Today we’re talking with Dr. Jonathan Harnum, whose PhD research was focused on the topic of music practice. Dr. Harnum studied how a wide variety of musicians think about and execute practice to be able to reach such high levels of ability.
The result of Dr. Harnum’s research is a book called The Practice Of Practice, which we strongly recommend checking out. “The Practice of Practice” is a highly-readable treasure trove of all the latest ideas, understanding, techniques and insights on what makes for effective music practice and how you can learn better and faster.
From a classical upbringing to an exciting 2-year road-trip of discovering improvisation, Jonathan Harnum’s own musical journey is fascinating! We were excited to have the chance to speak with him and share some of the ideas from “The Practice of Practice” to inspire and accelerate your music learning.
If you heard our recent interview with Gregg Goodhart on the topic of practice then you’ll find this is a beautiful counterpoint. Although the broad topic is the same, this is a very different conversation – but similarly packed with insights and nuggets that can pay off for your own music practice.
In this conversation you’ll hear about:
- A simple way to reframe how you think about difficult things which can immediately transform frustration and helplessness into empowered eagerness.
- The neurological research which proves that watching live music can be a highly valuable form of practice too.
- How “guerilla practice” can help you fit in genuinely effective music practice even amid the busiest of lives.
You’re going to really enjoy Dr. Harnum’s insights on improvising, creativity, broadening the idea of what music practice can be, and some of the very specific actionable ideas he shares along the way.
Watch the episode:
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Jonathan: Hello, this is Jonathan Harnum, and I’m the author of The Practice of Practice and other music books. And you are listening to Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Jon. Thank you for joining us today.
Jonathan: My pleasure.
Christopher: So, I have to agree with a quote you have on the front of The Practice of Practice from I think the founder or co-founder of Groupon, who said, basically, “This is the best all-in-one guide to everything we know about how to practice.” And I couldn’t agree more. There is so much valuable stuff in that book, from the tactical through to the strategical through to the mindset. And I’m just going to try my very best to scratch the surface today because people are going to have to check out the book or you have a free ebook on the same topic, which covers some of the same ground, not everything that’s in the full book.
Christopher: But before we dive into all of that good stuff, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about you as a musician rather than as the author of this book and practice. Where did you come from and learning music yourself?
Jonathan: So I grew up in a small town in Alaska, and did kind of the normal band thing. In ensemble kind of deal, band, choir, orchestra. And did that all through middle school in high school and had some amazing teachers despite being in a rural setting in Alaska. There weren’t a whole lot of opportunities to hear live music but the instruction was really great. And so I did that all through high school, decided I want to be a music teacher, did my undergrad. And then taught for a while and was sort of stuck in my musicianship I think. I had come through the school system and I think like a lot of people do, once you are through with that system, if you don’t have a group to play with, like a large wind ensemble, say 20 people, 40 people, it’s kind of almost pointless to play your instrument because there’s not really anything to play for.
Jonathan: So, I was kind of struggling with that for a number of years. I would still play and practice but I didn’t have anyone to play with. That’s starting to change a little more here. There’s a lot more community band kind of activity for those kind of musicians. But I think school music is a model that keeps us reading the written page and I was interested in something else.
Jonathan: So, I got married, took a very long road trip, a two year road trip. And on that trip, I decided to start playing trumpet with anybody and everybody that would want me to play with them. And I had never really improvise a lot before. I played a lot of jazz and sort of, it sort of scared me. I think it’s good to do things that scare you as long as they’re not too dangerous. And as far as I can tell, playing music is not too dangerous, usually. So, I started doing that and just began to fall in love with using my ears and trying to be musical without written music, and listening and that sort of thing. And that led to a whole other experience of playing music and improvising and doing free improvisation and playing jazz. It’s so much more freeing.
Jonathan: One of the turning points I think to do that was a book by pianist Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. But fantastic book and it’s more about connecting with sound, not necessarily identifying as music, but just sound. So, now I’m playing in three or four different bands regularly. I play trumpet, guitar, piano, some percussion and just love it.
Christopher: Fantastic. I wonder can-
Jonathan: So that’s my musical life.
Christopher: Can we dive into those early experiences, because you touched on there the fact that moving from written notation to improvising can be a bit of a daunting thing, even if intellectually you know there’s no real danger to it. What were those first times when you were out on the road, and you decided, “okay, I’ll try jamming or I’ll try playing with this group, I don’t have sheet music for”, how did that go? How were you feeling, how did you approach that?
Jonathan: Well, I think, it was really interesting and super fun and way easier than I ever thought it would be. Partly because, I mean, up to that point, I’d been playing for, gosh, probably over 10 or 15 years. And I had more of a classical orientation then and a focus. So I knew all of my scales, all of my modes. I mean, I knew scales backwards, forwards, in and out. And so, it was just a matter of trying to find the key that we were playing in and then just messing around with scales and trying to make something that either fit with a musical or was musical.
Jonathan: And I think partly because trumpet is not an instrument that you usually see in, I don’t know, say a singer-songwriter or people just playing guitar on the street, it’s not a “normal” instrument and so, there was this kind of wow factor. People were like oh, my goodness, there’s trumpet playing with us. So that was kind of neat and made me feel special, I guess.
Jonathan: But I think, for me, anyway, being trained to read the page for so long and being focused on not making mistakes, whatever that may mean, that I think for me was part of the challenge to go into more of a free setting where there really is no such thing as a mistake. I mean, there’s something that might cause a little more attention than another note or another line. But for the most part, there’s no way to know what’s right or what’s wrong. You’re either playing in the key or you’re not. And so, it’s very freeing. It was still kind of daunting but it was a relief, I guess, in a lot of ways to be like wow, this is actually really fun. I can actually do this. So, it was great.
Christopher: Gotcha. And you made reference there to how it was about moving more to relying on your ear, and I guess that’s part of what lets you know if you’re making a so-called mistake or how to recover from it, is that staying aware and conscious of what you’re playing and how it sounds.
