Saturday, January 7, 2012

You Get Better

One of the easier mistakes to make is the assumption that something hard will always be hard. Not only do things get easier, but they get so much easier that you'll eventually ask yourself, "What was so hard about that?"

The straight forward path from hard to easy is simple in theory, but perhaps difficult in practice.
Persist and pay attention.

Persistence can work alone, but it takes a heck of a lot longer when you're not paying attention.

Persistance usually takes the form of practice. We normally associate practice with sports, games and the arts. However, practice also works for math, science, history, and language. Practice even works for things like relating to others and child rearing.
Practice, practice, practice.

Paying attention is primarily about aligning practice with the goal of practice. Did I really play exactly what I attempted to play? How was my pronunciation on that last sentence? Did I get the correct answer to the algebra problem?

Paying attention is secondarily about analysis. What did I do differently? Where did I get off the beat? Why didn't my answer match the one in the back of the book?

It you're paying attention, then techniques such as slowing everything down or breaking larger tasks into smaller ones come naturally.

Analytical Shortcuts
There's a cool trick that can save you thousands of hours of analysis. We often associate analysis with putting things under the microscope, breaking them apart and zeroing in. Sometimes the best form of analysis is to step back and view things more holistically.

For example, one of the primary challenges in moving from playing saxophone to becoming a sax player is the development of a signature sound. Unlike the guitar where the character of the sound is built using pickups, amplifiers and sundry effects pedals, the characteristic sound of the saxophone is largely from the player. Most players struggle for years in the development of their sounds. They read books; they receive instruction. It's similar to a golfer developing her swing.

The breakthrough for me came when I stopped listening and started watching people play. I watched stance, changes to posture, breathing, shoulder placement, where they bit into the mouthpiece, the tilt of the head, the flush of the cheeks. Rather than imitating the sound, I imitated the physicality and voila, I got a sound that I liked.

The cool thing about imitating the physicality is that you get so that you can go in the other direction. By imitating someone's physical movements, you can recreate the sound. However, you get so that while listening to someone play, you can recreate the physical movements. You get so that you can hear how someone is shaping his mouth as he plays. You can feel whether his shoulders are stretching forward, pulling back or just relaxed.

Imitation is a great way to learn. In fact, most of our development (walking, talking, being passive or argumentative) is done through imitation. Imitation as a form of analysis works really well. It can also be a lot more fun. Rather than analyzing what you're doing wrong, you mimic what someone else is doing right. The key is to mimic everything, not just the parts that you think are important. After all, if you knew what was important, you probably wouldn't need to be imitating.

The Missing Link
Over the past couple of weeks, I've hit on this theme several times. It's important (that is, if you're interested in getting better, faster).

Sometimes a change to one little thing can result in an immediate tenfold improvement. This is the nature of any therapy or teaching curriculum based on a developmental model.

About ten years ago, I decided to become a snow-boarder. I did all the usual stuff: falling while trying to get on the lift; falling while exiting the lift; figuring out how to get up after falling; learning that you really don't want to dig in with your downhill edge. Most of it came, as they say, "the hard way."

Nonetheless, I got so I could make my way down the mountain. The only problem was that I could only turn in one direction. Heading down the hill, I could turn to my right so that I faced up the hill. Turning to my left always resulted in planting myself headfirst into the snow. I developed a technique: turn right; fall down; get up facing left.

After a few hours of this, I noticed that shifting my weight to make the turn just wasn't working. It occurred to me that I might do better just to flex the board with my ankles. Pushing down with one foot while pulling up with the other allowed me to turn easily in either direction.

I'd like to say that this all occurred to me through my astute powers of observation and basic understanding of physics, but really it occurred to me when this guy who'd been watching me boarded over and told me, "You want to know a little trick?"

Ten minutes later I was carving back and forth down the mountain. It was easy.

If you find yourself struggling repeatedly with a specific challenge, you've been persistant, and you've paid attention, then it's likely that you're missing just one little piece. Knowing that may help you better focus your attention or lead you to simply ask someone for help.

You Get Better
The most important thing to remember (for you, your kids or anyone you're teaching) is that you get better. Really better. Like, way, way, way better.

Happy Saturday,
Teflon

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