Learning an instrument efficiently

To learn an instrument efficiently, it helps to understand what you are trying to achieve. Playing the ocarina, for example, is ultimately a series of finger movements and breath changes. In fact, if you could exactly copy the actions of another player using the same instrument, you would sound identical. Therefore, a large part of learning an instrument is learning the actions that produce good sounds.

When you play a new instrument, everything feels arduous; you have to think about every little detail. However, if you stick with it, you notice that you have to think about it less. This happens because your mind has two parts: conscious and subconscious. I am sure that you have had a conversation with a friend while walking. As you do so, you think consciously about your conversation, and the physical act of walking just happens magically. This is the subconscious at work.

Tasks get easier over time because your subconscious mind loves to automate the things that you do frequently. When this happens, playing becomes second nature, like walking or talking. The conscious mind is flexible, yet it can only really do one thing at a time. As playing most instruments requires you to consider multiple things simultaneously, such as fingering, rhythm, and ornamentation, you have to make use of your subconscious. This is simply too much for the conscious mind to handle.

Achieving this subconscious automation is the goal of practice. Repeating the same task highlights it above the other things you do in a day. When you sleep your mind has chance to sort through all of this information. It notices something that you've been doing a lot, so it starts to automate it.

Because task automation happens when you sleep, it is essential to stick with an instrument for a few days. Don't expect immediate results, and allow yourself to suck. One day, you'll wake up and it'll magically become easier. It is perfectly fine to work at whatever level you are at, don't compare yourself to others.

Unfortunately, your subconscious is not smart. It will automate bad practices just as readily as good ones. Consequently, you need to be aware of everything that goes into playing well; for the ocarina, this includes:

  • Holding the instrument correctly
  • Learning the fingerings
  • Developing your breath control
  • Listening and correcting your intonation
  • Making good use of articulations
  • Developing a general understanding of music

It is also vital to be aware of counterproductive playing techniques. Being aware of possible issues allows you to notice and eliminate them from your practice early. You save time, as you avoid the need to go back to relearn things.

Once you know what you are trying to do, execute the task as accurately as you can. As noted above, the conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time. Consequently, your best bet is to break things down into smaller components. For example, you can practise fingerings without blowing or clap a rhythm without playing the notes, giving each your full attention.

Practising slowly is an additional aid, as it allows you to be as accurate as your current skill permits. Resist any temptation to speed up too early as doing so tends to lead to sloppy playing. You are not trying to learn the skill directly, but trick your subconscious into doing it for you. After sleeping, you will be able to take the speed up a bit.

As you become able to do things separately, you can start to work on doing them together. I recommend leaving this at least a day, though, so sleep can do its thing. The cool thing is, even though you are practising these elements separately, your subconscious mind will combine the pieces for you. Once tasks start to enter your subconscious, you won't have to think about them, so doing them at the same time becomes easy.

Further considerations

The above method might come across as saying you need to do everything perfectly the first time, that you're not allowed to have fun, but that's not true. Of course you can experiment with your instrument and have fun playing. You can use this approach to get started quickly; then, as you play for fun, you will notice elements of your technique that are lacking. This method can be used to fill those gaps.

Even if you practise slowly, you may still be unable to do something perfectly at first, but that's OK. Sometimes, you have to build a foundation before you can access more advanced skills. Practising slowly gives you the ability to be as accurate as your current skill allows, and knowing what you should be doing gives you something to aim for. Stick with tasks you find difficult, as avoiding something is condemning yourself to be bad at it.

While breaking things down, you can continue to drill down to smaller elements. If you only find one part of a rhythm or a single finger transition difficult, break it out and practise this in isolation. While using this approach also be sure to mix things up. Spending a lot of time on only one thing can be fatiguing. Focus on one thing at once, but do several different things in succession. It gives the mind the opportunity to absorb things.

There is a phenomenon in psychology called the spacing effect. When you practise in short sessions over a long period of time, you learn a lot faster than doing a smaller number of long practice sessions. This should be music to your ears considering how time pressured people tend to be. It is also worth noting that learning can have a delayed response; it may take a few days to a few weeks, or even months, for the fruits of your efforts to fully show. If you are getting frustrated with something, try putting it down for a few weeks and work on something else.

Even with your best efforts to avoid doing so, you may still end up developing an approach you discover is a bad practice. These can be corrected within a few weeks, but it does require a deliberate effort. If you have been making a mistake for a long time, it will feel natural, while your new approach will feel wrong and difficult. Don't give in to that. Slowly and consciously practise your new method and ignore any feeling of tension.

Note that as soon as your focus shifts, you will go back to your old method and probably will not be aware of that. You can practise with tools that give you feedback when this happens. These tools include a mirror to see what you are doing, a drone for judging your intonation, and your other hand to limit your finger movements. Any time you notice a mistake, make an effort to correct it. You have to keep on directing yourself toward the good method over several days. After a while, it becomes automatic.

If you are interested in learning more about effective practice, I recommend reading some of the modern research on learning. The book How We Learn is an approachable summary. The ideas above are a mixture of research and experience from self study. I advise that you study your own learning; what works best for you may be different.

Exercises

Article Headings