Jonathan: Yeah. You’re always only a half step away from the right note. Yeah. I think partly, it’s more daunting or more frightening because it’s more personal. When you have a note on a page, someone else wrote that note from that piece of music, whatever it might be. And so, there’s not an ownership. And when you’re creating yourself, it’s yours, it’s you, it’s what you’re putting out there. And I think that’s part of maybe the daunting aspect of it, at least it is for me. And I think for me also, it relates into this idea that’s in the book, about natural ability, and, you know, they’re a naturally talented musician. And I think that’s, well, I believe very strongly that that’s not the case at all, that practice, even hidden kinds of practice that we might not consider practice are what result in talent, or musical ability.
Jonathan: So if you’re improvising and kind of putting yourself out there, and if it sounds bad, that might, in my mind, anyway, at the time, I mean, I’m not talented, so, you know, like, what am I even trying to do doing this? And so, for me, improvising like that or just trying to figure things out was great not only musically, but psychologically I think too.
Christopher: That’s so interesting. And you mentioned a couple of things there that I really want to dig into later in the conversation. One is the idea of hidden practice, that there might be practice going on that we don’t traditionally think of as practice.
Christopher: And the other is that these improvisational skills, these ear skills can also be a part of practice. I wonder back then, were you practicing between jam sessions? Were you doing something to help you get the hang of improvising and creating?
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. I had a practice mute, because we are in a small Volkswagen camper and we had a nice stereo system in it. But I would put a practice mute in and just play along with whatever was on that we were listening to. Mostly like pop music singer-songwriters, symphonic stuff, sometimes, just jazz, just a wide range of different kinds of music and just trying to figure it out, but also doing more typical practice, like doing scales and exercises and flexibility stuff, and all the sort of technique-y kind of things that I probably would never play in an improvised setting. But they’re skills that are crucial to being able to play the instrument. So both of those. Yeah, I was both training my ear to try to figure out songs and rely on the practice I’d done before but also trying to keep up with the technique as well.
Christopher: Interesting. And in case anyone in the audience isn’t familiar with trumpet practice mute, doesn’t totally mute you. When you were sat there in the camper van, you could still hear yourself, you just weren’t blasting the driver out of the van.
Jonathan: Right. Would you like to hear an example?
Jonathan: I don’t have the practice mute here but the horn unmuted. So it’s pretty loud. But with a mute in, let’s see. So this isn’t a practice mute but it will cut the sound significantly. Anyway.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you. Well, I think our microphones dutifully exploded with the full volume trumpet, so that demonstrates the point suitably. I’m sure a lot of people in our audience are envious of the idea of being able to just sit in a camper van for two years getting to know their instrument inside out and break away from the sheet music. But it must have been going fairly well for you to stick with it. You know, if you were going to the jam session and falling on your face and then sat in the van trying to figure things out by ear and really struggling, I don’t imagine you would have kept that up for two years. So did you find you were getting the hang of it relatively quickly? Were there kind of early wins that kept you going?
Jonathan: Yeah, well, it was, I mean, like I was saying, I’d been practicing for over 15 years at that point. So coming into a scale or finding a key was relatively easy. My music theory chops were also pretty solid so I could sort of extrapolate in my head if I started finding a few notes, you know, using relative minors and majors and those sorts of things. It happened very quickly. I mean, at that point, I’d been studying music from middle school all the way through college and a couple years of teaching. So it was, it was very easy, for me. It was kind of a natural progression.
Jonathan: But I did discover that, normally, I was playing with guitar players and so that put me in for trumpet lots of sharp keys, which tend to be less familiar. I was going to say difficult, but it’s not the case, it’s just less familiar. So that was a really good kind of a nice wake up call to be playing say in the key of F sharp which is what, six sharps. So these unfamiliar keys that were unfamiliar to me as a trumpet player but are very common for guitar player. So if a guitar player’s playing an E, that puts me in F sharp. So that was kind of an eye-opener.
Jonathan: But generally, because I had done so much scale practice and technique work, it was a pretty easy transition, or it just sort of, the challenge was not so much playing in the key but playing something that was worth hearing.
Christopher: Interesting. I think a lot of times in our culture, people see it as an either/or, as a kind of false dichotomy that someone is either a sheet music musician or they’re by ear musician. And both camps gonna end up envious of the other one and not really understanding how it works. And it’s the rare musician who actually starts in one and transitions to the other or manages to learn both at once. Did you find it was challenging emotionally or psychologically? Did you find that your identity just kind of naturally grew into that other kind of musicianship?
Jonathan: No. I think it’s still, because I learned from the page, that influenced me really deeply. So I guess I started when I was 11, and by the time I was 21 or 22, I was out of college, so that’s a good decade of that kind of mentality. And I still, even though, in fact, I have a gig tonight that I’ll be improvising a whole bunch on, but it’s still, I wouldn’t say a challenge, although it is a challenge, it’s still something that I think a lot about, about trying to improvise in such a way that I’m not just noodling around. Like, oh, I’m in the key of whatever and I’m just playing notes. I’m trying to actually be musical. And for me, that’s kind of the challenge, and, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it’s the same challenge then in making that transition as it is now.
Jonathan: In fact, lately, I have been, I joined a wind ensemble last year, and it was the first time I’d actually played with a bunch of other musicians off the page for probably close to a decade. And it was really, it was really fun. I kind of had a reaction to that kind of written page music. I didn’t want anything to do with it for a number of years. And getting back to it was really refreshing. It’s a different way of connecting with people and making music. It’s just very different.
Jonathan: So, I think having grown up using written music, it still seems fresh, and I don’t know risky is the right word, but a really nice challenge to try to use my ears and the horn to play. It’s harder. I can read almost anything that is put in front of me, and that’s fun. But to try to do the same thing without anything but your ears and your instrument is, I think, a really fun challenge. And it’s also a little bit scarier too because it’s just you.
Christopher: Sure. I’d been wondering as I read the book what the origin story of the Practice of Practice might be. And now I’m thinking okay, so you go off in a van for two years, you’re playing your instrument the whole time, you’re experimenting, trying new things. Maybe you inevitably come back thinking like, we’ve been going about practice entirely wrong. Is that what happened or what inspired you to write such an in-depth book on practice?
