I am writing this post because it is how I will be approaching every skill-building post in this blog. I will improve on this post as I go. The concepts that I will write here will carry over into almost every area of life, not just your musical talent. I hope that as you read this article, it will add value into all areas of your life and help you make a plan to develop whatever talent you desire.
Practice Makes Permanent
We have all heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” The underlying premise of this saying is flawed. The premise is that if you do something over and over again, you will achieve perfection. That is simply not the case.
The truth is that practice makes permanent.
Do you have any bad habits? These are things that you have “practiced” over and over again but it is not something that you would consider “perfect” because it is a bad habit.
For example, I went through a phase in my guitar playing where I had a habit of strumming over the end of the fret board instead of over the sound hole. This weakened my guitar’s tone and just looked weird to those watching me.
I have no idea when it started but I didn’t really take notice of it until someone pointed it out to me. I had to sit down and intentionally practice strumming the right way. Eventually I kicked the habit and haven’t done it since.
Practice makes perfect is a saying that you need to nix from your memory. Remember, Practice makes Permanent. The only practice that leads to perfection is perfect practice.
The Learning Process
When we learn something new, we go through a 4 step process.
Step 1: Unconscious Incompetence
This is where you start. It means that you aren’t good at something but don’t quite know it yet.
Before I ever picked up a guitar, I didn’t realize how bad of a guitar player I was. I was incompetent and wasn’t conscious of it.
Step 2: Conscious Incompetence
The minute I picked up the guitar and tried to play something, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing.
Step 3: Conscious Competence
This step took a lot of practice. I spent months playing the guitar, watching other people play, asking for advice, and doing research.
I got to a point where I was able to play well but only with focused effort. In a way, I forced myself to play well.
At this level, distraction usually led to a mistake because it interrupted my focus.
Step 4: Unconscious Competence
This step is where everybody wants to be. What once took careful, deliberate effort is now as simple as breathing. I don’t have to think about what my fingers are doing. I just do it.
At this level, a musician can multitask effectively. This is especially important for people who sing and play at the same time. My voice coach didn’t let me play guitar during our lessons because she wanted me to achieve unconscious competence vocally before adding the guitar back into the mix.
I don’t know about you but I only have so much consciousness to go around. Once I achieved unconscious competence vocally, I was able to spend my consciousness on playing guitar well knowing that my voice was still going to be on point.
Now we are going to talk about the science behind what is going on in you as you develop your skills. I will focus it around two things: Neural Pathways and Muscle Memory.
The reason why we can learn anything at all is because of something called the neuroplasticity of the brain. It is the idea that your brain is moldable, not set in stone. You aren’t born with all the knowledge you will ever possess.
When you learn new things, it creates a “pathway” in your brain. Any repeated action strengthens that pathway.
This can work for, or against, you.
Good habits are hard to build and bad habits are hard to break. When you spend enough time rehearsing a bad habit, the neural pathway becomes so deep that the thought or action gets drawn down it with minimal effort.
Have you ever gone sledding? The first one down the hill after it snows is usually the slowest because they are creating a path for all the other people coming down the hill after them.
Have you ever tried to steer your sled to avoid hitting somebody? It is almost impossible to get the sled to steer because it naturally gets pulled down the path of least resistance.
The only way to create a new path is to manually drag the sled down the path you want it to go until you dig a new pathway.
Your bad habits will be hard to break because your effort will unconsciously choose the path of least resistance. It will take focused and deliberate effort to dig new neural pathways in order to get on the right track.
This goes hand-in-hand with neural pathways. Muscle memory is a physical representation of a neural pathway in the part of the brain that governs motor function.
Right now, I am typing this blog post without looking at the keyboard. I’m not even thinking about what I’m doing with my fingers at all. I have achieved unconscious competence in my typing.
I can just think about what I want to say and my fingers will do the rest of the work. This is because of muscle memory that I developed over a semester in high school when I took a typing class and went from typing 11 words per minute to 40 words per minute! It was definitely the most practical class I ever took.
It is the same reason why I can pick up my guitar and play a chord progression without looking at where my fingers are placed or thinking about what they are doing.
In my skill development posts, you are going to see me be very assertive about spending way more time practicing than doing research. This is because for every new thing you learn, you need to take the time to rehearse it until you dig deep neural pathways and build muscle memory.
