Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Getting Off the "OK Plateau" - Breaking Through Walls in Your Practice

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, gave a talk on 99u about the techniques that experts use to become great at what they do. As a martial artist and musician, I'm always looking for ways to improve and to practice more efficiently.

The OK Plateau
In 1967 a much-cited textbook was written about how people acquire skills. The authors said that we go through three phases. Think of the way we learn to ride a bicycle, learn to type, or drive:

  1. Cognitive Phase - We devote a lot of mental energy to the skill, thinking about the tasks, discovering new ways to do better
  2. Associative Phase - We start to feel that we're improving, we make fewer errors
  3. Autonomous Phase - This is when we decide we're competent. We "turn on autopilot," doing a lot of the tasks without a lot of cognitive thought. 

Foer calls the third phase "The OK Plateau." It's fine to reach a plateau when I'm OK at typing or driving, but not when I'm practicing something I want to continually improve.

Psychologists have found a set of principles that are used by experts in many fields, that help explain why when these experts practice, they get better, whereas when others practice, that's not always the case!

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone, Then Study How You Fail
Experts try to keep from "turning on autopilot" by working outside their comfort zone whenever possible. They challenge themselves, spending most of their time working on things that are difficult, not the things that are easy or comfortable. Then they study what is making them fail. I've found this allows me to examine what is slowing me down or making me fumble? Where do I introduce unnecessary tension? What is going through my mind to hold me back?

I have seen my aikido sensei, Shuji Maruyama, challenge himself continually in this way. He trains against big, American attackers. He actually teaches them how to resist him (and then throws them anyway). He's developed responses to modern attacks, like backfists and kicks, that are not in the traditional aikido vocabulary.

Study the Greats
The best chess players study the games of the masters. Musicians study recordings. Great apps like Amazing Slow Downer let musicians slow down and loop sections, so we can hear and imitate each nuance. Analyze, take things apart, question: "Why did this person decide to do exactly this at this time?"

Treat Your Practice Like a Science
Take notes on your training: what you're doing, what works or doesn't work. Experts develop theories and test them. What is the most productive time of day for you to practice? What is the best length for your practice sessions? Can you test your theory? Is there a way you can quantify your results?

Sensei approaches Kokikai Aikido like a science. He says "the same person, under the same conditions" can make one small change that makes the difference between throwing and not throwing. Sensei spends many hours studying video of himself. He consults with and studies other great martial artists and fighters. Then he tries their ideas. If he finds a Kokikai Aikido technique lacking or wanting, he changes it or sometimes even removes it from the curriculum.

You Will Thrive on Immediate, Constant Feedback
Here's an example of effect of not getting feedback: You'd think that radiologists who screen mammograms for breast cancer would get better at detecting cancer as they get more experience. But overall, they don't. Researchers think it's because, compared to other radiologists, mammographers don't find out right away whether their diagnosis was correct - sometimes it's weeks, months, and many times they never know.

It's not always easy to get feedback that you trust. A great teacher is invaluable. Recording or videotaping yourself is also a great tool. After the initial "cringe factor" wears off, you'll be able to see or hear things that were not evident when you were "in the moment."

I was not surprised to find that my Sensei practices all the techniques used by experts in other fields. He has dedicated his life to continually growing in his mastery of aikido, and he has not been constrained by concepts of what "should" be possible.

Sensei jokes with his high ranking students that we're no longer "climbing the mountain," but circling somewhere around the bottom. He knows that he has to cajole, push and prod us out of our comfort zones so we, too, will get off the OK Plateau and keep climbing.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

7 Ways for Musicians to Stay Positive about Your Progress

As we achieve a certain level of accomplishment, the details that we focus on in practice become more and more subtle. It can be hard to stay motivated to practice, because it's harder and harder to see results.

When I was a kid my piano teacher put gold stars on my music in every lesson. Where are my gold stars now???

I asked my piano teacher, Dave Leonhardt, about this. Here's a list of his ideas and mine.
  • Keep a note pad, and write down something you did well. 
  • Record/videotape yourself. Study your recording. After I get over the initial "cringe factor," recordings are some of my most valuable tools. And if you keep them organized, you can compare old and new, to get perfect snapshot of your progress.
  • At the beginning of your practice session, make a point of noticing how you are playing something you set out to practice. Then notice how you do it at the end. 
  • Take notes of what you're working on every week. If you feel you're not making progress, going back through your notes can demonstrate that you do have things under your belt now that were difficult a few months ago.
  • Find a way to start and end your practice session feeling good. Give yourself a gift of a piece of chocolate or a cup of tea before you practice. At the end, play something that you do well for a few minutes. Or, if you told yourself you'd practice for 20 minutes or an hour, tell yourself "Great, I did that! I'm done with that!" 
  • Having a trusted observer (i.e. a teacher) give you the feedback about your improvement is always great. Not all teachers are the best at this. And some of them (us) forget. I need to remember, too, that my experienced students need as much positive reinforcement as kids, and maybe even more!
I'm sure it won't be hard come up with a similar list of positive ideas for my aikido practice...

Monday, November 17, 2014

How to Slow Down Your Practice For Big Improvements

I know that when I'm practicing and making mistakes I need to slow down. This is true for music, and it's true for aikido, so for how many other things must it also be true!

But we all know it's not that easy. How much should we slow down? How long should we slow down? When we speed up again, how fast should we go?

Here's a really helpful breakdown related to practicing piano, adapted from instructions from my teacher, the awesomely talented David Leonhardt. I apply the same general principles to my aikido practice.

  1. When you detect a mistake you want to fix, get out your metronome. (You're using it already? Great!)
  2. Break down the problem section into small pieces - a couple of bars, a series of 3-4 chord changes.
  3. Set the metronome at a speed that you think you can play the section comfortably. Comfortably means not frantic, able to think ahead, with good posture and hand position.
  4. If you're still having trouble, you can either slow it down some more, or break it down some more: maybe just one chord change is giving you trouble. Maybe you should focus on one hand.
  5. Play that small section until you're starting to feel relaxed about it. Again: relaxed should mean you don't feel frantic, you're able to be aware of what's coming, and your posture is good - in my case, that means my shoulders aren't creeping up around my ears!
  6. Then start to add things back, one at a time: for example, add back the second hand, or go back to the two-measure phrase. Don't add a new element 'til you're comfortable with the last. Stay focused!
  7. When all is good here, try increasing the tempo. Chances are there will still be things wrong, but many fewer things. Focus in on them. Clear them up in the same way. 
  8. If you have time, focus and energy, try another tempo increase.
A few things to keep in mind:
  1. The hardest part, for me, is admitting that there's a problem. How often do I just flounder on, unwilling to "notice" that I always hesitate, fumble or tense up in the same place? Maybe I just don't want to take the time to fix it, but it's the only way to get better!
  2. Most of us can't stay focused for more than 20 minutes or so at one stretch. If you find you're losing your ability to pay attention, switch to working on something else.
  3. When you're zoomed in on details, it's easy to be disheartened because you're taking such baby steps. Keep reminding yourself that everything you are learning will apply in a hundred other places.
  4. When you come back tomorrow to do the same thing, you'll find you can't play as well as you did at the end of your previous practice session. Practicing is like dying cloth a dark color: you have to put the cloth in the dye bath, and then rinse some of the color out; then put the cloth in a new dye bath, and rinse it out again. That's the best way to get a deep, rich color that won't fade.
I hope this works for you as well as it works for me!