg’s simple three-word summary of the powerful idea of “deliberate practice”, and how it can be the key to fast progress.
  • The counter-intuitive but foolproof way to break past plateaus where you just can’t seem to play a certain passage correctly at full speed.

You’re going to come away from this episode seriously inspired about what could be possible from your music practice in the future – and to make sure you’re able to really follow through on that, we’ve got a couple of fantastic ways for you to dive into using these ideas in a practical way.

Watch the episode:

Next Steps

If you’re inspired to try some of the techniques discussed in this episode, here is a great way to get started:

Gregg provides practice coaching in personal 1-to-1 sessions online and currently offers your first session free!→ Click here for details and to book now

In January Gregg will be joining us here at Musical U to teach a free online masterclass on these topics and help you level up your practice effectiveness. Register for free by entering your details below!

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Gregg Goodhart of the Learn Like a Genius project applies the latest research on how the human brain learns most effectively to music practice.



I had a sneaking suspicion this was an interview that might run long, given the depth of Gregg’s experience and his genuine passion for sharing these powerful ideas! And so I hope you’ll forgive me making it longer still now with my summary – but there was too much goodness in here not to give it a proper recap!

True to form, Gregg says his own passion for music was nurture not nature – he remembers dancing with his mum as a small child and being immersed in her 45 record collection before discovering The Beatles at age 10 because all the cool kids were listening to them at the time, and realising through that that he loved rock’n’roll. This led to switching from learning drums to rock guitar, then classical.

He said those early years were characterised by not knowing how to get better. A struggle that required grit to persevere, grit which was rooted in both a love of the music and a personality trait of being unwilling to give up.

I asked him to describe what that was like, and he said a big part of it was the tendency to get the hang of things at slow speeds but then be totally unable to get them up to full speed – and that combined with the other big factor which is that in music, we really expect perfection, or close to it. Even though many of us would be quick to say “nothing’s ever truly perfect in music”, as Gregg points out, this isn’t like an academic test where scoring 95% would be an excellent result. In music if your performance has 5% wrong notes it’s going to sound pretty terrible to the audience!

And so we fall into this perfectionism which, without a clear understanding of how to really improve and break past plateaus, often leaves us feeling frustrated and intimidated. And interestingly, he points out that getting past that, getting closer to reliable “perfection”, means you escape from performance anxiety too – because instead of stepping on stage thinking there’s a decent chance you’ll manage to play it right, you know with confidence that playing it right is totally normal for you. He’s seen this with his coaching clients, where if they focus fully on practicing to the point of effortless mastery, there really isn’t much issue of nerves when it comes to auditions or performances.

So that begs the question: how do you go from the standard learning experience of struggling to get any better than “mostly okay” in your technique and performance and really reach these levels of excellence that make performance feel easy?

He got as far as a master’s degree in performance without discovering the answer and says that although he was frequently among the best-of-the-best in whatever musical situations he found himself in, even being called “talented”, he was always internally disappointed.

The turning point was when it came time to start teaching, and he realised that although to some extent he’d learned how to reach top level in his own playing, he really did not understand what it would take to get one of his students to that same level.

This context, of a child starting to learn music, is an excellent one for understanding the impact that the idea of “talent” has on us in music learning.

Gregg described how having that idea of “talent” in your mind causes two massive problems. Firstly, it tends to mean that the early weeks of trying to learn music aren’t seen as introductory teaching, so much as they are a little test to check whether the child has the magical “gift” for music or not. And as he notes, it’s an extremely small number who are able to respond to that teaching in the way that marks them out as seemingly “talented”. For those who do persist, the idea of “talent” causes a second huge problem, and that’s that it makes us think that “mere competence is excellence” as Gregg puts it. Performing note-perfect should be the norm in music, but as long as we consider only the gifted virtuosos capable of it, we’ll always be satisfied to reach 85% or 90% ourselves – and so fail to uncover the learning techniques that could enable us to reach those lofty highs ourselves.

Strip away that idea of talent and immediately everything looks different. Of course we can’t expect children to spring into virtuosity after just a few weeks of instruction – and of course we should expect every single music learner to be capable of potentially reaching the highest levels.

Part of what perpetuates the idea of talent is the fact that generally learning isn’t fun to begin with – but does get fun once you get past the early “hump” period. So those who seem to enjoy and improve are said to have found their passion and encouraged onwards – but those still in the early “hump” phase don’t yet have the skill and aren’t really enjoying the learning process, so they conclude that’s not the area they’re talented in and they move on.

So the trick is to be willing to confront the fact that learning isn’t easy. But as Gregg puts it, it doesn’t need to be that hard either. Once you open up your willingness to make mistakes and struggle a bit, once you see you have limitless potential ahead of you, then you can start to really leverage the tools and tactics that can dramatically accelerate your learning.

Now some of these things are really clever, cutting-edge, and have yet to be widely known in music education – but actually, a ton of it boils down to the wonderful saying Gregg shared: “If at first you don’t succeed, try doing what your teacher told you the first time”!

It’s funny – but if you stop for a second and think about how accurately you follow your teacher’s prescribed practice method, how would you score it? Are you doing 100% of what they tell you, 100% of the way they told you to, and showing up to do that in 100% of your planned practice sessions. If my own experience is anything to go by, I suspect the answer is “no”!

