This is the third in a special series of episodes on how to tackle the biggest sticking points in your music learning. We recently surveyed our audience to learn about their experiences with music practice. The results were astounding! Across several hundred responses, we found a handful of really common and painfully frustrating practice issues – including, “How do I break through plateaus?”
To answer these big burning questions, we invited Gregg Goodhart, The Learning Coach, back on the show. Gregg is a leading expert on how to apply all of the latest scientific research and understanding of how the brain learns to skill acquisition, including in music.
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Christopher: One thing that came up time and time again in this survey was, “I make progress for a little bit, but then there’s just something I can’t crack or I can never get my fingers around this passage, this technique, I just, no matter what I do, my body doesn’t do the right thing, or my brain can’t keep up.” There’s some kind of plateau or sticking point people hit. What can you do in that situation?
Gregg: Well, once again, the science gives us answers. There’s something in the research called the power law of practice. And this applies to academics and everything else. And what it shows, and I think all of us have experienced this, myself included, and I know the pain of working, and working, and working, and not getting it. I went all the way through graduate school and a performance degree on my instrument before I figured this out. The power law shows that each repetition is slightly less effective than the previous repetition. Now, I don’t think it takes an expert in math, which I am not one at all, to understand that if you keep losing, as it gets up, you’re going to get less, and less, and less and they have a curve. They’ve actually studied this, and it shows this power law curve, as far as improvement, improvement, improvement, less improvement, less improvement, less improvement.
Gregg: And this indeed is the dreaded plateau that most musicians experience. It’s expressed in the literature. Sometime later, there was a paper done called The Power Law Applies to Strategy and Tasks. What that meant is, if you take what you’re doing, and then figure out a way to challenge it to do it slightly different, basically vary the context, which is a little more complex than it sounds, you can reset the power law.:So when you experience this plateau, you can go right back to the beginning and get the same gains again, and again, and again. That particular paper was on contextual interference, which is amazing. I’ve called it the steroids of practicing music with no bad side effects.
Gregg: And once you learn to apply that, which some of the exercises are easier, but it really is a complex thing, a complex, nuanced theory, because the exercises become less effective, then you have to put exercises in, but once you do that, you can break plateaus, left and right. There are other ways to do it besides contextual interference, but the answers are clearly in the science. And that’s what I do, for instance, if you see my practiclasses online, and I’ve done several with Musical U, people show up having struggled with something for a long period of time. And sure enough, in 20 minutes, 25 minutes, we make it so it’s faster, cleaner and easier to play.
Gregg: And that’s really crucial. It’s better faster, and usually we’re struggling, pushing at the edge. Instead, it feels much easier. This is possible for anyone. This is just the way the brain works and it’s in the literature, yet it requires doing something that actually looks like you’re getting worse to get better. And I would encourage people to watch the practiclass videos to see how this works.
Gregg: And then, it’s just a matter of, I want to caution people, it’s not, “Oh, I’ll do that exercise.” Because certain exercises work in certain places for certain situations. It’s where you are in the learning process that you do that exercise. And what is very powerful is understanding the why and how of why these things work, then you don’t just follow the exercise, you actually internalize what the exercise is trying to do and you can make it your own and come up with your own strategies, which is what I always encourage in my teaching, to get rid of me at some point, please, and start doing it on your own.
Gregg: And to do that it’s not enough to drive the car, you need to know how the car is built to have a great car. And in practicing, we’re generally driving the car, doing little bits of maintenance to keep it going down the road hoping, what you really want to learn about is every aspect of how the car is built to then have a great car. Now you can’t do that. The driver can’t be the mechanic. That’s what I do. I’m the mechanic. I give you enough information about the mechanics that you can then drive the car and win the race.
Christopher: I love that metaphor and this is definitely one of those things in music education, where I just wish I could implant in every music learner’s brain, because if you understand that power law of diminishing returns and you realize there is a strategy, there is a set of techniques you can use to bust through that and reset the clock, that’s huge because if you look through these survey responses, the number of people that are just feeling so down on themselves because they can’t crack this thing-
Gregg: I know.
Christopher: … or many saying they’re losing their enthusiasm, or they’re wondering if they should even keep going. And to know that you can bust through that with a very practical step-by-step methodology is killer.
Gregg: And it’s 100% effective. That’s why I feel comfortable walking on stage, whether I’m at a great school like the performance program at Florida State University. There’s videos of that, or Indiana University, or whether I’m in an inner city school with kids who don’t get that much attention, I’m never afraid. I never know what instrument I’m going to see. I never know what music I’m going to see. Sometimes it’s fiddle tunes. Sometimes it’s someone playing Rush or The Beatles on guitar, many times it’s people doing the Elgar concerto, or the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. It doesn’t matter. It’s 100% effective in skill development all the time and it always works. To know that’s out there is very liberating.
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