Jonathan: Well, there were a few things. There was partly that. Where I went to school for my graduate work which is Northwestern University, which is known to be kind of like a conservatory school. So it’s very much classically oriented. In fact, some just major players, symphonic players come out of that school. Trumpeters, French horn players, people who are playing in New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, just really a powerhouse of orchestral education. And me, coming from more of, at least at that point, more interested in improvisation and kind of other ways of learning music and making music, made me think about that topic a lot more because I was surrounded by incredible musicians. Like literally some of the best in the world at what they do. And then also seeing that some of them were so frightened of improvising, or of not having something on the page that they could play flawlessly.
Jonathan: And so, that is one of the things that started me thinking about it. But I also, in my own quest to be a better musician, I’m curious about like, how do people do that. And also being surrounded by these amazing musicians and talking to them about what practice is and what they do and how they think about it seemed very fascinating to me. It was a once, literally, once in a lifetime opportunity to be around those kinds of musicians and be able to ask them questions.
Jonathan: So, I ended up creating a research project for my PhD that was geared toward practice. What it is, how people do it, how they think about it, and how that is different from say, a classical musician, to a jazz musician, to a folk musician, to someone from a different musical tradition like Djembe music from Mali in West Africa was one of the things that I wanted to focus on.
Jonathan: So, so all of the research literature, as I started looking into this, it’s literally, at least at the time, so it’s been about seven or eight years since I was actively pursuing the research. But at the time, 99.9% of it was geared toward classical music. And it’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of studies. But it’s all based on the band, choir, orchestra kind of model. And so, I was really curious to ask other musicians how they thought about it, what they did, what practice meant to them, not only to discover what that might be, but also to help myself be a better practicer.
Jonathan: I just ran across a quote that I think I’m going to use, I love quotes, if you couldn’t tell from the book. But this one is from, let’s see if I can remember, it’s from Telamon of Arcadia, he was a fifth century mercenary. And he said, “It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.” And to me, that resonates a lot with the practice approach because you can read every book and talk about it day and night. But when it comes down to sitting in that chair and doing the practice, it’s different. Those things can help, absolutely. But it’s still, it’s still a personal relationship with whatever it is you’re trying to do. So, yeah, in a nutshell, that’s how the research project sort of came to be. It’s ongoing too. I’m still learning more and thinking about it and it’s endless. Which is good, I think.
Christopher: Well, I want to come back to that quote because I think it ties in with one of the concepts in the book that you share about kind of keeping at it and “staying in the chair” as it were. But I’m curious to know, if there’s so much that’s been researched and written about that band, orchestra, classical model of practice, what’s the alternative? What did you discover that maybe the average musician going to a one-on-one teacher for lessons each week isn’t getting told about what music practice is?
Jonathan: Well, I think it depends on the teacher for sure. So, one of the groups that I wanted to talk to were singer-songwriters or maybe like folk musician or pop musician, someone who wasn’t necessarily in the classical world was what I was looking for. And one of the first people I talked to was a guy named Nicholas Baron. He’s a singer-songwriter from Chicago. And one of the first things he said was “I never practice”. And, I mean, the guy can play guitar really well. He’s got a great voice, he sings, he knows hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs. He writes his own stuff. And so, clearly, he’s doing something, and has done something, to be able to play the way he does.
Jonathan: And so, that started me thinking like, okay, so what exactly, this is, I was referring in our earlier chat about practice as kind of a loaded term. And I think it really is. We tend to think of practice as something that’s boring or doing scales, or, you know, you’re forced to sit at the piano, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. It certainly can be that. And not to say that that’s necessarily bad doing the scales and doing stuff that can be a little more tedious. But some people don’t have the patience or the desire to do it that way, including folk musicians, some of them. And so, their idea of practice is different. They wouldn’t call it practice, like Erin McKeown, another singer-songwriter who I interviewed for the book, she phrased it as spending time with her instrument. Because that sort of sidestep the kind of the baggage that goes along with this idea about practice.
Jonathan: And same thing with Nicholas. With that kind of music, and jazz too, it’s more about the song and the melody and feeling something. Which I think should be part of any practice from the beginning. But because in school music, we learn from the page, and if you imagine, you’ve got a classroom of say 40, 11 year olds, and they all have a very loud instrument, you know, learning something by ear is not probably a good approach. But having the written music there and saying, this is where you put your finger, this is the note that it’s supposed to sound like, it allows you to control that chaos a little bit.
Jonathan: But I think because it’s a sort of a programmatic approach, it can become just button pushing. If you’re not careful as a teacher about talking about the expressive elements of music, it’s just button pushing. And I think one of the real gems that I took away from talking with people who don’t think about practice, the scale approach is, like one of the things that Erin said is, you know, she was talking with someone before our interview about that aspect. They both kind of agreed that they had this idea that practicing something, like really diligently and nailing the parts down or whatever kind of ruined it. It ruins sort of the feeling-full aspect of it or it could. But then she said also that she had just started practicing and she realized it just opened up a lot of other ability.
Jonathan: So I really have found that, like you said, there’s kind of a false dichotomy. You either are a reader or an ear player. And absolutely, I’ve met people who are fantastic symphonic musicians, just say, oh, you know, I really wish I could do that, not realizing that they can. And on the other side, you know, people who play by ear and just sing songs like, oh, I really wish I could read music, and they could do that as well. Yeah, I’m not sure what else I got on that topic.
Christopher: So you hinted earlier at this maybe, but when you encountered Nicholas, this fantastic musician, and he said to you “I don’t practice”, why did you not at that point, say, oh, I guess he’s one of the talented ones, I’ll go interview someone else?
Jonathan: Because I absolutely don’t believe that, And at that point, so I had been reading through all this research, including Carol Dweck’s work, which I’m sure we’ll get to. I’m just convinced and still am, that there’s no such thing as natural ability. From everything that I have been able to read or discover, there might be say for example, someone might have better coordination, slightly better, than anybody, you know, than other people, they might be in a higher percentile of being able to be coordinated. So playing guitar or organ where you have to use your feet and your hands or drum set for that matter, that might be a little bit easier for them.