And Gregg’s comment really hit home with me: that while some teachers might see a student struggling a few weeks in and decide “they’re not particularly talented, I guess we’ll just let them bumble along”, another might say “well, first let’s check: are they actually doing the things I asked them to do between lessons?”

Now don’t get me wrong: I have enormous respect for music teachers, as does Gregg. And I’m not criticising the student either, I fully appreciate the challenges of finding the time and requisite energy for good music practice, especially among adult music learners. But I think we owe it to ourselves to be honest, and I love how direct Gregg is about this stuff. Maybe instead of feeling really deeply bad about ourselves for lacking “talent” we could instead feel just a little bit bad about ourselves for not doing what we were told to – and then take action to improve on that each week.

Gregg’s example of orienting selective attention was powerful here, I think. He talked about how with young children we tend to throw all kinds of music instruction at them early on – when in reality, at that stage, simply doing something you’ve been told to do – anything at all! – is hard enough. And perhaps the wise teacher recognises that, and instead of putting the kid through the wringer and then judging their talent, we could instead teach in a way that helped them develop that ability to orient selective attention. And although I think most of us as adults would consider ourselves pretty good at knuckling down to do what we know we’re supposed to – actually this same thing is at play any time we fail to do in our practice session what our teacher told us to.

There’s another big factor at play with adults, which is that we’re used to leveraging a lot of general-purpose education and mental models when we try to learn something new. We can watch a YouTube video or two and understand the new thing, maybe even carry out a new process like a home improvement DIY project. And we take pride in that.

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’re really not used to putting ourselves through that kind of embarrassing struggle for so long! Gregg says it is always going to take longer than we think it should and we are always going to feel like someone else could have got further with the same time and effort. That’s normal – but if you can get through that, it’s guaranteed that you can get very good.

Now as I said in the interview, I kind of wanted to just let Gregg mic drop and end the interview there. Because if you came away from this having *really* internalised these three things – talent is a myth, just do what your teacher tells you to (like, really do it!) and the learning is going to take longer than you expect but you can absolutely become excellent – then I think that would fantastic result from this episode!

But Gregg doesn’t just talk in high-level abstractions. Like we do here at Musical U, we try to spread the headline message but we back it up by actually providing real, concrete training to show you it’s possible for you. Gregg does this in person and via videocalls with individual students, often in a group session since the principles can really effectively be learned by observing it in practice.

In his Practiclass sessions 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 this isn’t just about fixing one problem, nor learning a few specific techniques – it’s also about opening their eyes to what might actually be possible, after all.

Gregg notes that deliberate practice, the heart of how he approaches teaching practice, is by its nature, not enjoyable! And it requires patience and persistence to reap the rewards. But with the Practiclass format Gregg’s able to give students a fast taste of what’s possible and inspire the kind of internal motivation that will let them continue on this far more efficient and enjoyable path. “Wow, my fingers can do *that*?!” as he put it.

Deliberate practice is something we’ve covered a few times before here on the show and we’ll link in the shownotes to those past episodes, but 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, and 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, so the “reflect” step can also be seen as the “orienting selective attention” as Gregg talked about earlier in the conversation, getting yourself to focus on the thing you should focus on rather than whatever your mind naturally wanders onto – and it can also be seen from a perspective of mindfulness, and again I’ll link to past episodes with Susanne Olbrich and Nick Bottini on the benefits of mindfulness and that kind of self-aware reflection during music practice.

This takes a lot more energy and effort than the more mindless practice of purely putting in the repetitions according to the plan. And hitting that block of mental confusion and frustration that I’m sure we’re all familiar with, is going to happen sooner. When it does, it’s important to take a break, not just force yourself through it. His 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 practice.

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.

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 listed out and described in the handout which we’ll link to in the shownotes for this episode at, 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!

It’s important to understand how this all relates to the ideas you might already be familiar with, that at first you should practice passages slowly to get the correct version ingrained in your brain, and that you then need to put in the reps to get it up to speed. Gregg explained that the ideal learning sequence uses all of these things, 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. Then contextual interference, trying to play these different variations of the same passage, that helps you break past that plateau. And 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.

Now if you’re anything like me, when you hear these ideas you’re immediately like “Wow, I get it, I am totally going to use all this in my practice!” – and I really appreciated that Gregg noted how common it is for us to let these things slide. In his 1-on-1 practice coaching, it’s not just about teaching these concepts and getting the student going using them, it’s also serving a purpose of reminding them, continually, to actually keep using them. He said he almost never lets coaching run longer than eight weeks, so at some point the student really does have these techniques ingrained in how they learn, but if you’re feeling inspired by these ideas I do think it’s really valuable to keep this in mind from the outset, that our human nature is always going to be to fall back to the simpler, lazier, easy practice habits, and having some ongoing resource like Gregg’s personal coaching could make all the difference in the impact these ideas have in your music learning.

Gregg generously offers the first session for free, and says you can see real benefits just from that first session, so if you think this could make a difference for you then that could be a fantastic way for you to get started applying all these powerful accelerators in your practice.

You can learn more about Gregg and his work at, that’s, and you’ll find details of his coaching as well as another special opportunity to dive into these techniques in the shownotes for this episode at, that’s Gregg with two G’s, G-R-E-G-G, Don’t miss this chance to learn how to get a lot more from the time and energy you put into learning music.

Thanks for listening to this episode, and I’ll see you on the next one!

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