How to Learn an Instrument (or anything) as an Adult – Part 3

PART THREE – The Tools – Play, Mistakes, Mindset

Last week we covered how to really get clear on What you’re practising, Why you’re practising, and how to make sure you do it enough times to really make a difference. In this part we’ll be looking at the importance of play (the fun kind), why making mistakes is one of the best things you can be doing whilst learning, and ways to improve a huge influence on both your learning and life in general – your mindset.

Play

Play is vitally important to learning. Play in its true form – ‘low-stakes tinkering’ – having some time to let your mind wander with things you’ve learnt previously, combining things and letting go of any pressure to ‘get it right’, is where you really start to ‘own’ the things you’ve learnt and become ‘fluent’.

Duke Ellington once told an interviewer that when you see him playing the piano, he’s not playing the piano, he’s dreaming… “This is not piano. This is dreaming.” Anyone who’s touched that flow state of improvisation will know what he’s talking about, and like any state or skill it’s something that can be learnt, and needs to be practised. 

*Kenny Werner’s book ‘Effortless Mastery’ is a great exploration of honing this skill, and I’d recommend it to anyone serious about their instrument.

Funnily enough, Ellington’s poeticism is supported by neuroscience. The neural circuit involved in creativity and imagination, usually kept in check during waking hours by the ‘executive network’, is allowed to roam wild and free when we dream. In other words: when we’re being creative, we’re using the same part of the brain we use to dream.

One of the big things to come out of Play is many, many glorious, delicious MISTAKES! Not only can these sometimes end up being exciting new ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of before, but also making mistakes is one of the biggest factors for learning.

Mistakes

If you get everything right your brain has no need to change any wiring (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it) and so you will just stay at whatever level you’re at. Making errors not only signals your brain to correct mistakes – “something is going wrong, something needs to change!” – but it also hones your focus while you’re doing the repetitions.

After you fail an attempt at something, on the next try your brain is primed to focus more and learn more from that attempt.

Over the first session of learning a new skill – or 10 sessions, or 100, however many it takes until you start getting it right a little more frequently – the goal is to make many errors. Imagine just chucking darts repeatedly at the board, over and over again. When your brain’s next at rest, it will sift through these attempts and strengthen whichever actions led to a bullseye, and discard wrong attempts.

As you start to gain some skill level, aim to be getting it right about 85% of the time. So 1-2 mistakes out of every 10 repetitions. You can control this success rate with a few things:

Making more than 1-2 mistakes in every 10 attempts?

  • Slow down!
  • Remove one or more layers from the exercise (e.g. dynamics, voicing, timing, tone.. ask your tutor for ideas here) 

Not making enough mistakes?

  • Try it faster (a small increment on the metronome, or playing with a faster song)
  • Add a layer to exercise (as above)

Something I see all the time is that adults are afraid to make mistakes, mainly out of fear of losing face, looking dumb. This is of course (and I say it every time) absolutely ridiculous. Why would not being great at something you haven’t learnt yet, make you look stupid? Well, actually a few reasons. Firstly, by the time you’re an adult, (hopefully) most things you generally do on a day-to-day basis you’re pretty good at by now, so you’ve forgotten what it feels like to not be good at something. Look at a child learning to walk – you wouldn’t say they look stupid, and they definitely aren’t thinking that either, they’re just getting on with it and practising constantly until they figure it out (whilst all the time watching masters and getting tips).

Another reason lies in cognitive biases, whereby we are so used to seeing talented players that we a) assume it’s the norm, and b) assume it was easy for them to get there, that they just picked up the instrument and that’s how it came out. We usually don’t think of the many, many, MANY hours, weeks, years of focused work and guidance on every element that culminated in that 30 second clip that popped up on your timeline.

A teacher friend of mine used to deal with this bias in a fun way. If a student was getting annoyed that they couldn’t do something, saying they “should be able to this”, he’d fire back: “how insulting that you’d assume you can instantly do something that’s taken me years to learn!”

A final note on mistakes

Learning to ‘play through’ mistakes is an essential skill for live performance. Played a bum note? Dropped a stick? Forgot a word? Practise letting it go and getting back on the horse as quickly as possible. It happens, it happened, you can’t change it now. No one cares as much as you do about that mistake, but stopping the performance or letting it affect the next parts? No way. You have control over that. And if you don’t yet, you can learn to.

In practise, if you can, make a mental note of any mistakes so you circle back when you finish and think about how you can work on not making the mistake again*. But in the moment, staying in the flow of the song is the MOST important thing. I can’t tell you how many gigs I’ve played where even fairly substantial things have gone wrong, and audience members – even band members – I’ve spoken to after had no idea. I’ve also seen footage of live moments where I know I messed up and it felt like a big thing, but watching it back I could barely notice anything. It always seems like a bigger issue to you in the moment.

*- Recording your practise is great for this, as you can not worry about having to make any mental notes, simply listen back and review afterwards.

Mindset

In a similar vein, your mindset will have an enormous effect on your perception of how things are going, influencing the work you put in, and so the results you’ll get out. While the word ‘mindset’ will be seen by some as a bit of an airy concept, there has been quite a lot of peer-reviewed scientific research now to back up the huge influence it has on performance.

Here’s a simple but powerful thought to get started with: The next step is always achievable, and anything is just a different number of steps away. Once you’ve identified a goal, breaking it down into steps (possibly with a tutor if you can’t see the path) and working through them is simply a matter of putting in the time and energy.

This is really the essence of Growth mindset, as opposed to a ‘fixed’ mindset which says that you know all that you will ever know, and that’s that. Unfortunately for that mindset, as we’ve already seen learning can happen at any age. 

Knowing what you now know – that in order to learn it shouldn’t feel easy all the time – it should be easy to ‘lean into the effort’. That is to say, having a desire when it’s difficult to say to yourself that the friction feels good. This is possibly one of the more powerful and transferable skills from all of this; if you can get this to be reflexive, you’ll start to lean into hard work feeling good in all other walks of life. 

Beginner’s mind is a state of mind that’s worth getting familiar with. Don’t expect to be good yet, and experience things as if you’re doing it for the first time, rather than getting complacent or taking things for granted. It’s great to use this with any new area of learning, even if you already have skills in other areas.

‘Talent’ is a myth. A little science to explain this one: myelin is a protein sheath that insulates neurons, makes them more effective at sending information. Any movement you do is controlled by neurons, and when they get used more frequently, the body adapts by strengthening this myelin sheath, making it easier for those signals to be sent in future. Much like overloading a muscle causes the body to adapt by building more muscle there, making it better equipped for next time.

Someone who seems to have a ‘natural ability’ for something has likely been practising and strengthening the relevant neural pathways in some way, for some time, already. It might have been in a totally unrelated field, or it may even have been completely subconsciously; for example a child that finds the sensation of using their voice quite fun (which ones don’t?) coupled with a tendency to be interested in hearing and imitating melodies. They will get many, many hours of ‘practise’ in before anyone ever thinks about formalising it in a music lesson.

A final thought on the psychological side of things: something I have seen time and time again is a student berating themselves for being slow to learn, or making mistakes, or just believing they’re not doing well and won’t get better. This really disappears when you fully get used to the learning process, but it’s often also due to an ‘affective memory’ – that is, an emotional memory – of bad learning experiences earlier in life. Knowing this and being aware of the feeling when it arises is the first step to undoing it, shedding the weight and getting on with learning!

In the final part, we’ll examine how to introduce true objectivity into your practise, and also cover a load of less conventional ways you can supercharge your learning. See you there!

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