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Learn To Play The Impossible

The first reaction that most people get when they start learning an instrument is that it is so much harder than they thought and to some, it feels “not humanly possible”, even though humans before them have done it. This impossible feeling is experienced by musicians of all skill levels because no matter how good you are, you can always find someone that has dedicated their life to playing something that you haven’t. Musicians of every skill level need the ability to learn what feels impossible and in my thirty year teaching career I’ve honed a method that dramatically speeds this process up when compared to conventional music lessons.

In some ways this system is really simple because its based on very simple concepts but make no mistake, it will take hard work and discipline to achieve because it feels backwards to how most people innately try to develop their skill.

How the method came about

Learning an musical instrument is a ton of work and if I was going to retain clients and help more people in the world love playing music, I needed a system where they could play something that sounded like a song before their initial excitement of learning an instrument wore off. I spent my early years teaching observing people learning and experimenting to find ways to increase learning speed. I read as much as I could about how the brain works and looked to other teachers expertise and methods to refine my own. That said, I am not a neuroscientist. If you are a neuroscientist I would love to chat with you about how the brain works when people learn music, so that I, and my readers can be better informed.

The Conventional Way Of Teaching Music

In conventional lessons the general way that people are taught is to play things very slowly, with proper technique, while learning sheet music and gradually speeding the piece of music up over time. Typically songs are rudimentary, and at first they may only be finger and sight reading exercises. Students will typically get to their first “rudimentary song” like “Mary Had A Little Lamb” after weeks of playing. When students go home they often abandon the “slow gradual” approach and attempt to play everything as fast as they can leaving their technique behind.

I call this a brute force method of learning music and its based on a couple of assumptions. The first assumption is that the brain and body connection happens very slowly over time. The second assumption is that in order to build speed is that it will happen gradually in a linear path. Then slowly, the brain and body will work together at faster and faster speeds until you reach the desired tempo of the song. There are many examples where learning to do physical things happen in exactly the opposite way to the previous assumptions. One that most of us are familiar with is learning to ride a bike. Most peoples experience of learning to ride a bike is that at first, it feels impossible. We start by falling off or using awkward trains wheels or have a parent running behind us holding the seat so we won’t fall off. After enough repetition of this, one day, unexplained to either the parent or the child, suddenly you can ride a bike. Its like one second you have no skill and the next you can ride a bike. This does not support the “linear learning path of conventional music lessons”.

Understanding Memory

I get told by people all the time that they have the worst memory but most times it is because they are working against how their memory behaves. Students complain that they can read a piece of sheet music 100 times and never have it memorized. This “lack of memory” is compounded even further when a person is being told in conventional music lessons to not look at their hands and only look at the sheet music. There are a lot more centres in the brain that are dedicated to sight than there are centres for sound. Why would we take away an aspiring musicians greatest brain connection tool, sight, when they are attempting to get their hands connected to their brain? Look at your hands when you're learning, you’ll be fine. Once you develop some skill you won’t need to look at your hands any more. It will also help you memorize things easier. More on that in a moment.

Memory also works in context. We’ve all experienced something like running into a co-worker or a teacher when we are out shopping and not recognizing them right away. This is usually accompanied by a feeling of surprise. This “phenomenon” happens because our brain compartmentalizes things. In this example, a teacher will be associated in your brain to being in school. In your brain they are “hooked” to only being at school. When you see them outside of school this disrupts your brain, hence the feeling of surprise. I see this in music lessons everyday. A person will get one part of a song down and then separately get a second part down. When they try to put them together it all falls apart. This is because the brain has not yet related them together in context. Putting them together is like learning a third part.

Next, the brain generally remembers hand patterns far easier than it remembers dots on a staff or letters on a page. We have all seen this with the gargantuan passcodes we all need to remember for our online systems these days. For example, you’ll need to work very hard to remember IKM543yhb#$%. Now, look at this same pattern on your keyboard and you’ll see that it is a lot easier to remember.

