learning an instrument efficiently

To learn an instrument efficiently, it helps to understand what you are trying to achieve. Playing the ocarina 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 first try to play an instrument, everything requires conscious effort. Many people give up at this first hurdle, but it does not remain difficult. This is because your subconscious mind loves to automate the things that you do frequently. When this happens, playing becomes second nature, like walking or talking.

What causes this transition from conscious to subconscious? 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.

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. This saves time, as you don't have to go back to relearn things. Stick with tasks you find difficult, as avoiding something is condemning yourself to be bad at it.

Once you know what you are trying to do, execute the task as accurately as you can. This is best achieved by practising very slowly; it is just fine if you need to take the speed down to 10 beats per minute. As you do this, you will feel a desire to back off or speed up, but don't! Stick with this tension. If you practise fast, you cannot focus on the details, resulting in sloppy playing. By practising slow and refined actions, your subconscious will automate these. Soon, you will be able to crank up the speed without losing control.

You won't be able to do this perfectly at first, but that's OK. It gives you something to aim for. Sometimes, you have to build a foundation before you can access more advanced skills. A trick you can use to make this easier is to work on one thing at a time, such as practising fingerings without blowing or counting rhythms without playing. This lets you give each aspect your full attention, which is good since your conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time. Your subconscious will merge what you've learned after a few days.

This 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. If you know what you're looking at, you'll be able to notice and correct mistakes as you go. It also helps to practise with tools that give you feedback when you make mistakes. 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.

Due to the spacing effect, it's best to practise in short sessions. This should be music to your ears considering how time pressured people tend to be. Even during the break between two practice sessions, the subconscious can do its thing and the task gets easier. 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 other aspect.

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