PART FOUR – Objectivity, recording, and less conventional ways to aid learning
If you’ve got this far and started really implementing some of the ideas, it’s highly likely you’re already beginning to see some great results from your practise. Now it’s time to quit the guessing game, get truly honest with yourself and introduce some objective feedback.
This is possibly The Strongest Tool(TM) for getting better at your instrument.
If you’re speaking, it’s very difficult to listen at the same time.
This really plays out in learning an instrument as well. When you’re in the process of playing something, it’s tough (if not impossible) to really hear it accurately and objectively. Without proper feedback, how do you know if something is good or not? This scenario can cut both ways: either you think something is great when actually it needs work, or conversely you think something was terrible when actually it was pretty good!
Find a way to record yourself, as best as you can with whatever tools you have. That might be simply a recording on your phone, or it might be a setup with a microphone and soundcard. The most important thing is DOING IT, not letting technology be a barrier. *
The trick here is to find strengths as well as weaknesses. Enjoy and celebrate your wins, and look for SPECIFIC things to improve. The specificity is important – it’s so, so easy for this to turn into an exercise in either “I’m 100% awful” or “I’m 100% great”. Neither are helpful. When you get specific, you can spend a little time working on that one thing, then going back to record yourself again and judge if it still needs work. It might take many sessions over a long time to get to where you want to be with it, but being aware of it is step one, and a great performance is really just any number of specific factors coming together.
* That said, I think of recording as getting out the microscope. The better your tools, the clearer you can see. For example, if you’re working on timing and can record a direct feed of your instrument WITH the metronome (or music), you can listen back with a good deal of clarity. If you’re recording into a computer you can even slow down the recording the really increase the magnification if you want to.
Hopefully by now you already have a lifetime supply of tools to maximise your practise, but I get it, you want more. Ok fine, here’s dessert.
Spacing effect. This is actually a very powerful tool that people have used for centuries, and has now been shown scientifically to be effective. As well as the rewiring that will happen when you go to sleep, you can turbo charge your learning by something called the spacing effect. It works like this: if you’re practising a certain skill, say a drum stroke, sticking pattern, piano scale, chord shape etc, do it for a set amount of time (e.g. 30 seconds), then straight away, take a break for the same amount of time with your eyes closed, doing and thinking about absolutely nothing. Your brain will ‘play back’ whatever you’ve just been doing, on a loop at 10x the speed! This is absolutely bizarre, but essentially if you managed to practise the scale three times in the initial 30 seconds, your brain will get another thirty repetitions done in those extra 30secs!
Playing low volume white noise in the background can help with maintaining focus and concentration, especially for those with ADHD.
Similarly, a regular practise of even brief meditation has been shown to drastically improve levels of overall focus.
A few minutes of listening to 40Hz binaural beats on headphones before a practise session can aid memory retention.
Another bizarre one is using a lack of balance to trigger the state needed for neuroplasticity. This plays on a part of the brain called the cerebellum, which, among other things, helps your brain realise if you’re off-balance so that it can tell muscles to work to stop you from falling over and getting hurt. If something happens to make you off-balance, this is a clear example of a time when the brain will say “something’s wrong, we need to fix this”, and so the chemicals mentioned in part one will be released, and the state for plasticity will be triggered. Anything you learn around this time is likely to be reinforced later on. You can use anything you like to get off-balance (as long as you can do it safely without injuring yourself or others!). It could be a yoga pose that you’re a little unsteady in, or trying to stand on one leg with your eyes closed… the trick is that it needs to be fairly novel, but try getting creative, and stay safe!
To make the most of practise or a lesson, you need to show up to the session alert. If you’re feeling low on energy, here are some things you can consider. A word of warning as before – if you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, be wary of anything that raises adrenaline too much and use with caution.
- Sleep: good quality, regular sleep is the absolute number one factor in your overall alertness and ability to focus.
- Caffeine: if you’re already a regular caffeine drinker then go for it, however if you’re not a regular user then this might actually make your concentration worse by raising adrenaline too high!
- Light: bright overhead lighting will keep you much more alert than low light.
- Time of day: for the vast majority of people, earlier in the day is when you’re most able to do cognitive work. Later in the day is likely better for creative work, but for learning, earlier might be better.
- Length of session: in the human body, our day is split up into what are called ‘ultradian cycles’, cycles that last approximately 90 minutes. In that time, there will be a portion where you’re more able to focus, and a portion where focus will be more difficult. This is good to know for the simple reason not to expect to be able to dive straight into focused work – it will take a few minutes at least, and maybe you only really hit your stride after working for a while. The other benefit of knowing this is that when you feel your focus start to drift, and if it’s been 90 minutes or so, then it’s probably a good time to take a break.
- Breathing: There are a few breathing techniques that will reliably raise adrenaline and heart rate, making you more alert. Inhale-emphasised breathing is where you simply breath in more forcefully and for longer than you breath out – try doing this for 30 seconds. Another fairly well known technique has a few different names: ‘Wim Hof breathing’, ‘tummo breathing’, or ‘cyclic hyperventilation’ are all essentially the same process of taking 25-30 very deep breaths in through your nose, followed by breathing all the way out through your mouth, then holding your breath with lungs empty until you feel the need to take a breath, then breathing in all the way and holding that for 30 seconds. This one takes a bit longer but is quite powerful! Try it here.
- A cold shower/ice bath will raise adrenaline and dopamine levels to aid with neuroplasticity.
- Being in a fasted state, or just hungry – increases alertness and vice versa. So a big meal before practise is probably counterproductive!
- Last – and probably least – having a full bladder is something else that reliably increases adrenaline. However, it’s pretty distracting…
Ok, you’ve learnt how to learn, you’ve got more tools than you’re likely to remember in one go, all that’s left is to start putting them into practise.
As I mentioned in the introduction, don’t expect or try to put all these to use right away. Choose one or two to incorporate and see if you can internalise them, and then continue to build them up as habits that eventually you’ll do reflexively. A month is a good timescale to keep something like this up for. If you can get that far it’s likely you’ve established it as a habit. Also if you choose not to carry it on, you’ll have a good idea of how to use it and how effective it is. I’d also recommend coming back to this guide from time to time, to see if there’s more things you’ve missed, or new things to try.
Here’s a quick rundown of what we covered, and what to aim for to maximise your learning:
- Make the time! How you spend your time is a series of choices. Make it a habit, commit to it.
- Turn up alert- well rested, not full of food, earlier in the day with bright overhead light.
- Be clear about what you want to work on – have a plan!
- Think about WHY you’re practising
- Remove distractions – phone off/airplane mode
- Expect some dips in attention, not to be on full focus for the whole time
- When it feels hard, that means you’re doing the work that will really make you better. Lean into that effort and enjoy the friction!
- Time in = results out. It’s a simple equation that works for EVERYONE.
- Aim to make 1-2 mistakes out of every 10 attempts
- Use a metronome or music to keep the energy up and the flow going
- Record & evaluate your performances
- Try caffeine or other adrenaline spike at END of session
- Do some sort of ‘non sleep deep rest’ activity later on in the day
Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below, and now stop reading this and go practise!
Credit where credit is due: A lot of the information here has been summarised from the absolutely stellar work of the Huberman Labs Podcast. If you’re interested in neuroscience/neurobiology, and want to dive even deeper into these processes with information from quality peer-reviewed scientific research reaching into all aspects of life and health, then I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Further resources: (I’ll be updating this list regularly with new treats!)
- For a great visual summary of how we learn physical skills, check out this video