Jonathan: So there might be some physical abilities that help a little bit. But in order to play music or to do anything more than a beginners level, it takes practice. It doesn’t matter how gifted, if that’s even a thing, you are, you’ve got to spend the time doing some kind of practice. Whether it’s like, for example, Nicholas, just playing songs, and just, he said, he would just start performing. He played in the subways just all day long and would get tips from people sometimes and he would just, his practice was performing, was just playing, just learning songs and playing. It’s fascinating to me that that doesn’t, in his mind, count as practice, it may now since conversation, he may think about it differently.
Jonathan: But I think like folk musicians, and certainly not all of them, but in general, it seems like the idea is that, you just do it. You figure it out. And for whatever reason, that’s not necessarily practice. You’re just hanging out with other people around the campfire just trying to figure it out. But to me, that is practice. It’s a form of practice. It’s not doing scales or theory or any of that, but you’re actively engaging your ear and the instrument and you’re just trying to figure things out. I mean, that’s essentially what I think practice is, is just trying to make it work by whatever means necessary.
Christopher: And in the practice like this book, you actually define three categories of practice, where intentional practice is one, but there’s also accidental practice and play as practice. Could you talk a little bit about each of those because I think it’s helpful for people to understand there might be other types of practice available to them?
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So, the first one of accidental practice, I call it accidental practice, in the Practice of Practice book, I call it Samskara, which is an Indian term from India. And one of the musicians that I interviewed about that, Prasad Upasani, he was the one that introduced me to this idea, and Samskara is an Indian word that means practice based on where you are. So for example, growing up in a house where someone is playing music a lot, you see that, you absorb that, you’re like, oh, well, that’s possible to do.
Jonathan: So for example, my daughter now is three. And there’s instruments all over the house. Of course she can’t play them really at all. Depends on what your definition of play, she plays with them. But she’ll sing songs strumming her ukulele, or she has a little cello that I’ve strung like a bass because she loves the bass. She’s holding it correctly, she’s moving her hands kind of in the right way. And so, to me, even though it’s not intentional practice, for sure, she’s just playing. So it’s kind of a blend of those two, of the accidental practice because of where you are or where you grow up and the practice as play. I think that can be a really valuable way of gaining skill. And we don’t usually think of that as practice. It’s the deliberate practice, so the intentional practice that we usually label as practice. But I think all of those things can contribute.
Jonathan: You know, like Zakir Hussain, who is one of the most amazing tabla players and musicians alive, now or anytime, you know, he was saying, his father was a famous tabla player. And so, that music was around all the time, musicians were around all the time. And he said, growing up, that he would just kind of run in and play tabla for a little bit and run out and keep playing. And, I mean, the guys, I don’t know, are you familiar with him, he’s just an incredible musician.
Jonathan: So, that that Samskara, it can be a really powerful idea. And it’s one of those kind of hidden I think, not hidden necessarily, but it’s one of those ways of acquiring skill that we don’t really think about or we don’t see. When we see someone play an amazing piece of music or do something in sports, all practices hidden, it’s just that one moment that you see. I think it’s much easier to label someone as naturally talented than it is to think about all the things that went into that moment or that event or that piece of music or whatever it might be, even that one little solo. We can’t see all that. And so, oh, they’re talented. It’s easier to think about that way I think.
Christopher: For sure. And what you just said really reminded me of a recent interview I did with a chap named Robert Emery from the UK, who is one of these examples of someone that gets pointed to and called talented, for better or worse. And certainly he’s incredibly skillful. But when he talked about his upbringing, he said, he encourages people to think in terms of your musical duvet, or blanket, and the importance of immersing yourself in music. And he said something like, to the extent that you can’t help but learn, which I thought was a fantastic way of putting it, and that kind of environmental learning that you kind of absorb passively.
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. From what you listen to, or, for me, one of my, I don’t know if you’d call it a regret, but growing up in rural Alaska, there was not a lot of opportunity to see live music. And I think, at least for me, when I was in a, when I was a little bit older and I could actually go see live music, it changed things for me, because music that we usually consume, it’s an abstract thing. It’s just sound coming through speakers. Maybe we’ll watch a video, at least now. But it tends to be rather abstract. We put our earbuds in and do a workout or whatever. We don’t see the people doing it.
Jonathan: And something about being in a room with people making sounds on these instruments, to me was like, oh, even though obviously, intellectually, I know that that’s what’s happening and people are doing that, but to actually see it in front of me made it more achievable I think or approachable, I’ll be like. oh, I could do that, maybe. Even still, I think anybody who’s trying to learn music, whatever the instrument, going to see live music is one of the best things that you can do because it’s inspiring, with the right mindset. But it’s also, you know, like going to an open mic, especially is a really nice way to do it because you’re probably going to see people who either have never done it before, or are still working on getting it done. And it can give you sort of permission to, it’s okay to be not good at something for a while.
Jonathan: The other thing about the live piece is that the stuff that we listen to, even symphonic works, those are highly edited. I have friends that are in symphonies that I’ve talked to about recordings, so he’s like, well, yeah, we’ll do a recording, and then we’ll go back and punch in and out certain sections that for whatever reason didn’t quite make the cut. And so, we listen all day long till whatever we’re listening to is perfect. There’s these flawless examples of musicality, which is great, and it’s amazing. Like who would want to listen to mistakes. But there’s something about the live, real human beings doing something in real time that is kind of special, I think, and inspirational, for me anyway.
Christopher: For sure. And I don’t want to jump ahead too much, but in the “who” section of your book, you talk about the fact that many of the people you spoke to identified listening and watching live music as a form of practice, right?
