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The Learning Zone

I’m revisiting some of my best older posts on learning guitar. This was originally posted 10 years ago.

Here’s a little piece for anyone who practices but doesn’t seem to improve much.

I suggest you take a look at a book called “Talent is Overrated,” by Geoff Colvin. The book is not written primarily to musicians but to a general audience of business, organizational and sports readers. Its subtitle is “What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else.”

The book systematically and scientifically pulls apart the longstanding myth of innate talent. And by examining great achievers, it demystifies their process, breaking it down and making it much more concretely available to anyone who is willing to do the work.

According to Geoff Colvin’s research, the element that can be shown to separate the W.A. Mozarts or Tiger Woods of the world from everyone else is something he calls “deliberate practice.”

Here are the elements of deliberate practice:

1. It’s designed specifically to improve performance—designed very specifically, for exactly what needs improvement at the specific stage of development. It’s hard to get this efficiently accomplished without a coach or a teacher but not impossible.

2. it can be repeated a lot-–if you’re afraid of annoying your roommates or get bored too easily or worst of all, don’t understand what exactly it is that you are shooting for, you probably won’t be motivated to repeat your scale  or your exercise enough that it has a truly beneficial effect and really sinks in.

3.feedback on results is continually available—you need to be constantly listening, judging, adjusting, experimenting—if you know what you are trying to achieve in the exercise. And if you don’t quite know, you need to have a teacher or coach or someone who is able to give you good, accurate feedback.

4. It is highly demanding mentally—-deliberate practice is all about focus and concentration. It’s not mindless play, it’s not just having fun. “Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on one’s mental abilities” (p.71)  This places a limit on how much time can be spent practicing in this manner. Three to five hours a day at the most, with breaks for rest.

I like this quote, from the violinist Leopold Auer: “Practice with your fingers and you will need all day. Practice with your mind, and you will do as much in one and a half hours.”

5. It isn’t much fun—-unless you enjoy deliberately seeking out what you suck at  so you can do it over and over until you’re ready to move on to the next level of suckitude.

One more illustration, from the book, that I’ve found very helpful for my students. It’s fun to “practice” things that you are already good at, that you feel comfortable with already, that you have some level of mastery over.. In a way, this is one of the great rewards of learning to play. But you’ll never get very far if you don’t challenge yourself, constantly, to push just a bit past what you feel comfortable doing.

Draw three concentric circles. Label the inner circle Comfort. Label the outer one Panic. The one in the middle is where your deliberate practice will take place, it’s the Learning Zone.

If you stay where you are comfortable, you’ll never improve very fast.  But if you push too hard, always trying to do things that are too far out of your reach, you’ll run yourself ragged and tense, develop bad habits and you will not improve much either. Either that, or you will skip important steps or stages in your fluent development of skills.

The trick is to be constantly searching for and finding the Learning Zone where the challenge is just right.