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Entries in pacing (7)


Finding the sweet spot that makes learning addictive

Can you start by balancing on the board in the sand? (Santa Cruz, California, October 2010)Whatever you are working on should be easy but not boring. Interesting but not frustrating.

The best progress takes place in the sweet spot where things are just challenging enough to be engaging. If you're a tennis player, you'll have the most fun with someone playing close to your level of ability. You don't want to play with a total novice, but on the other hand it's no fun when every serve is so strong that it zooms by before you even know it happened.

There is an art to choosing just the right level of difficulty. Video games are very good at continually calibrating themselves to your ability at any given moment, which is what makes them so addictive.

Whatever skill you want to learn, make a game out of making it a game. That is, figure out how to make it as engaging as possible. As Mary Poppins said, "In every job that must be done there is an element of fun/you find the fun, and snap! The job's a game."

Start with the right material. At the bookstore or library, you put down the book that doesn't grab you right away because it's too dense, but you might also skip over something that looks too trashy or fomulaic. Don't feel guilty about rejecting Ulysses - maybe it will be just the right thing in the future.

When you've got something you can sink your teeth into, you know. Get good at finding that feeling, whether you're a pianist working through classical repertoire, a Spanish student looking for instructional material, or a fencing enthusiast seeking an opponent. Insert Goldilocks reference here.

Make your progress visible. We all rubbed our fingers raw trying to snap our rooms clean with magic, so that is eliminated as a possibility (unless you got it to work for you, in which case please let me know!). But even without magic, many of us don't mind cleaning when we can see the results with every swipe of the rag or push of the vacuum cleaner. Make your progress visible and you will find yourself conditioned to return to a given task.

To get a better sense of your evolution you might take before-and-after pictures, videos, or audio recordings. You could also create a chart or graph of your work over time.

Be a statistics nerd. The drama of an apparently dull moment of baseball can be heightened when the announcer shares a stat like, "He has a .129 batting average so far this season, but a .401 career batting average when facing this pitcher." All of a sudden we're invested in the outcome of this slumping second-stringer's at-bat.

You can geek out on statistics in order to set goals and motivate yourself to grow. In running, a sport where it's just you and the clock, you will find more depth and nuance when you can design workouts that have a specific target in mind based on past performance and future goals. You would play with various combinations of speed and distance (tempo runs, interval training, long runs, negative splits, etc.) in order to optimize your performance for a specific race.

As a musician, you might use a metrononome to track the tempo at which you can play a given phrase comfortably. You could also document how much of your piece you learn each day. I like to track the date a student begins a piece and the date that piece is mastered. As the student breaks through a plateau, we can compare two equivalent pieces and point out that one took two months to master while the newer one took just two weeks.

Avoid unnecessary repetition. If you understand a math concept, you should do a few problems to solidify your understanding today, a few more tomorrow, and a couple at the end of the week. A page of twenty-five problems is busy work if it too easy, and impossible if it you can't even do the first one.

If you don't understand the concept, you'll need to break it down into smaller pieces, look at it from a different perspective, or rebuild the foundation by reviewing previous material. Repetition won't help.

"What's your practice strategy?" I ask. "I'm going to play it over and over again until I get it right!" my student says brightly. No! Play it correctly the first time, and you'll only need to play it a few times to make it solid. If you can't play it correctly the first time, it's too much. Break it down, take it slower, or both.

Use rewards. My students love getting stickers. Not only do they enjoy picking out just the right one (there is an inverse relationship between the age of the student and the amount of time it takes to choose a sticker), they enjoy the closure that it represents ("You have fully mastered this piece!").

Even as an adult, you can reward yourself for the acquisition of a skill or the completion of a goal. Even better, give yourself positive reinforcement for the little steps along the way. Karen Pryor, in her excellent book Don't Shoot the Dog!, tells of using tiny bits of chocolate to get herself out the door and on the bus to an evening class.