Jonathan: Absolutely, yeah. Yup. And I believe that more and more, especially, I have not yet had a student who I don’t have to really kind of push to listen, specifically, to listen to the tunes that they’re trying to do, which always kind of puzzles me. It’s easy when the tune is something that the student brings to me, and says, I want to learn this, they already know it. But if we’re doing something else that they’re maybe not familiar with, two, three weeks will go by and they’re still struggling with this piece of music. And I’m like, “Well, have you listened to it?” “Oh, no.” Okay. So then we actually listen to it in the lesson and start talking about it in the lesson. Because clearly, they’re not doing it at home.
Jonathan: And usually, this is younger kids who might not be as motivated as maybe other adults or, you know, it’s like motivation is a wide spectrum, so some people are more motivated and will just find anything and everything that they can to learn something. And others are just, you know, a little more passive, need a little more help. But there’s tons of research that show, having a model, a listening model, for example, in this case, the learning that happens with a model is statistically significantly better than doing without. I mean, it’s kind of one of those duh-studies, like, well, of course. But I think the more you listen, the better your playing will be because you know kind of what you’re reaching for. Yeah, it’s absolutely crucial.
Jonathan: And there’s another piece to that too, which I discovered in researching this book is the mirror neuron system. It’s just fascinating. It was accidentally discovered in the lab when they had some monkeys wired up to look at brain function. And the researchers, they were I think using peanuts, I don’t remember exactly the details. But one of the monkeys ate a peanut. Or no, no, one of the researchers ate a peanut and the similar system in the monkey’s brain lit up when they were watching the researcher eat that peanut. So that led to a whole bunch of studies on the mirror neuron system in the brain. And there’s a bunch of links to really interesting videos that go into this in more detail.
Jonathan: But basically, when you see someone do something, a subset of the same neurons that you need to do that thing will fire in your brain when you’re watching it. So it’s almost as if your brain, you’re practicing just by watching someone do that. And I’d be fascinated, I don’t know if there’s any studies that have looked at whether that happens while watching video or if it has to be live. I would guess it would work watching video too. But also, the more familiar you are with whatever it is you’re watching. So say you’re a guitar player and you’re watching a guitar player, more of that subset of neurons will fire while you’re watching. And it’s just fascinating to me. And I’m convinced, although I don’t know of any studies, that that is a form of practice that is another way of getting your brain to make the connections that you need to play music.
Christopher: No doubt. And I’m really glad you explained that because I think, you know, you mentioned the motivation thing there. And I know for a lot of our audience, their adult hobbyist musicians. And so, they’re motivated, but I know a lot of them will have skipped the listening part because it felt too fun. They will have felt like listening to music is what everyone else does, I’m going to be with my instrument playing music. And if I’m not doing that, I’m wasting time. And I think it’s so valuable, you know, we did a launch recently for a course all about active listening. And one of the things we talked about was how if you listen to something that features your own instrument, you listen in an entirely different way because part of your brain is imagining how you would play that. And I think it’s exactly what you just described there, that your brain is almost practicing as you listen, and it can be hugely impactful.
Jonathan: Oh, absolutely. And it’s a different kind of listening I think too. There’s the listening that happens when you just sort of have something on in the background and maybe you’re doing the dishes or hanging out or whatever. But then there’s more intentional listening, when you really just close your eyes, put the headphones on and listen around the sonicscape, listen for the other parts or, I don’t know, it’s a different kind of listening experience. It’s very intentional I guess. And I think we’re not really taught, at least I wasn’t taught to do that kind of listening. It’s either listening as just, what’s the word I’m looking for? Or just kind of listening. Not really, what’s the difference between listening and hearing? Like just hearing something? Whereas listening has more intent behind it, I guess?
Christopher: For sure. Yeah. We could have a whole conversation just about this stuff definitely because as you say, you talk to musicians, and most of them will explain, you know, yes, okay, if they think about it, they are listening in a certain way even though no one taught them to do that. But when you are taught it in a structured way, it’s such a beneficial skill-set to have.
Christopher: I won’t take us on that tangent. I said a moment ago that this idea of listening and watching performing being a form of practice to is from the “who” section of your book. And I’m sure people are wondering, what kind of book has a “who” section, what is he talking about? So let’s circle back if we may-
Jonathan: Not talking about Pete Townsend, yeah!
Christopher: Absolutely. Let’s circle back and talk about your pinwheel model, if we may. Because I think again, it’s one of those kind of frameworks or ways of thinking about things that immediately will help people understand what they might have been missing out on.
Jonathan: Yeah. So I kind of combined, well, as I was thinking about this, and there was, you know, I think it’s 380 something research papers that I read through, just trying to make sense of what were they talking about. I mean, it was all practice but it’s a big topic. And it reminded me, once I came up with the categories, which any reporter would have figured out way before I did is what, where, when, how, why and who, so six different aspects. And to me, it helps to have a physical object to represent some complex idea.
Jonathan: So to me, the pinwheel kind of made sense. It has different colors. And in my research, whenever I was reading a research paper, I had six different colored tabs and I would mark up the research paper with whatever appropriate tab they seemed to be talking about. Whether it was, so the what would be definitions of practice. And that kind of touches on, Nicholas Baron has a different idea of practice, even though he doesn’t call it practice than say Ethan Bensdorf, who’s a trumpet player in the New York Philharmonic. I mean, they’re both doing things that get them better, but their definition, what they call it is different. And to me, understanding what it is or what people think it is or believe it is is really valuable, especially if that idea of what it is is different than your own idea of what it is.
Jonathan: So the where is more about where the practice takes place. Like that Samskara idea whether you’re surrounded by music as a kid or not, or even being in a rich musical environment at any age. You hear so many rock and rollers who say, I heard the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and that was it, I was hooked. That’s what I want to do. So, that kind of where you are has an impact on what you practice or whether you’re going to practice or what you’re going to play. The who part is, I think there were two aspects of that both the individual but also,
Jonathan: other people. Teachers, peers, that sort of thing. The why part was motivation. So we talked a little bit about that, like live music is a really good motivator. I mean, motivation is super important for practice because it can be tedious. Working on a scale or trying to get something better takes patience and time. And having a motivation or an inspiration to do that is super helpful. Let’s see.