We also need to understand short term and long term memory. In general the brain can retain about six things in short term memory. If you can remember the six things, after going away from it, five to seven minutes later they should be in long term memory. Typical music lessons gets you to very slowly play through a song start to finish. Your brain has no way of remembering it because as soon as you pass the sixth note, it all disappears from memory.

When we look at all the things we’ve learned about how the brain functions and then compare it to standard lessons is it a surprise that people struggle? Looking at sheet music while doing highly complex micro movements with your hands and playing long pieces of music giving you no chance to memorize anything, while furthermore, spending such a prolonged time playing music at excruciatingly slow tempos and not sounding like a song you love creates the slowest method of learning music you could possibly think of. To be honest, I am surprised that anyone in history has ever learned to play music this way. There are plenty of people that have and they deserve a blue ribbon.

Working With The Brain Body Connection

Here’s the method that I’ve spent 30 year perfecting and I continue to refine. We must first recognize that people are learning way too much, way too fast and it’s slowing them down. How much a person can handle varies widely but in general everyone will try to learn too much of a song all at once.

We have two initial goals. One, teach the brain what it needs to know so that it can teach the hands. Two, build a solid brain connection between the hands and the brain before increasing tempo.

In order to show the brain what it needs to know we need to remove as many obstacles as possible. I think it’s pretty ridiculous to learn to read sheet music while learning the physical part of learning an instrument. This is like learning long division while learning to juggle. Separate the two. Learn the physical part of the instrument while looking at your hands and then once you have some skill, learning sheet music is considerably easier. Learning long division is also much easier to learn when you're not learning to juggle.

In order to know that the brain has the message it needs to teach the hands the student needs to be able to play a small section of a song (four or five notes on a difficult piece) four times in a row without making a mistake or compromising technique. If you make a mistake on the third time you are back at zero. At this point in time speed doesn’t matter. Play the speed that you can be successful. After you’ve played it several times the natural inclination is to speed up. Don’t. The only thing that speeding up will accomplish is making it take longer to learn. What you're looking for is that all the minor hesitations disappear and that the student can relax and breathe while playing. You’ll start to notice micro moments in the hands that look more refined as well. After you have the four or five notes down add a couple more using this same method. I can’t stress enough that keeping things a very slow, achievable tempo is the most important part of this method at this stage. After you’ve learned a manageable phrase of the song (usually a few bars) using this method the student is ready for the step we all want. Speeding up.

Now we know the brain fully understands the message it needs to send the hands. We also know the hands can follow the messages it is getting from the brain. The speeding up part will now go very quickly. It will not be a slow linear path. It will be giant leaps and people often plateau after they double or triple their speed in a few minutes.

When I do this with a student they may learn their phrase at about 60BPM. When its time to speed up I’ll increase the tempo in 10BPM increments. I wait until they can play the piece two times in a row. I may get them to play a few more times if they aren’t relaxed. Each 10BPM increment will take 30-60 seconds to achieve for the student. This means they will now double their speed within three to six minutes. This is usually very thrilling to a student. They are now experiencing playing what felt impossible a few minutes ago at a speed they thought they’d never achieve.

After a student hits a speed they can’t get past it is time to play slow again. What you’ll notice is that all the things the teacher or the student neglected when they played slow become a more obvious problem when they play fast. You’ll need to smooth out everything that was a problem when playing fast. You will also likely notice that the student will suddenly have problems playing the piece slow again. The brain body connection has very little to do with speed in my experience. After the student is “re-grounded” at a slow speed and shows more signs of relaxation go through the same speeding up process. What you’ll notice is they will likely launch past their first plateau by another 20 or 30%.

In general achieving speed is not a slow process. There is also value at the end of this process in attempting to play well above the speed you can play cleanly. Throwing your fingers at the fretboard, keyboard or sticks on a drum set while not being able to keep up will help you build the automatic muscle memory needed to play music. Going through this playing slow and then playing as fast as you can will make the brain and body connect faster and with better technique.

I wish you the best of luck and hope you achieve more musically than you ever thought possible


Paul Smith

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