Skill development is always done better together. Don’t try to do this on your own. Find a Facebook Group, a Discord server, Subreddits, etc to build a foundation of community around yourself so that you have the support you need to break through the walls that will inevitably be in your way as you develop your music skill.
But don’t settle for an exclusively online community.
It is even more important to find people that you can learn with the old-fashioned way: in person. Here is a list of people you want in your life in order to make the most out of your skill development.
Most people choose a skill to develop because they have a hero. They have someone who they’re aspiring to be like. This isn’t a childish thing. It is healthy and is something truly successful people embrace.
The moment you let your pride cause you to abandon the idea of a role model is the beginning of the end of your skill development.
A role model allows you be able to see years into your future. If you continue to follow this person, you will become what they are in __ years.
One thing you want to ask yourself though is “Do I want to be like (role model)?” Pick someone you respect, someone who leads you to aspire to greater things.
A mentor is an essential element to skill development because this person is a wealth of knowledge that you can tap into by asking pointed questions about your chosen craft. They’re not difficult to find, however, many of the best ones are extremely busy being successful so don’t be surprised if the only way you can get a serious sit-down with them is if you offer them money.
I read a book once from a leadership guru who, while he was traveling and doing speaking engagements, called successful leaders local to each speaking engagement and offered $100 for an hour of their time. During that time, he asked questions and took notes.
I can imagine the impact those conversations had on him. His influence is now worldwide and many world-class leaders became successful because of his impact.
I have always sought out mentors because I have always been an extremely curious person. I can’t help it. It’s the way I am wired. It is also one of the biggest reasons why I am able to write this post and add value to your journey as a musician.
A coach is like a mentor but the tables are turned in a way. Instead of you asking them questions, they ask you questions. This is essential because everybody has blind spots. Flawless self-evaluation is a myth.
Here’s the deal. Between you and your potential is a minefield of insecurity. A good coach will drive you right through it knowing that every now and then you are going to step on a land mine.
The journey can be so painful! Expect to eat a lot of humble pie.
I am a coach and a mentor. I believe that I was designed for both because I am a walking encyclopedia (Mentor) and I am bold enough to say things that everybody is thinking but nobody is willing to say (Coach). After years of trial and error, I have balanced that out with tact.
A good coach will ask questions in a way that facilitates epiphany within you. (S)he will pull things out of you that you didn’t even know were there.
A good coach will see parts of themselves in you but will be wise enough not to slip into narrative bias thinking that everything you’re going through and feeling is a carbon copy of their story. They will seek to understand before seeking to be understood.
I am going out on a limb saying this but, personally, I think the best coaches are introverts. Introverts spend time alone to recharge. This lends to more time spent in reflection.
Introverts tend to be more introspective and therefore they have a more autobiographical understanding of each of their epiphanies. This is to say that they are more self-aware and their self-awareness proves to be an advantage in a coaching situation.
My self-awareness makes me more able to relate to your story on an emotional level. I won’t be stumped by the inner dilemma nor will I give pat answers when you’re faced with a difficult situation.
Find a good coach. They will be your lifeline.
It is important to find peers because they will help you gauge where you are at in your learning. Surround yourself with people that have more drive than talent.
Don’t be afraid of healthy competition. It is what makes the world go round. Healthy competition adds fuel to the fire. It’s like a cup of coffee in the morning to get the engine running.
Having an audience is important because it adds a sense of accountability. When you know people are waiting on you, it draws more productivity and quality performance.
Sometimes having an audience is the only reason you start producing in the first place. Some people go through phases where the only thing that sustains them is they have an audience.
I am a father and a husband. My audience is my wife and kids. I have had many highs and lows over the years. The main thing that sustains me through the hard times is I know they’re watching me. I know they’re depending on me to persevere.
Discover who your audience is. If you don’t have one, make videos and post them on Social Media. Perform at local nursing homes, sports events, etc.
There are endless opportunities for you to start and grow your audience. Keep your “yes” on the table and I am sure doors will open up that you didn’t even know were there.
Developing skill is a tough undertaking. It is way easier to just learn smoke on the water and then brag to everyone in ear shot that you can play the guitar. We all know this person.
It isn’t easy. It takes work. For most people, the vast majority of that work is spend fighting the “wind-drag” of ignorance and waning motivation.
If you apply what I wrote here, you will eliminate both. In doing so, you will be free to pursue this skill to levels that you didn’t know were possible.
I am Exhibit A. Will you join me?