Brain Blog #3: How watching athletic coaches can help us learn to play music.

Much of modern western culture is steeped in an approach to music education which does not serve well the majority of people who desire to play music. When developing ideas that DO work for the majority of aspiring musicians, one thing that helps a lot is to draw on the vast amount of successful practices used by athletic trainers. Yes! Sports and Music!  Our culture helps us to believe that they are two very different things, but athletic training and musical training have much in common. When learning to use our muscles to do amazing things as musicians, we must use the same process of skills acquisition used by athletes. One of the biggest differences in music is that we are coordinating more muscles, smaller muscles in finer movements, which means MORE brain, hence the whole process takes longer to get to a point where we feel like we’re “doing it.” 

So, lets take a look at how some familiar practices in athletics can help us use what we now understand about how the brain learns music. 

When we gain a new physical skill, we must pass through the three phases of Skills Acquisition:

  1. Cognitive

2. Associative

3. Autonomous

There’s no way around it. The only way out is through. Eventually, you will learn to enjoy  the entire process, because you will see your progress sooner and you will have previously enjoyed the result of completing the three phases. You will understand what it takes, and you will feel grateful to yourself for giving yourself this time to develop magical powers.

As aspiring musicians, we value highly the autonomous phase. I think we tend to expect to get there sooner than we can. If we can just have realistic expectations about how long it takes, that helps a lot. When we understand these three phases and begin to identify them in our own work, we can measure our progress in a way that is not discouraging. 

In order to learn to play music (or shoot hoops) we have to try to do something that we can not do... YET. For some reason, when a novice tries to shoot a basket, they’re usually ok with the cognitive phase. The cognitive phase is awkward. We have a lot of new things to think about. We experience failure. You WILL experience failure in the cognitive phase. A lot. When learning to play music, this is devastating for some people. Why is it harder to be ok with this in music? That is a topic for another day. I hope it will help to know that this is part of the process. Once you enter the associative phase, you have more ease and sometimes more success, but just when you think you’ve got it, there is another failure. It seems elusive. Now you have it. Now you don’t. When you are in the associative phase, you may play very well in practice, but one little thing (like the presence of a teacher) can give your brain some extra work, and boom it all falls apart. That’s because you are not in the autonomous phase yet. The associative phase is very long, you’re getting better, but it is not yet automatic. It takes many many repetitions to get a skill so automatic that it continues with ease or without you even thinking about it. 

Here’s the main thing that is used in athletic training that is often overlooked in music: In athletic training, the various skills required are usually isolated and worked on separately before trying to put them all together. When playing a song, you are using MANY skills!

Athletes also do many things to strengthen and tone their muscles that they absolutely do not do on the playing field. Have you ever seen a baseball player lifting weights during a game? Do they begin a game or practice of any kind without warming up first? What does practice look like? Do they just say, “Ok, practice has begun, lets play ball!” When we begin to learn to play music, do we expect to play music right away? When we sit down to practice, do we start with music? Or, might we start by warming up our body and working on some isolated skills. 

When you watch baseball practice, you will see them warming up. You will see batting practice. You will see pitchers practicing their pitch. You will see players practicing throwing, scooping up grounders. ...and these are champions and pros! They still practice their skills in isolation. They don’t just play the game. 

In music, there is a strong tendency to be in a hurry to get to the result. We wanna play music. That’s why we are in music lessons... and in modern western culture, most of us have certain expectations of what that result looks like. We want to sound like something familiar usually. Like something we’ve heard on the radio or at a concert. We often expect to sound kind of like people who have been developing their skills many hours a day for many years.

Most people are comfortable playing sports NOT at the pro level. Many people tend to expect their music to sound kinda like a pro! Many teachers and students approach the first lessons too eager to get to the desired result. We must slow down, develop some skills, and maybe NOT start with Sweet Home Alabama. It seems that all my students are willing to work on developing skills (that don’t sound like music yet) as long as they understand how this skill is going to enable them to eventually play the music they love. 

As a music teacher, I am consistently impressed by just how much we can break it down into smaller and smaller pieces: various skills that can be developed in isolation. This concept can be applied to any musical expression, but guitar is especially vulnerable to this problem, so I’ll start with a guitar example. Often a “beginner” guitar book will start with a G chord. !!! Full size chords like G and C and especially F are NOT beginner skills. We might tend to think of playing a G chord as one thing. We call ITa G chord” after all. Playing “a” G chord is WAY more than one thing. Even playing just one note on guitar, is not one thing! If you are not playing an open string, you are fretting with one hand. You are finding the sweet spot: the precise location to squeeze just behind the fret, so you don’t have to squeeze so hard, and by the time you get your other hand, pic, finger, or thumb on the correct string, your left hand fingertip is already hurting. And there are all these numbers! Whatever fret you’re on? ....students will often pic the string with THAT number, and not the string they are fretting. And then there’s that confounded pic! How do you hang on to that thing?! One note can be a lot at first. And when you are making a chord, you are playing several notes! That’s why I think it is a good idea to spend some time making one sound, developing good technique, gain some strength, and then start playing more than one note at a time with small chord shapes. You can learn five easy notes that sound quite musical here in this link.  And here’s a backing track to go with it.

I had a student who was struggling with her chords. Her guitar was very difficult to play for one thing, and her parents wanted her to prove herself before they would buy her a good guitar. So, one day, I started teaching her to play lead and she took right off! I suggested a few notes and asked her to just play with them. I played a groove and she played around. When we ended she enthusiastically exclaimed, “Can we do that again?!” She was so excited! One note at a time was doable on her very unplayable guitar. I also went out and found a great little cheap guitar at a pawn shop and turned it into a student loaner guitar. 

I hope we’ve agreed that playing a G chord is not one thing. Lets consider that many first guitar lessons will present something like strumming and singing a very familiar song like Tom Dooley. “It’s only two chords,” you may say. Is it? It is strumming, it is having a sense of timing, it is making not one chord (which is not one thing), but two. It is changing chords, on time! is singing a rhythm different than what you are playing. And there are distractions like hurting fingertips, random memories of people being publicly humiliated for not being good enough, and so on. That all uses up brain power. We can change all this.  

When students experience failure after many hours or years of practice, it is often because of one or two skills which have not been isolated and developed independently. Next time, we’ll take some musical examples and look at how much we can break it down into isolated skills and help each skill through the three phases of skills acquisition. It’s a little bit like slowing down so you can gain some traction and really get somewhere...and stop spinning your wheels. 

Coming up in Brain Blog #4: How to develop various skills in isolation