Jonathan: The when part is about time. So times of day, how much time you spend, when during the day. It turns out that there is some beneficial times during the day that it’s better to practice, at least, research sort of points to that. I might be making unsubstantiated claims but I’m pretty sure that there are times when you’re fresh in the morning, but also, before you go to bed, or before a nap, are really good times to practice because sleep is a whole ‘nother topic, sleep consolidates, you can consolidate your work that you’ve done during the day with sleep. So naps are super important too.
Jonathan: So let’s see, we’ve touched on what the definitions, why the motivation, who, when. We did where too, so where you are. But then the largest section of the book is the how. How do people actually practice? What do they do? What is it that I can do to get better? So, in a nutshell, those are the six parts of the book. And I thought of it as a pinwheel because a pinwheel, you know, when it’s working, doing what it’s supposed to do, it spins around and all the colors blur together and it’s hard to tell what’s what. And to me, that’s kind of what practice is like because it’s this huge topic. It’s kind of hard to pin down exactly what’s going on.
Jonathan: And especially, I mean, I’ve been thinking about this and doing it for a long time now. And it’s still a complicated topic. And I can only imagine coming at it from a beginner standpoint, it would be difficult to even know where to start or what to do. So, hopefully, breaking it down like that will help someone who’s not as familiar with it to make some more sense out of it.
Christopher: Terrific. And I know if I had heard that kind of summary of the book structure, I might have assumed what we were talking about here was a 10 or 15 page chapter on each where you present your opinions as an expert musician on when to do it, how to do it, and why to do it. But in fact, what we have here is almost an encyclopedia of the known science and the methodologies and what you learned in your interviews, such that each of those sections is actually packed with a whole bunch of, it’s like a tool kit, right? And you said early on in this conversation, what you learned was that practice is a highly personal thing, where each musician was interpreting a different and assembling that tool kit differently, right?
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, and I didn’t, I kind of had to approach it that way because I, you know, in one of the questions was talking about when I thought of myself as a musician. I found that really an interesting question. Who am I? Nobody knows my name. I’m not a touring musician. So for me, and I also am at least a little bit aware of how little I know. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. And so, consulting the research record and talking to people and getting other opinions, there’s no way I would put a book out or anything with my name on it with just my ideas because I’m very aware that that’s a very limited experience. So yeah, I did everything I could think of to learn everything could about practice before I wrote even word one. So, thank you for mentioning that.
Christopher: Well, it really shows. And I think what you just said about knowing how much you don’t know is maybe the perfect opportunity to talk about one of the really useful frameworks from the book. I think it’s in the when section, in which you talked about the four phases of learning from unconscious incompetence through to unconscious competence. Could you explain what that is?
Jonathan: So there’s these four phases. And this was taught to me by Rex Martin, who’s just a fantastic tuba player, orchestral tuba player. But he’s also played with Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Anyway, he’s a tuba player that actually, when he’s walking down the street in say Switzerland, people will stop and say, “Are you Rex Martin?” And we don’t normally think of that for tuba players, I think, but he is one of those guys, just an amazing teacher, amazing musician, kind human being.
Jonathan: So the four phases, the first phase is unconscious incompetence. So it’s kind of like my daughter. She’s three, she has no idea how badly she plays and doesn’t care. It’s not about that. And so, she just explores the instrument and plays and messes around. She has no idea, really, she has a little bit of idea because she goes to see a lot of live music and I play a lot. But, you know, for her, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a big deal. And I think if we can encourage, especially young kids to have this sort of unconscious incompetence to just, it’s really neat to have this thing that makes sound. I mean, it’s really cool. And to be able to just make sound with it. It doesn’t have to be on the beat or in tune or anything.
Jonathan: In fact, I struggle to leave my daughter alone and just let her do her thing, instead of reaching in like, oh, your ukulele is out tune. I’ve tried it. I couldn’t help myself once or twice early on, and did. And it just, the moment is gone. She’s like, I’m done, I don’t want to deal with that. And so, I think that’s a really important phase. And for people of any age, not necessarily a kid. So the next phase is conscious incompetence. And that’s a tricky one because that’s when you start struggling with, you’re aware that you don’t know anything. And you’re aware how maybe awful you might sound. And that I think is a phase that many, many many of us get stuck in. And it’s not like these phases are cut and dried. You have one and then you go right to the next one. I mean, I still struggle with conscious incompetence.
Jonathan: And again, this comes back to these recorded versions that we have. We live in this time where we can listen to people who were not even alive, they’ve been dead for a long time. Like say Robert Johnson or Clifford Brown to mention a trumpet player, or people who are at the height of their art, and they’re models for us. And so, it’s very easy to compare yourself to Jimi Hendrix, and be like, oh, well, I kind of suck. That is conscious incompetence. You’re aware of the fact that you can’t play certain things. And I think it’s difficult to move out of that stage, to where, the next stage, which is conscious competence, which is when you know what it means to play well and you consciously go for that and practice for that, so that you can do it. And whatever practice means for you, whether it’s playing tunes, or whatever, you know, like playing a song a million times, and then going and performing it. So you know what it takes to be competent and you do it.
Jonathan: And then the last version is unconscious competence, which is when you’re in the zone where you just, this is a zone that probably not many of us achieve or stay in, at any rate. I think one of the anecdotes that I use for the book was Miles Davis Quintet. I think it was Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones, no? Drummer. I’m spacing his name. Anyway, they were about to go on to do the show. They came off. Let’s see, how did the story go? So they were doing a show. And this is a point where Miles was very wealthy, he’s driving around his Ferrari. And the other three guys, Tony Williams, that was the drummer.
Jonathan: But the other guys, they were up and coming musicians. They were struggling a little more with money, and Miles told them that we’re doing the show for free. And they got really angry, there was a huge fight, they went on stage, everybody was mad. And Herbie Hancock when he tells the story, “We went off stage after that, and we thought it was awful. We were all just angry. We thought it was the worst thing ever.” But then they went back and listen to the recording and it was just this amazing, performance and all of that emotion was in there. And to me, that is like the epitome of unconscious competence.
