February 22nd, 2010

— This article is from an earlier version of the AOV —

There’re basically three types of practice.

The first is exploration, you’re looking for breakthroughs, testing new material.

The second is maintenance, you’re just trying to maintain your current level of playing.

And the third is reinforcement. You’re trying to embed a move or routine into your muscle memory.

In the first type of practice, you’re learning new material, new routines, new music.

There’s a lot of work involved; you’re trying out different configurations, fingerings, trying to see what works, what doesn’t.

It could also be non-technical, you may be trying our different ways to express your routine.

This kind of practice is intense and very hands-on. There’s a lot of thinking involved.

In the second kind of practicing, you’re maintaining what you have. You’re keeping your fingers in shape by moving them everyday, playing your repertoire so you don’t forget them.

In the third type of practicing, you’re reinforcing a new move or a new routine.

This is busy work.

And it’s mostly repetition. Repeating a move over and over until it becomes an automatic reflex action.

These three types of practices are not independent of each other. Most of the time, there’s some overlapping between them.

For instance, you could be exploring and maintaining your technique at the same time.

Or you could be maintaining and suddenly a new idea strikes you, and you’ve moved into exploration.

Repetitive practicing is a time-honored tradition.

Professionals in every field of human activity recognize that.

And yet it has its detractors, especially among those who advocate a more “mindful” approach to learning.

These “mindfulness experts” are against rote learning and repetitive practicing of any kind, often invoking that famous quote by Einstein.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

It is true that repetitive practice can be counterproductive, especially if you’ve learned a routine wrong.

But most of the time, repetitive and mindless practice is the only way to master a skill.

Skills, by definition, have to be automated.

Just think of any skill you have mastered, walking, driving.

You don’t think about those activities when you do them.

You just do them.

How many times have you driven to a place and arrived without any recollection of how you got there?

That’s automation.

Now imagine for a moment that you’ve been persuaded to drive more mindfully. So you try to force your mind to be in the present, and control every aspect of your actions.

You turn the wheel mindfully.

You shift the gears mindfully.

And you step on the gas mindfully.

That’ll create an impossible situation.

You can’t drive if you have to pay attention to every mundane detail of your execution.

In these and many other skills, the only way to do them is mindlessly.

Martial artists understand this state and they call it “no-mind.”

The goal for most martial artists is to reach that place of total automation where thought and actions occur together.

Someone throws a punch at you and you’re able to instantly respond with a counter action. No thought processes involved, just pure automation.

That’s mindlessness.

I recently read ‘The Power of Mindful Learning’ by Harvard professor Dr. Ellen Langer, who has latched onto the mindfulness bandwagon.

She gave the example of meeting a cab driver in Singapore who happened to give her a wrong answer to her question about Singapore.

Her immediate conclusion, that he was just mindlessly regurgitating facts, and getting them wrong because he wasn’t thinking, one strike against mindless spouting.

But perhaps the cab driver was tired. Perhaps he didn’t think it was important. Perhaps he just made up the answer because he wanted her to stop talking.

There could be a million reasons why he gave her a wrong answer, but she jumped immediately to her preconceived conclusion.

She gave another example, of learning to play tennis and learning all the moves by rote, and then seeing a real tennis pro, and becoming disenchanted because the pro was not using any of the moves she had learned.

This latter example is an example of academic thinking gone wild.

Here she was, a beginner who had barely begun to learn to play tennis, and she was expecting a pro to play like her.

Enough polemics.

There’s one more aspect to repetitive practice that is often overlooked and that provides a key to how we learn through repetition.

When we repeat a task, we may think we’re doing it exactly the same way every time, but the truth is, that’s humanly impossible.

There will always be some small variations in how we do it.

Perhaps it’s in our finger placement, perhaps it’s in the way we attack the strings. There’re an infinite number of ways to perform a task.

So even if you think you’re doing it exactly the same way every time, your body could be doing it differently each time.

And eventually, one of these small unintentional variations will turn out to be the key that unlocks the door to a breakthrough.

When I first learned to play rest-strokes, I had no idea how to do it. I just did it as best as I could, like a free-stroke, but it felt clumsy and insecure.

I persisted and kept on practicing. And then one day, it suddenly felt easier and I found my speed had increased dramatically.

On closer examination, I found I had unintentionally tilted my hand to the left that day and that had made all the difference.

That’s the kind of happy accidents that occur all the time in practice.

You just keep on doing it and eventually the solution will reveal itself to you.

You may have heard of that infinite monkey theorem.

If you give a monkey a typewriter and let it type for eternity; it will eventually produce the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Because sooner or later, he will arrive at all the possible ways to arrange the letters of the alphabet.

It’s the same thing with practice.

If you do something over and over, sooner or later you will figure out all the different possible ways to do that task and you’ll find the one that works the best.

Repetition is central to that process of discovery.

One Response to “Practicing”

  1. SwaStassijns Says:

    Interesting…and completely in line with Tim Gallwey's 'InnerGame' methodology that has been adapted to music playing by Barry Green.

    Their book 'The InnerGame of Music' is all about this 'mindless' state and how to achieve it.

    I’ll have to check out the book. I’m familiar with the tennis book but haven’t read the one on music yet.

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