While the opportunity to perform onstage might be seen by many musicians as a punishment rather than a reward, applause is certainly a nice way to be acknowledged for all your hard work learning a piece of music. In the meantime, dessert or some down time (TV, a novel, a game) can be a great way to reward yourself (or your child) for a focused practice session. Over time, you will condition yourself to look forward to practice because you'll associate it with the pleasure at the end!

There are many other ways to enliven the process of learning something new. When learning a new skill, apply strategies and techniques from something you're already good at. The more you can make it a game, the more you'll want to play!


It's not the what, but the how.

The Snow vs. My Father and His Snowblower - the score will always be perfectly tied.

Lots of us consider repetition to be backsliding. "Last time I ran this route I was five seconds per mile faster!"

But how did it feel? Maybe this time you did it with less rest, less effort, a stronger form, and shorter recovery time. Maybe you just had more fun.

If you're revisiting the same musical piece you played several months ago, perhaps it is now smoother, more fluent, and more confident.

Even when you compare apples to apples, you might not be considering all the variables.

Of course, even if there is truly no change in your position or ability, the how is still what matters. You always have control over the most important aspect of it: your attitude. And sometimes that's all you can control.


Nothing to Show For It

I did a yoga DVD this afternoon. The instructor said at the end, of savasana (corpse pose), that it was one of the most challenging asanas. That's the kind of statement that's practically begging you to roll your eyes - I mean, how hard could it be to lay down on your back and relax, especially after a tough workout? But I know she's right.

As a music teacher, I see that my students have the same challenge. "You're trying too hard," I say. "Let it be as easy as playing one note [I got that from Kenny Werner]."

But to try not to try - you can't. You just have to let go, and then you're not holding on to anything so you panic and grab tighter. But if you keep coming back to it, you'll make progress.

Look for tiny increments of progress. Set micro-goals. Slower is faster. Don't use momentum. Clearly, this is an issue I have a lot to say about.

And where will all this careful, easy, mindful practice get you? Perhaps nowhere anyone else will ever be able to see. Perhaps you will literally have nothing to show for it.

What if there's no way to make your mark? (Tybee Island Sunset, November 2010)A slightly stronger pinky finger. A throat that clenches almost imperceptibly less on the high notes. The ability to play a cadenza with just a bit more surefootedness than you had last year.

Of course, meanwhile, your brother/friend/teacher/enemy can do it all and more, and better, while hungover on two hours of sleep.

It's almost enough to make you give up. For some, it is enough.

I've been thinking about writing an ebook about piano - like, Seven Ways to Be More Awesomer At Piano or something - so I googled a few "learn piano"-related phrases.

Yikes! It was like being solicited by a prostitute when you're looking for true love. Promises of "100s of times faster than other courses" and blinking ads and long-form sales letters. Not the right marketplace for my message of slow and systematic and taking a year to learn to uncurl your left pinky.

The worst part was the realization that those websites with their comprehensive courses in two easy payments of $39 are better than anything I've ever come up with, and it's possible that I will never create anything to rival them in scope, marketability, or even quality. But after a few minutes of feeling like a character in a Sofia Coppola film, I got my shit together and felt okay about just being me again.

Just being me: as in, I don't actually need to accomplish anything visible in order to be myself. I can make all kinds of little changes that you'll never see and never value, and that's okay.

Tybee Island Sunrise, November 2010The reason I was doing yoga in the first place is because I hurt my foot during a run on Christmas Day, and I can't run. I love the way running feels, but I especially love the way I can measure things - how many miles away from home I can get, how fast I go, how much better I did than last week. Now that I'm not running, I have nothing to measure except my perception of how much strength, speed, and conditioning I am losing.

Yoga is the opposite and the antidote: don't measure, don't analyze, don't compare - just keep breathing and observe. It's just you and your body and your breath - and you are whole and complete as you'll ever be.

Today, for a moment, in savasana, I got it - just for a second, I felt the way it would feel to surrender completely and dissolve into the earth, like the actual corpse I will someday become. The knowledge moved me to tears: I don't need anything else but what I have, and I don't need to be anything else but what I am, ever.


