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Studio Class 24

A Method for Successful Practice

Dr. Jason Kihle, Associate Professor of Percussion

Texas A&M University-Kingsville

The primary resource for this handout was:

Coyle, Daniel.  The Talent Code.  New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

Foundational Ideas

  • Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers.
  • Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed and accuracy.
  • The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.
  • Nerve firings grow myelin, myelin controls impulse speed, and impulse speed is skill.
  • Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.

Fundamental Principles of Myelin

  • The firing of the circuit is paramount.  
    • The mechanism is built to respond to actions.  Actions are the electrical impulses traveling down nerve fibers.  The mechanism responds to urgent repetition.
  • Myelin is universal
    • One size fits all skills.  It doesn’t “know” if it’s being used for playing shortstop or playing Schubert: regardless of its use, it grows according to the same rules.  Myelin is meritocratic: circuits that fire get insulated.  Myelin doesn’t care who you are—it cares what you do.
  • Myelin wraps—it doesn’t unwrap.
    • Like a highway-paving machine, myelination happens in one direction.  Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can’t un-insulate it (except through age or disease).  That’s why habits are hard to break.  The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors—by myelinating new circuits.
  • Age matters
    • In children, myelin arrives in a series of waves, some of them determined by genes, some of them determined by activity.  The waves last into our thirties, creating critical periods during which time the brain is extraordinarily receptive to learning new skills.  Thereafter we continue to experience a net gain of myelin until around the age of fifty when the balance tips toward loss.  We retain the ability to myelinate throughout life, but it becomes more difficult with age, which is why most world-class experts start young.

The Three Rules of Deep Practice

Rule One: Chunk It Up

  • And now we’re going to break this rule into chunks.
    • Absorb the whole thing
      • In musical terms, listen and watch recordings of performances.
    • Break it into chunks
      • The chunks must be small enough for you to really learn them; it may only be a group of four notes; playing four measures of music over and over again without digging in and thinking about its parts will lead to only incremental progress
    • Slow it down
      • Slowing down allows you to attend more closely to errors
      • When growing myelin, precision is everything; remember, it’s not how fast you can do it, it’s how slow you can do it correctly
      • Dr. Barry Zimmerman, Professor of Psychology at City University of New York, in his 2001 study, was able to predict a practice outcome by the way volleyball players practiced their serve.  “Experts practiced differently and far more strategically.  When they fail, they don’t blame it on luck or themselves.  They have a strategy to fix it.”

Rule Two: Repeat It

  • Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable.  With conventional practice, more is always better.  But with deep practice, it’s only as good as how much you are on the sweet spot, at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits.
  • Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist who kept performing into his eighties, said, “If I skip practice for one day, I notice.  If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices.  If I skip practice for three days, the world notices.”
  • Gary Burton, the vibraphone player for whom the grip is named (i.e. he’s a world-class player), was asked in a clinic I attended “How much do you practice improvisation now?”  His answer was “I don’t practice improv any more.”  (That’s not an invitation to you to not practice, because you’re not Gary Burton.)  Gary Burton knows all the words already, and now he gets to just talk.  (Words=music.)

Rule Three: Learn to Sense Deep Practice

  • It’s not possible to sense myelin growing along your nerve fibers any more than you can sense your heart and lungs becoming more efficient during a workout.  You can, however, learn to sense the telltale set of secondary feelings associated with acquiring new skills—the myelin version of “feeling the burn”.
  • The words people from “talent hotbeds” (read the book to find out more about these) used to describe the sensations of their most productive practice were:
    • Attention
    • Connect
    • Build
    • Whole
    • Alert
    • Focus
    • Mistake
    • Repeat
    • Tiring
    • Edge 
    • Awake
  • This list evokes a feeling of reaching, falling short, and reaching again.
  • Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.
    • Pick a target.
    • Reach for it.
    • Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.
    • Return to step one.
  • The author’s favorite image of deep practice is staggering babies.
    • A few years ago a group of American and Norwegian researchers did a study to see what made babies improve at walking.  They discovered that the key factor wasn’t height or weight or age or brain development or any other innate trait but rather (surprise!) the amount of time they spent firing their circuits learning to walk.
    • This is what practice is like.  Learning to be ok with wobbling through a passage until it becomes more secure, and then being okay with that process again in the next passage.