Speed is Learned

A few years ago, I was an avid motocyclist.  One of my favorite things to do was to ride my motorcycle on a racetrack.  I was never a racer, and never entered a race.  But with a trackday organization, I could take my motorcycle out to the track and safely ride as fast as i wanted to on some of the best courses in California.  But before getting out on the track, I had to attend track school.  It turns out that our visual system is designed for 0-35 mph (about as fast as an Olympic sprinter can run).  In driver’s education, we learn that to drive on the highway we have to look further ahead due to the increased speed.  On a racetrack, where 55mph would be a slow turn, it becomes necessary to look even farther ahead.  This is not natural, and so, the instructors repeated over and over again that “speed is learned”.  In fact, they stated that as we practiced our brains would increase the speed at which they processed what was in front of us.  This would allow us to go faster without falling over.

It turns out that the brain is VERY conditioned to certain speeds and has a definite comfort zone.  This comfort zone is so narrowly defined on a racetrack that 2mph faster feels extremely fast and uncomfortable!  Unless conscious effort is applied, our brains have us lapping at very close to a constant time, lap after lap.  Going faster is not comfortable, despite being safe!  Despite being more than 60 seconds a off the race pace, my brain was convinced that if I went any faster, I would crash for sure.  Now, although going much faster than legal highway speeds, I was nowhere near the safe limits of my motorcycle.  On turns the racers would take at 130+ mph, I was only going 90mph and feeling like it was as fast I could go without falling over.  Despite being highly skeptical of the claim that my brain was sensitive to 2mph differences, it turned out to be true.

At the end of track school, the instructors staged a “mini race”.  There were no trophies, and it was only three laps.  We gridded up like the start of a real race and took off.  My first track school I came in at the back of the pack, having lost a pitched battle for 2nd to last.  At the same time, I had lapped over 15 seconds faster than my best time.  (15 seconds is an eternity on the racetrack).  The competition had distracted my brain and so it processed the track faster than it was used to by a significant margin.

The same thing tends to happen in music making.  Left to our own devices, without a metronome, we will tend to practice in a very narrow tempo band.  At the beginning, this will be very slow.  Our brains are convinced that going faster  is hard, uncomfortable and confusing.  Yet, the reality is that our bodies are capable of extremely precise and quick movements.  You can demonstrate this by simply rolling your fingers sequentially on the piano or fretboard.  Just roll from the pinky to the thumb:  5-4-3-2-1.  See how fast you can do it.  Even as a first-day beginner, this movement can be done faster than is ever needed to play great masterworks.  It is an easy movement, natural for the hand, and one that we don’t even need to practice to execute at very high rates of speed.

The issue is not our playing mechanism.  Our bodies are capable of fast precise movements all the time.  Our brains, however, struggle at first with the complex new patterns we want to execute with our fingers.  The issue is not our muscles, though they grow in strength over time.  Effortless speed comes when our brains know exactly what to do and how to direct very small movements with precision.  As the speed increases, our brain must “look” further and further ahead, as it has less and less time to coordinate each action.  Because these patterns of movement are new and unfamiliar, our brain struggles to figure out how to tell our bodies what to do.  With repetition at comfortable speeds, our brains gain confidence and learn how to control all the fine muscles needed to play with subtle expression, speed and power.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss several procedures for increasing speed.

Developing Expertise – What it actually takes

The ideas in K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely Harvard Business Review paper have been widely disseminated on the internet.  Author Seth Godin and others have popularized the “it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert” idea, and it has been applied to many different areas of endeavor.  I found it quite instructive to read the original article, as it presents several rich insights for anyone looking to become more than “good”.  Reading the full version of the paper linked above is highly recommended.

After making an extensive study of chess players, athletes and others who attained a world-class level of competence, they summarized their findings, with this introduction:

“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient”

Their key findings include:

1. Expertise is always measurable, specifically through competitions and expert assessment. Even in the arts there is wide agreement on levels of technical and artistic development:

“Real expertise must pass three tests. First, it must lead to performance that is consistently superior to that of the expert’s peers. Second, real expertise produces concrete results. Brain surgeons, for example, not only must be skillful with their scalpels but also must have successful outcomes with their patients. A chess player must be able to win matches in tournaments. Finally, true expertise can be replicated and measured in the lab.  As the British scientist Lord Kelvin stated, `If you can not measure it, you can not improve it’.”

2. It takes at least 10,000 hours of “deliberate” practice to become an expert (a decade of effort):

Our research shows that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training before they win international competitions. In some fields the apprenticeship is longer: It now takes most elite musicians 15 to 25 years of steady practice, on average, before they succeed at the international level.

3. Deliberate practice is not just spending time with your instrument:

“Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

4. The practice must be systematic, using the scientific method to identify, isolate, and fix issues:

“Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills.”

