Brain Blog #4: Isolating skills (so you can progress faster)

In Brain Blog #3, we took a look at athletic training and discussed how some of those obviously sensible practices, such as warm up, isolating skills and bringing each skill to a level of proficiency before combining skills can be important in developing musical expression.

If we go to our first few music lessons and expect to come home playing something that sounds like a familiar tune, that’s kinda like trying to play a game of basketball before you’ve learned how to run and dribble at the same time...and you haven’t practiced shooting yet. 

The tricky thing with music is that it takes a little probing and maybe a new mindset to begin to recognize and break down all the various skills we are using...and to appreciate the complexity of each one. My daughter, Jennifer O’Connor, teaches violin to adult beginners. (  I learned a lot about teaching music from her first few lessons. If you are one of her Hot Violinists, please forgive me if I get the details wrong, but if my memory serves correctly, we spent a week NOT making a sound. On the first day, we did not even pick up the violin: we learned how to have good posture and stay relaxed. Upon learning how to hold the violin, I realised how important this is, because it is SO awkward! At first. That is the cognitive phase for ya. (At this point, I’m assuming that you are familiar with the three phases of Skills Acquisition. If not, read Brain Blog 1 and 2 first.) It was very difficult to make holding that instrument comfortable, and I found it very challenging to hold the violin without developing a kink in my neck. So, it makes a lot of sense to work on just that for a while before adding another new, awkward feeling skill such as holding the bow! 

We learned how to be relaxed and how to come back to that feeling often. Which was important, because every new, awkward skill has potential for developing tension. I think we learned how to hold the bow before picking up the violin. Oh yeah! We actually learned how to hold a pencil before learning to hold the bow. We practiced a good bow hold on a light easy pencil before using our bow hold with the heavier, longer bow. After learning how to hold the bow AND the violin at the same time, we learned how to make one good sound on an open string before learning to finger different notes. 

...and this is a good place to interject one of my favorite stories: Jenny told me about a student who was so delighted with her first good sound...just one wonderful sound...the student exclaimed, “Ah! This is why people are depressed! Because they do not play the violin!”

You DO NOT have to play a familiar tune to feel made whole by your music.

Just one good sound will do it.

There is something magical and very scientifically sound about vibration and sound and how healing it is. Especially vibrating strings! 

After my first few violin lessons, I felt a lot better about giving my guitar students some very simple warm ups and exercises to develop skill and good technique before trying to have them feel like they are making music. And I find that as long as my students understand why we are doing an exercise, and what magical power they are going to gain from doing the exercise, they do them.

Exercises and warm ups do not need to be a long part of your practice. They can be if you are willing. Personally, if I only have 30 minutes to practice, I usually don’t play my music. I do my Well Tempered exercises, (scroll up for blog/book review about The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist ) because they give me magical powers. During a busy time, I can do my Well Tempered work consistently for a few weeks, then go back to playing music on my instrument and find that I make more connections, play more intuitively, and my fingers find their way to the desired location much more readily than they did before. 

Next time, we’ll talk about the “to read or not to read music” question. But let’s say you ARE reading music. When you make your first attempt at reading a new piece of music, try letting it be ok to NOT play the correct rhythm. Oh! Did I just hear a crack in the cosmic egg? Playing an incorrect rhythm?! Why that’s blasphemy! Nope. It’s not blasphemy, and it’s not dangerous, as long as you have easier pieces to play where you ARE focusing on correct rhythm and timing issues. Your brand new piece that you are reading for the first time, does not have to be played with perfect timing. You can polish up on the timing later. First, focus on reading the notes, accurately, in order. This is a good time to establish your best fingerings, and accomplish that while you let yourself off the hook for timing. Jenny calls this the land where time stands still. I love that. When you are still learning to read music, you need time to focus on just reading and finding your notes, the land where time stands still. If you are concerned about learning the rhythm “wrong,” you can spend some time tapping only the rhythm while not being concerned about the notes. 

Here’s one more example about isolating skills:

I used to think that a song like Tom Dooley....a couple guitar chords to strum and a familiar song to sing, was a good place to start for a beginning guitarist. 

Not no more.

For some students, yes, but most students need to work up to that. It’s easy to think that strumming two chords and singing Tom Dooley is ...oh...maybe three things: strumming, singing, and a couple chords. We’ve already talked about how playing one guitar chord is NOT one skill. It is several notes and making just one good sounding note for a beginning guitarist can be a challenge. 

Lets took at the various skills required when strumming and singing a two chord song. 

1. Fingering the chords

2. Changing chords

3. Knowing when to change chords

4. Sense of where the beat is

5. Singing rhythm that is different than the strum rhythm (The tongue tends to pull the strumming hand along with it.)

6. Sense of pitch

7. Holding the instrument

8. Ignoring the pain on your fingertips

9. Ignoring the frequent buzzes and dead sounding strings

10. Remembering I am a beautiful, wonderful person even though I can’t do this...YET

11. Relaxing often instead of constantly squeezing with all your might the whole entire time

Usually, when I have a beginning music student, they are already good at most of the necessary skills... and usually, there are one or two skills that need to be developed before they are pleased with the sound of their music. I fear that often, beginning students are given the impression that they are not musical, when in reality, so many skills and abilities are already in place, and work is required on just one or two isolated skills in order to make the whole thing come together. 

One thing I desire for you, if you are a student of music, is to be able to understand your own process and to be able to modify for yourself. You know when a new skills comes with ease and you know when you feel overwhelmed. When you feel overwhelmed, try to be aware of the various skills you are using. See if you can identify the ones where you are strong and the ones that need work. If you can isolate a skill and bring your weak area into the associative phase before trying to combine it with other new skills, things will go more smoothly. 

Once the skills are combined, you can still practice by placing your focus on one skill at a time and cutting your self some slack in the other areas for the moment. When most of the skills you are using are approaching the autonomous phase, you can begin to just relax and enjoy the flow of music. (You can also relax and enjoy practice in the meantime ; )

You can experience the wonderful flow of the autonomous phase two ways:


NOW: By choose a very simple musical expression that is well within your skill level (more about this when we talk about Canjam).


LATER: By practicing for many hours and years while you bring your more complex musical expressions into the autonomous phase. 

I suggest doing both. 

I actually think the second one is easier to understand how it works. That’s why I’m working on a project called Canjam. Canjam is a way of facilitating improv for beginners.  

Canjam will give you ideas for using what you can already do with ease to make music that sounds good and feels good to you. 

Today, we talked about isolating skills, so that we can design exercises to bring each individual skill into the associative phase more quickly. In the next brain blog, I’ll give you more specific examples of what some of these exercises might look like. But week, we’re going to talk about the “to read or not to read music” question.

In the mean time, if you have any questions, or need help breaking things down into isolated skills, join our Everyone Can Jam private Facebook Page. We can discuss things there.