Jonathan: So, they were playing this amazing set and yet they are thought it was crap. And yet, it wasn’t, it was amazing. And they just did it unconsciously because they had practiced and performed and were just such consummate musicians that it just came out. I think trying to get ourselves out of the conscious incompetence phase can be a real challenge. I think one of the tricks to sort of get yourself there is to choose something that’s easy to play. And that could be anything. In fact, if you play something enough, if you practice something enough, that’s the goal. The goal is for it to be easy. If you’re struggling, you might want to continue to practice a little bit.
Jonathan: Another thing that Rex Martin mentioned that I use, and remind myself of daily, almost I think is this idea of difficult versus familiar. And he was saying to never identify something as difficult, because then it set up this block in your mind or this idea, let’s say you’re playing a passage and there’s a difficult section, in your mind, when you’re coming up to play, you’re like, oh, here comes the hard part. But instead of defining it as difficult, think of it is just unfamiliar. And that way, there isn’t that block. You’re like, oh well, I just need to get really familiar with this more challenging section and then it becomes a lot more fun, especially when you get to it, or you do it. And to me, that was, I’m not sure if that really fits in with the phases of learning. It kind of does.
Jonathan: But anyway, Rex Martin was responsible for teaching me about that. And I think it’s a really valuable way to sort of get an idea of where you are in your phase. And I think most of us are in conscious incompetence, especially when we’re learning something new. We are a were that we don’t know it, we’re aware that, you know, and that can be painful. It can be painful I think to the point where we give up.
Christopher: Well, I think that’s why I found this framework so useful when I came across it. And I love that kind of mental flip of difficult to unfamiliar. I think that’s a really powerful way to leverage the fact that we go through these different stages. I had an example the other day that was making me think of this framework where like you, I have a three year old daughter who likes to like come into my music room and play with all the instruments.
Christopher: And anyway, I was engaged with her on this little miniature keyboard and playing Twinkle Twinkle, and I was just kind of, it was upside down and I was just kind of playing it. And my wife came in to talk to me and my daughter wandered off, and I realized at the end of the conversation, I continued playing Twinkle Twinkle without thinking about it in whatever key I was in upside down on the keyboard. Five years ago, 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt of being able to do that because I would have been in the conscious incompetence stage where I know it’s possible but it’s so hard, I can’t believe I could get there. And now it’s just unconscious competence for me.
Christopher: It’s something very simple as Twinkle Twinkle, but I share that to say, what was so useful about this framework and why I wanted to have you share it is, it happens as you’ve described on a kind of global level in your trajectory as a musician. But it’s also happening in every piece you play, every technique you work on. You’ve got those many cases where you can look at it and you can be like, oh yeah, that once was difficult and now it’s so familiar, I don’t even think about it. And I think that’s a huge for motivation.
Jonathan: One thing, like Dave Matthews mentions about when he comes up with a with a chord progression, he’ll play it. He says he plays it millions and millions of times, and thousands and thousands of times until it gets to the point where it’s almost like it is playing him I think is how he describes it.
Christopher: That’s cool.
Jonathan: So it’s so unconscious, yeah, like Twinkle Twinkle, that you can literally almost do it in your sleep.
Christopher: So, something slightly related to this, which you talk about in the book is the zone of proximal development. Can you explain what that is and why it’s useful when we approach practice?
Jonathan: Yeah. So, this is an idea that comes from the learning sciences. Actually, let me find the little graph. So the zone of proximal development is about being in a place where you can do a little bit more than you might be able to do by yourself. So, sometimes it can be facilitated with being with a teacher or other musicians, where you kind of up your level a little bit, and you’re able to do things that maybe are beyond you when you’re all by yourself.
Jonathan: Another example might be, it doesn’t have to be a person, it could be say a metronome. A metronome might allow you to play more steadily than you could by yourself. So when you’re playing with the metronome, as long as you’re with it, you are in this zone of proximal development. It’s called proximal because you’re with other people usually. So here’s the little …
Christopher: Great. And for the people who are just on the audio only podcast, maybe you can explain what’s in the graph.
Jonathan: Yeah, I’ll explain it. So, there, you know, there you go. You can say you have a particular task. It can be too difficult. So the fact, it’s so difficult that you can’t play it at all. Let’s say you’re a beginning piano player and you have a Bach invention in front of you. It’s literally impossible to play it. And then you can also put something in front of someone, say, let’s say, a medium level piano player again, say, Twinkle Twinkle. Well, once or twice through, if they already know that, it’s going to be really boring. And so it’s not pushing their ability at all. When you’re bored, you’re kind of apathetic and you probably won’t learn anything. If you’re frustrated, it’s too difficult, you’re going to give up because you can’t do it at all. So, it’s also not productive.
Jonathan: But there’s this zone in between those two, where something might be too difficult for you to do alone, but with some help, you can do it at a proficient level. So it’s, as you get better and better, it requires better people to help you to do that or better tools, for example. Another really good example would be playing in tune, at least for a brass instrument. Like if you’re playing guitar or piano, you’re kind of lucky because you don’t have to deal with that. Playing in tune, if you’re by yourself, you don’t have any kind of reference. So, it can be difficult to know whether you’re playing in tune. So you could say use a tuner, or a drone, or playing with other people. And if those other people will help you see like, hey, you’re really out of tune, then you can kind of key into, no pun intended, to what you’re hearing and what sound you’re putting out and be playing in tune better because those people are helping you do that.
Jonathan: I mean, teachers are great, and a good teacher will get you into that zone as much as possible. Because what happens is, the teacher or the group or whatever it is, will help you play up at this higher level. And that sticks, after a while anyway. So the idea is to kind of bootstrap yourself up with these other more accomplished musicians or teachers so that you can reach that higher level yourself. And sometimes when you go back to playing by yourself, maybe you can’t do it again. It’s a building process I guess.
Christopher: Gotcha. And I really liked that you introduced the term scaffold there, which is part of this research, I believe, like that as a way of describing these kind of props or stepping stones that you’re making use of.
