You’ve heard that practice makes perfect. But what exactly is good practice, and how does it work to create tangible results?
In terms of music, we can think of practice as a constant balancing act between artistic expression and scientific rigour. To help us understand this, there are two concepts that are useful to examine — one from neuroscience (myelin) and one from psychology (flow). Both of these concepts come together to form an actionable process known as deliberate practice.
If a ball was thrown to you, the chances are your hand would instinctively try and catch it. If you’ve done this plenty of times before, it wouldn’t feel like you had to think about catching the ball — you’d just do it. This is because it’s a learned response. Your brain has already linked a recognizable situation (a ball hurtling towards you) to a corresponding response (catching it).
In making sense of this, it’s helpful to imagine your brain made up of both behavioral and perceptive neurons. New patterns are grown in each set of these neurons when recognizable situations and responses are linked. When your brain encounters new situations, it has to create a new perception-and-response behavioral pattern. The more you encounter and use these new neural patterns, the stronger they become. This is a process called myelination; where your nerve cells insulate themselves by producing a fatty protein called myelin. Myelin allows electrical impulses within the nerve cells (in other words, thoughts) to transmit progressively faster and more efficiently.
Myelin is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, because the same process is applied to both good and bad quality inputs. So even when you are not doing something right, myelination can strengthen neural pathways that lead to the formation of bad habits. To help mitigate this, slowing things down in order to overcome mistakes is very important. When practicing music, this can feel very frustrating, when all you want to do is to speed things up and be able to play what you hear in your mind as soon as possible. Like any kind of growth, it’s usually a gradual process, but practicing with this higher degree of precision ensures that you’re growing myelin in the right places.
What does the research on happiness by a Hungarian psychologist have to do with practicing music? In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi outlines a theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.
You’ve probably experienced a flow state yourself before, through any number of activities like running, writing, reading, or indeed music. Although you may not have realized at the time, you may have achieved flow when your ability matched perfectly with the particular activity at hand.
The diagram below explains this concept well. If a task is too challenging, the result is frustration, while if it’s not challenging enough, the result is boredom. The channel in the middle represents the point where the challenge and your ability meet.
During those moments when we are able to work within this flow channel, we actually have less brain activity because of our high degree of focus. There’s a feeling of the task flowing from our bodies and mind effortlessly — hence the descriptive term flow.
The interesting thing about this model is that the flow channel is different for everyone. We each have our own unique balance which changes according to the activity at hand and also over time as we improve and need to challenge ourselves further to reach that flow state.
What if we were able to use our understanding of neurological and psychological processes like myelination and flow, to develop new tools that optimize the way we practice?
Technology plays an increasing role in how we can learn and develop new skills. Melodics is an application designed to help new musicians learn to play MIDI instruments with confidence, and uses the ‘Deliberate Practice’ method of learning we mentioned before. Drawing heavily from the findings of human performance psychologist Anders Ericsson, this method involves slowing things down, zooming-in with focus and purposefully building up a desired result step by step. Interestingly, although these ideas are often used in sports and athletic training, they work equally well for building muscle memory and developing musical skills.
Deliberate practice is implemented into a typical Melodics lesson by dividing it into the following steps:
It’s important to get familiar with the music you’ll be practicing or performing. In this step, students listen to the piece of music they will work on as a whole and orientate themselves to the finger placements.
Most people only think of goals in terms of the big vision. While you certainly need this big vision to stay inspired, it can be more beneficial and motivational to have multiple extremely short term goals. For this reason, Melodics uses a process called “chunking” where a song is divided into small steps or components which can be practiced and memorized separately. These steps can then be linked together in increasingly larger groupings.
Melodics’ Practice Mode encourages a learner to zoom in with focus and play with time, by first slowing the action down and then speeding it up. Slowing down helps you to focus more on errors you make, creating a higher degree of precision. Working this way helps mitigate the risk of creating unhelpful neural pathways in the myelination process while bolstering the useful connections required to build long term muscle memory.
In this step, the student picks a part of the song they want to master. After an initial attempt, they evaluate the gap between their target and their ability before trying the section again. Detecting mistakes is essential for making progress. This error-focused element of deep practice makes it a struggle, a process of ‘brain stretching’ which although likely to be slightly frustrating, ultimately leads to growth.
Repetition is the crucial part of practice that is often neglected or forgotten. It is essential to practice everyday. Even a short burst of deliberate and focused daily practice will lead to better results than large infrequent practice sessions that don’t have a structure and focus.
When learning any new skill, maintaining the motivation to persevere and practice regularly is extremely challenging. Whether using an application like Melodics or simply working on your own, following the principles of deliberate practice can help make this process more enjoyable, relevant and effective. In time, with continued effort, what may have seemed insurmountable on your first attempt will eventually become habitual.
Original Text: Rodi Kirk | Director of Product & Education at Melodics
Melodics are currently offering readers of this article two free courses containing daily warm up and practise exercises. To find out more, follow the link to their web page below:
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Please note – new users are required to sign up and download the free Melodics app in order to redeem this offer.
A version of this article appeared on melodics.com