When not to use momentum

I've talked about the value of momentum, how it allows you to create a positive feedback loop when learning a skill. However, there are times when momentum actually slows you down or interferes with the learning process.


Heavy Lifting

When you tax a muscle beyond its ability, you allow it to grow. When you do it right, this process is so intense that it fills up your entire physical and mental experience. Big results come from this kind of effort.

At the gym, you aDon't be a dumb bell! Slow, deliberate work is most effective. Photo by jerryforlife.lways see dudes putting a ridiculous amount of weight on the barbells and then lifting and lowering as fast as they can. They are letting momentum do the work for them instead of the muscle. A better approach would be to lift far less weight and go as slowly as possible, feeling every sensation on the way up and the way down. This is much harder, and that's why it will pay off.

My piano teacher, John Swiedler, used to tell me, "You should practice so slowly that a listener will not be able to tell what you're playing." Why is this slow playing so important? Because it prevents you from being able to use momentum. This leads to a deeper understanding of the music you are playing. Students always say, "but it's easier to play it faster." Exactly. If it's easy, you're using momentum. We don't want it to be easy. Bwahahahahaha...


"My brain is full."

There's that Far Side cartoon where a student raises his hand in class and asks to be excused, because "my brain is full." Now, part of the punchline is that he has a smaller head than his classmates, but in reality, this feeling happens to those of us with normal-sized brains all the time. It's that feeling you get after staring at a single math problem, crossword, Sudoku puzzle, or highway map for a quarter of an hour with no apparent breakthrough. Believe it or not, very good things are happening in your brain even though it feels like it's melting.

Yes, he has a band-aid, but slow practice won't hurt you.Where this often comes up in music lessons is switching between chords on the piano. One chord is A, the next chord is D. The pianist has to locate the three notes of the A chord, and then find the three notes of the D chord.

Students always rush through this, and sometimes accidentally get the notes right. They are using momentum. Far more difficult (and far more effective) is to slow down and do the mental heavy lifting that this activity requires.

Find each note separately and deliberately. Think out loud. Take note of which fingering will work best, and be consistent. Resist the temptation to rush yourself. Stay completely calm and in control.

It may take you minutes, not seconds, to find the next chord. Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this slow, painstaking process that will allow you to nimbly hop from chord to chord without conscious thought in the near future.


The bonus

You lifted ten pounds instead of your usual forty and you were incredibly sore the next day. Two weeks of this regimen, and you see muscle definition you thought you'd have to lift eighty pounds to get.

You see that same crossword puzzle sitting on the kitchen table the next morning. All of a sudden, three previously inaccessible answers pop out at you ("Aha! Magnum, P.I.! Elk! Spartacus!").

You lay your hands on the instrument, and you play a difficult passage with ease and precision on the first try.

An unexpected bonus often comes along after a period of concentrated effort. There is thus another layer of paradox here: Take the slow, frustrating path, and it ends up being the quickest, smoothest one. Deliberately avoid momentum in the short-term, and you'll end up gaining a lot of it in the long-term.


Guitar Hero & Rock Band missed a great opportunity

Writing about "Cliffs of Dover" recently made me think about Guitar Hero, and how awesome it could have been. I think it's great that Guitar Hero and Rock Band have gotten kids enthusiastic about music they might not otherwise have been exposed to, but I wish these games actually taught people how to play an instrument instead of a plastic controller.

The thing that makes teaching such an interesting challenge is that you must find the sweet spot where something is challenging enough to keep the student engaged, but not so challenging that it makes you want to give up.

This is what video games do marvelously well, and what makes them so addictive. You have a perfectly graded learning curve, with new information being added all the time in just the right dose.

The technology certainly exists to create a video game that will actually teach you how to play an instrument. While there are games that were created for an educational purpose, none are as perfectly sequenced or on as grand a scale as Guitar Hero.

Imagine a game in which education and entertainment are perfectly blended, with the big budget and classic songs that Guitar Hero and Rock Band have. Imagine the gamers of the world putting those vacant hours every day into learning a real skill. We would have an army of real guitar heroes.