Jonathan: Yeah, and the scaffolding is something, just like a regular scaffold, it helps you perform or play or whatever it is you’re working on, at this higher level. And just like a regular scaffold, you dismantle it after you’ve used it.
Christopher: So, Jon, I said to you as we were talking that for a lot of our audience, time is a big challenge. Often music is a hobby and it can be tough to fit in enough practice time, particularly if they’re subscribing to a methodology that says you must practice 30 minutes a day every day or whatever the case may be. And you have this wonderful notion in the book of “guerrilla practice”. I wonder if you could explain what that is and how it works.
Jonathan: Yeah, so guerrilla practice is something that I’m using almost exclusively right now. It’s the idea that you can get things done and you can learn things in just short little chunks, five minutes, two minutes, one minute. And it’s a really powerful idea for a couple different reasons. One is that there’s a lot of research that shows the more that you recall an idea, let’s say, I’m working on a, say, a piano fingering and I have to do, I don’t know, I don’t know what it might be. When I’m sitting in line waiting to, I don’t know, get a coffee or whatever, I can practice is that finger motion on my leg. Maybe I practice it for two or three minutes or less, 30 seconds, maybe two or three run throughs. I’m not at the instrument but that’s not necessarily, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that, you can still practice the motion.
Jonathan: There’s lots of times during the day where you can get in short little bursts of practice, whether it’s say a difficult spot in a melody or remembering lyrics to a tune or, I mean, it could be a million different things. And just taking that moment in your car or wherever you are to do this little short burst of practice. And I mean, it all adds up. It’s not necessary to sit. In fact, it’s almost worse in some ways to sit for two hours. If you do two hours every day, that’s great. I would love to be able to do that right now. And there are times in my life when I did, but right now, all of my practice is short little bursts.
Jonathan: In fact, when I was waiting for the interview to start, I picked my horn up and ran through a couple exercises that I’ve been working on. Or I’m always doing trumpet fingering or thinking about voice leading on the piano or a million different things. And getting in practice it like that during the day is, you know, the more you recall it, the quicker you get better. So it’s one of those really powerful ideas that you don’t have to practice just during your practice time. You can practice anywhere, anytime as long as you’re looking for those opportunities and you have a little something that you could practice. Even singing. Or have a little, I know people have a little fretboard that they’ll carry around a little short section of fretboard to do some fingering or chord shapes, or whatever it may be. Another friend of mine in college chopped up a trumpet and had just the valves that he would carry around with him.
Jonathan: So there’s, I mean, you know, you can get super creative, but doing little practice like that, every little bit counts. And I think the more often you practice during the day, the quicker you learn stuff too. At least that’s been my experience.
Christopher: Terrific. And you had this wonderful example in the book of where it was literally just one minute or two minutes of practice a day, and it paid off.
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, in fact, yeah, Hans Jorgen Jensen, who is this fantastic teacher, cello teacher at Northwestern. In fact, there’s a documentary on him and his teaching. I think it’s called Taste the String. And I think it’s 30-40 minutes long, maybe, but just a fascinating person, super knowledgeable. And he had a student I think who was doing her graduate work and I think she had two kids or one kid, I don’t remember which, but she literally had no time to practice. So she was working on this difficult cello piece, cello etude, and he literally had her practice with one or two minutes a day. And it took her longer, of course. But in the course of I think six weeks or I don’t remember exactly what it was, she was able to play this really challenging professional level cello etude with just that little bit of practice.
Christopher: Amazing. Well, I love that as a clear example that this isn’t just a cop out, you know, it’s not just convince yourself you’re practicing. This is really effective stuff.
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely effective. Yeah, in fact, if it weren’t for guerrilla practice, I’ve got a performance tonight, if it weren’t for guerrilla practice, I don’t know if I’d be able to make it through it, because I’ve tried to think of the last time I’ve been able to sit down for two hours and really dig in on my own, and it’s been a while. So yeah, guerrilla practice is one of the I think the better ideas in the book, at least it’s helped me a lot.
Christopher: Terrific. Well, I said early on that we could only hope to scratch the surface. I literally pulled out a fraction of the ideas in this book to talk about, and we have only covered half of them. But I need to be respectful of your time today, Jon. You’ve been so generous already. Let’s wrap up by talking about everything that’s available for people at thepracticeofpractice.com, because we’ve been focusing mostly on this book, The Practice of Practice. You also have the Practice Like This ebook that we’ll link to in the show notes. And you also specialize in teaching music theory. So tell people a little bit about what you’ve got going on there.
Jonathan: Yeah. So I have, I think it’s eight books now. There’s the Practice of Practice book though, the one that we have here. But there’s also a shorter one that’s a little more visual. And it has a little bit of, a little bit different information. I wrote it after this one so there’s some more ideas, a couple other ideas like the structure of practice that are in that one. It’s more geared toward either someone who doesn’t like books or younger students. It’s a much shorter book.
Jonathan: And then there’s also A Basic Music Theory: How to Read, Write and Understand Written Music, that has been really well received. It’s kind of a friendly easy, the chapters are super short. So there’s that book. There’s several trumpet method books as well, that work really well for beginners through intermediate or advanced players. But yeah, you can link all of those, either at thepracticeofpractice.com or Jonharnum.com, J-O-N-H-A-R-N-U-M, either of those will get you there.
Jonathan: There’s a video course as well, yeah, for the theory book. And you can get most of those as audio books as well.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I’ll just echo what I said at the beginning, which is, I agree there could be no better all-in-one guide to all of the fascinating things we know about practice. And in particular, I think what sets your book apart is that not only do you provide this extensive toolkit for people to pick and choose from, but you open people’s minds I think to what practice can be. And I hope we’ve conveyed that a bit in the conversation today because this isn’t just about how do you drill your scales more efficiently. It’s really about broadening your ideas about what’s possible in practice and what your musical life can look like. So, just a huge thank you, Jon, for joining us on the show today.
Jonathan: My pleasure, Christopher. It’s nice talking to you. I love the topic. We could talk all day.
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