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This is the 4th post in the series Guitar Mastery, where we explore the tips from The Little Book of Talent by Dan Coyle. To start at the beginning, visit posts 1, 2 and 3.
Up to this point, we have been looking at the tips that show what the path to mastery looks like and getting in the right mindset. Now, we will explore some specific practice tips and explain what practice looks like for the most efficient improvement. First, let’s define what practice really is.
What is Deliberate Practice
We have all heard about the ten thousand hour rule, which states that to master any skill, one must dedicate 10,000 hours of practice to the craft. This idea was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers. What most people fail to read, and what Gladwell himself failed to understand in his book, is that 10K hours was an average picked at a random time (20 years of age) in the life of those pursuing mastery. There was no rhyme or reason for choosing the arbitrary time and hours except that they are nice round numbers. Furthermore, the subjects of the study were not yet masters of their craft and it showed that the hours put in are variable depending on the field. Also, the 10K hours calculated did not distinguish between deliberate practice and any other activity that might be considered practice. Most people read this rule as if you simply need to put in the time to become a master – that it is as simple as putting in 10K hours to achieve mastery. If you read the original studies cited by Gladwell, you will find that deliberate practice of a skill will lead to mastery and can often shortcut the amount of time you need to practice to reach a high level of performance – often, the number of hours of deliberate practice by masters of their craft was far less than 10K hours. In fact, Anders Ericsson and his colleagues concluded that it does take about 10 years of deliberate practice to truly become an expert, and that most experts put in an average of about a maximum of 2 hours per day, which after 10 years adds up to about 7K hours of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice can be summed up with these three key elements: working on technique to improve performance, seeking constant critical feedback, focusing ruthlessly on fixing any weaknesses and doing all of these with a specific goal. Read that again. Now ask yourself if you practice this way. Answer honestly. Most of us do not naturally start this way. We want to avoid the parts that are too hard and we tend to gloss over any minor mistakes to keep going with the bigger picture. Masters, on the other hand, remain in those spaces as much as possible because they know this is how you advance your skill. When we find ourselves stuck or seemingly not improving, it is usually because we are not paying close enough attention to our mistakes and glossing over any sticking spots. Action: play through any piece you are working on right now and pay careful attention to the details. Better yet, record your performance and listen back for any mistakes (miss-timed phrasing, a missed note or notes, unclear lines & voicings, etc.) Do this to become aware of the little issues you might be glossing over to finish the piece.
Most of the specific tips from The Talent Code address an idea of deliberate practice. It is through the lens of deliberate practice that Coyle has framed his list. As we explore the next tips in the series, keep in mind the basic tenants of deliberate practice: practice with a specific goal, seek constant feedback and immediately fix any mistakes. By hunting down your mistakes and forming good habits, your path to mastery may feel like hard work (and it is!) but you will never be lost!
How to Practice
Tip #18: 5 Minutes is All You Need
Practice is a habit and more than that it is a way of being. A master is one who enjoys the struggle and lives the practice. The master is almost obsessed with practicing and everything they do is a sort of practice. One way to cultivate this mindset and deep dive into a craft is to develop a simple habit. Notice I said simple and not easy. A simple habit might be something like, I will stop playing when I make a mistake on a piece and then slow that part way down and play it for 5 minutes. Or I will focus on one trouble spot for 5 minutes a day – no more and no less. This simple limitation not only helps you focus because you have such a short amount of time, it will also be an easier way to kick start a daily habit that will later grow into more time as you practice the habit and exercise your focus. Focus is like a muscle, and just like a muscle, it needs to be engaged regularly to help it grow. Most of us are so used to bouncing back from one task to another whether it is checking the Facebook or social media, then reading an article that catches your attention, then writing the next email or clearing the inbox. Deep, focused work where you get into a flow-like state is the best way to actually practice and get any work done to a high standard. Start small with 5 minutes a day. You can go over if you really want, but set a timer and note when the 5 minutes is up and be ok with stopping right then.
Once you have this daily habit going for a month, it will feel like something is missing if you do skip a day. Kind of like working out – after regularly working out, a missed day feels like you need an extra cup of coffee or you woke up on the wrong side of the bed. While creating a daily habit is a great start, you might be wondering what to do in those 5 minutes. This is where the real work begins. Those 5 minutes will feel like real work – like you are struggling and not seeing any improvement. Masters revel in these moment because they know this is where the real learning resides. Mastery is being comfortable with struggling just out of your limits and pushing yourself to stretch past your current level. It is not afraid of monotony or the plateau because that is where the magic happens. You must be willing to stay on the plateau because that is where the work is. Imagine playing through a song and you notice that a transition from one chord to the next feels a little uneasy or is not as smooth as the others. Your could just flub your way through it and drop a few strokes to stay in rhythm, but glossing over will not help you improve. You must stop and focus on the struggle. Slow it way down, play with it, make it a game, analyze the movements from every angle and sit with it regularly. The first trick is to recognize the mistakes immediately and be able to stop in order to start the real work.
Deliberate practice is narrowly focused on one aspect and requires the utmost attention to detail. Your current skill level dictates the level of detail you can focus on and different aspects will be apparent to you as you progress.
Tips #5 and # 17: Be Good with Being Bad and Embracing the Struggle
Notice that we have been describing how practice is a struggle. You will feel awkward and stretched to your limits. In order to break through to the next level, you must be comfortable with being bad. No matter where you are with your skill, there is always something that you do not know or cannot play quite yet. Reaching these limits are where you find your current sweet spot for practice. You should embrace your struggle and the feeling of not being able to execute exactly how you would like and be good with being bad. Do not let that feeling deter you but, instead, let it fuel your practice and motivate you because you have found your next challenge that will get you to the next level.
TIP #26: Slow It Down (Even Slower Than You Think)
Another aspect that most beginners struggle with when practicing is wanting to play everything at speed. This goes back to the idea of glossing over mistakes to just get through a piece. One part of being OK with being bad, is to be willing to play things ridiculously slow…and I mean, really slow. When you practice slowly, you play with intention and you are forced to think about all the little micro-movements and understand the rhythms and inner working of the phrases. If you can’t play it slow, then you can’t play it fast. Be willing to look stupid and play excruciatingly slow. Going over the music in slow motion also helps solidify the motions and the music in your mind. It will be tough going at first, but once you get used to practicing like this, you will notice immediate improvements with your playing.
Test this out. Take a piece you are working on now and find a trouble spot or even take a piece you know well that you want to improve somehow. Then, play through the trouble at an extremely slow speed and work through that way for about 10 minutes. Then, take a 10-15 minutes break. Finally, come back to the piece and play through those spots at a normal tempo. You will almost always find that you think through those spots with greater clarity and even “see” those passages in slow motion while playing at normal speed. It is because you were forced to break down each tiny movement to build the phrase and pay attention to the physical details while training your hands to move precisely and concisely.
I hope you are enjoying this series on mastery. If you are getting some actionable advice from this, then please spread the knowledge and share the post with someone who might also benefit. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. How long can you currently stay focused in deliberate practice?