I’ve been playing the piano for almost 40 years, and I’m roughly as good as I was when I was 12.
Here’s what I do when I play the piano:
1. Sit down.
2. Plow through one of the three pieces I know by heart (my go-to favorite is the piano interlude from Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla).
3. Make a bunch of mistakes.
4. Keep plowing right through.
5. Move on to another of the three songs.
This in no way resembles how I played the piano when I was 15 — when I was at the height of my development and growth as a musician.
Here’s how I played the piano then:
1. Sit Down.
2. Stare at a single measure from a piece of music and try to hear the melody in my head.
3. Keep staring at that single measure and run my fingers over the keys without playing them, getting my fingers used to the order and timing of the notes. Training my neurons.
4. Play that one measure.
5. Make a couple mistakes.
6. Go back and play that one measure again, focusing on the mistakes.
7. Make less mistakes.
8. Repeat steps 6 & 7 until I could play that one measure flawlessly 10 times in a row.
9. Add the next measure. Repeat.
Practicing in this way, I might go a week without playing a song the whole way through. But by the time I finally did, it was beautiful.
Without realizing it, I’d stumbled on the best way to get better at just about anything.
Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin call it “deliberate practice.” Daniel Coyle refers to it as “deep practice.” Either way, it’s an incredible catalyst for rapid skill development.
In his book “Talent is Overrated,” Geoff Colvin tells the story of how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write essays. While reading articles from The Spectator, a popular British political magazine, Franklin would write down the most important points from the article. A few days later, he would try to re-create the article using the points he’d captured, tying the points together with his own reasoned words. He’d then compare his writing to the original, learn from where the two varied, and start the process over again.
If you’re trying to learn a new skill, or get better at an existing one, try applying the principles of deliberate practice.
There are really only two requirements.
- The skill must be something that you can repeat reasonably quickly. Figure out how to chunk the skill down into smaller repeatable steps — learning the piano one measure at a time, improving your golf game by first just focusing on your backswing, learning to write by trying to re-create essays.
- Practicing the skill must yield consistent, ongoing feedback. You need to know, as soon as possible after practicing, whether you succeeded or failed. Record yourself performing the skill so that you can watch / listen immediately. If immediate feedback isn’t possible or realistic on your own, hire a coach / teacher who will not only provide immediate feedback, but also continue to push you just beyond your current capability.
Key to improving is defining a target that’s just beyond your current skill level, so that you fail more often than you succeed, at least at first. Once you’ve reached that target, choose a new one that’s just outside your new comfort zone. If you’re not stretching, you’re not learning.
“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” -Samuel Beckett