Monday, August 29, 2016

Is Practicing Music Like Learning to Type?

A few minutes ago I was trying to type "Wes Montgomery" into the YouTube search window, and instead of "wes" I typed "west." I guess my fingers are faster than my brain. This happens all the time - especially with word fragments like "tion" and "ing" - I don't have to think about the individual letters, my fingers take over. I've always wondered how those jazz guys blow such complicated stuff so fast. I think this is a huge clue.

Last summer I decided to try out a new instrument, a Quebecois button accordion. It's pretty illogical to play: like a harmonica, the same button plays a different note, depending on whether you are pushing in or pulling out on the bellows. I already have too much on my plate, and I know this, so I decided to approach it like my high school typing class.

Did you ever take typing in high school? It was really boring. But at my high school reunion, a bunch of us agreed it was the most useful class we took.

th th th th th th th th ght ght ght ght ght ght ght
feet fret get greet feet fret get greet

The trick is to do something that's repetitive, while challenging your brain just enough to keep it engaged.

I bought a notebook, and in it I wrote the tunes as I learned them. I would take a tune and break it down into little phrases. I would highlight the phrases that I thought sounded like common melody fragments - things I might hear in some other tune. At first it was just two notes at a time - then three or four. I would notice these fragments repeating in different parts of the tune, sometimes starting on the same note, but sometimes on different notes. Then I would just play those little fragments over and over at a speed that was...possible.. until my fingers played them without thinking.

This was a real experiment on my part. I can't say that I will write a scholarly paper on it or write the next book on how to learn the button accordion fast, but I have learned quite a few tunes, and it was much less frustrating than I expected.

Now I am working on translating this idea to other aspects of my practice...


  1. Interesting. I think I'll try it. Thanks. (Elizabeth Shaak)

  2. Reminds me of a pattern I noticed this week as I take some swim lessons to brush up on lap swimming technique. The instructor was breaking down technique into small patterns to practice that show up in multiple places in a swim.
    BTW, any chance you are going to Fall Camp out west? Would love to see you again and have the intention of going. :)