“We’ve observed that when a course of action doesn’t work out as expected, the expert players will go back to their prior analysis to assess where they went wrong and how to avoid future errors. They continually work to eliminate their weaknesses.”

5. Quality counts for much more than Quantity when it comes to practice:

“The enormous concentration required to undertake these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them. The famous violinist Nathan Milstein wrote: `Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] Professor Auer how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty’.’”

6. Elite teachers and coaches are necessary, not optional – you don’t “self-coach” to world-class levels

“Arguably the most famous violin teacher of all time, Ivan Galamian, made the point that budding maestros do not engage in deliberate practice spontaneously: `If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher’.”

7.  There are several errors that must be avoided when studying expertise:

a) Relying on Individual accounts: There are always exceptional accounts of extraordinary people who did it earlier, later, faster, or slower.  These cannot take the place of well-researched conclusions.  In other words, it is better to work the ideas presented above than to try and believe you can be an exception.

b) Intuition will lead you astray:

The idea that you can improve your performance by relaxing and “just trusting your gut” is popular. While it may be true that intuition is valuable in routine or familiar situations, informed intuition is the result of deliberate practice. You cannot consistently improve your ability to make decisions (or your intuition) without considerable practice, reflection, and analysis.

c) You don’t need a new instrument (unless your teacher is telling you it is holding you back):

…Golf players may think that they can lower their scores with a new and better club. But changing to a different putter may increase the variability of a golfer’s shot and thus hinder his or her ability to play well. In reality, the key to improving expertise is consistency and carefully controlled efforts.

Overall, their work provides an important base upon which one can plan a course of study.  Specifically useful to the earnest amateur is the idea of 10,000 hours of focused practice taken in 2-5 hour-a-day chunks for a decade or more, regularly checking in with a quality teacher, and testing oneself with competitions and public performances.  Absent these items, attainment of a high level of artistic development is not possible.   For those of us who desire to move beyond “decent” or “good” to “outstanding” and “superlative”, this is critical information.  This is the shortcut.  There is no quicker path.  If the desire is to become an expert musician, the path is clear.  For the typical adult or teenage beginner, the path will be strewn with complexity, but the work to be undertaken is clear and obvious:

  1. Execute 2-5 hours of dedicated, systematic, and highly focused practice per day for 10 years – noodling does NOT count
  2. Study with a competent teacher and move to higher levels of instruction as needed
  3. Measure, quantify and evaluate everything with strict standards of excellence – involve experts via competition and masterclasses

That this will be difficult for most of us who begin late is a given, but it is also possible.  Practice can be split into morning and evening sessions.  Other adults spend this much time “going back to school”, or “getting a Master’s degree”, so the ambitious, serious, and devoted student can find a way to accomplish this.  The only question left is our individual response to what must be done.

Happy “deliberate practicing”!

Guitar Tune-up

Originally posted in 2009 – reposting on new site.

My steel-string acoustic had begun to show signs of all the practicing.  I had several frets flattening out, and it was taking a lot of pressure to form barre chords on the second fret.  On heavy strumming, I had strings that would buzz.
I had stumbled across the Plek technology while scanning the Tone Quest site.  And that in turn led me to Gary Brawer, repairman extraordinaire, who also owns one of these machines.  My initial goal was to take my Collings to someone who had a lot of experience with re-fretting as it is work where experience counts for a lot.  I was intrigued by the Plek claims that intonation could be optimized, and it made sense to me, so I arranged to drop off the guitar.  Now two weeks later, I have my instrument back.
Gary did a fantastic job.  The instrument does not buzz at all, the fret work is first rate, and tonally it is a whole new instrument.  The intonation is vastly improved and now even barre chords at the 10th fret ring true.  While I was in his shop, he offered to change anything with the setup, but I strummed hard, finger-picked lightly and couldn’t find anything to be unhappy with.  Looking carefully at the guitar, the nut is cut quite a bit differently than it had been, and the bridge saddle is now compensated.  I was not expecting to have a more “in-tune” instrument as a result of the process, but what a wonderful discovery!  My wife, who is not a musician, immediately commented on how much better the instrument sounds.  The difference is not subtle.
My classical guitar definitely has intonation problems the further up the neck one plays, so I am considering taking that in also.  it is not worn out, but with a world-class setup job, I am certain it will improve as an instrument.
If you need any repair or setup work done in the Bay area, I’d highly recommend Gary Brawer.  My son was blown away when he saw Joe Satriani’s name on one of the cases behind his repair counter.  Gary is THE man, and with fret work and setups like I received, I know why he is THE guy to see in San Francisco for repair work.  If you have a guitar that you like, but have intonation or setup issues like buzzing, fretting out, etc, have Gary work on your guitar. You’ll get the thrill of a brand-new instrument, while still enjoying everything that you like about the guitar you have.  Good setup work is worth the price.

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