I must confess something: Like many musicians, I believed that repetition was a good way to learn, but I was too lazy to go all the way, say, using an abacus or a jar of 100 beans to count out a fixed number of repetitions of a phrase or an entire piece. My whole approach to practicing has always been intuitive and spontaneous. Interestingly, research reported in the 2000s is discovering that our intuitions about how we acquire knowledge and retain it are wrong.
According to Dr. Robert Bjork, “blocked practice,” in which you focus and repeat one thing at a time, is seductive: “Performance improves fast and learning seems to be optimal … However, research has shown that the long-term effects of a more variable approach, where multiple things are practiced mixed together, are much more beneficial than blocked practice.”
A better approach, described by Dr. Noa Kageyama in his excellent blog, The Bulletproof Musician, is to randomize your practicing, interleaving (to use Bjork’s term) different passages or technical skills. You can use index cards to write down different activities and then choose them out of a bowl, and then time yourself doing 30 minutes of five different activities. This has the benefit of not only forming long-term skill in a more solid way by maximizing retrieval strategies and mental frameworks, it also keeps you more engaged and conscious. As any exerciser knows, you also begin to make muscular compromises and efficiencies with high, predictable repetitions — which may not be what you want to achieve.
Blocked practice encourages people to make trial-by-trial adjustments, which enhance current performance, but do not induce retrieval processes and conceptual categorization of the types that enhance learning. The problem is that if people confuse the current sense of ease with learning, they’ll prefer training conditions over real-life conditions.
~Dr. Robert Bjork, American Psychological Association
To me, the most beautiful realization of Bjork’s research is that we have social beliefs around practice that may be totally contrary to how we learn best for mastery.
I’ll mention Bjork again in the chapter on memory, but suffice it to say that his conclusions around memory are equally fascinating: People who were proven to have learned a random assortment of facts about famous painters faster by using interleaved methods still believed that blocked practice was the better approach. Also, people mistrust their own memory, but, like Roberts’ déja vu effect, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Bjork’s research shows that human memory has virtually no storage limit. Even better, he finds that forgetting and re-learning is actually key to stronger retention long-term. Ergo, I am a genius.
Kidding aside, there is no doubt that, for a musician and athletic adventurer like me, unpredictable tests and terrain are more enticing than rigid schedules. What a bonus to learn that they are not nearly as unproductive as we believe they are! So how do we find that mysterious trail or elusive riff that seduces us to stay on the path of mastery?
Make a date with inspiration.
I read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way on the advice of my first producer and mentor, Wayne Wallace, and it changed my life. No lie. There’s my signature in the front of the book, dated early 2001. My first baby was five months old, and now that I had the hang of breastfeeding and was sleeping a few hours a night, I knew that if I didn’t take a leap with my recording career I’d regret it forever. I started working on my first album two years after that.
In a recent podcast, Cameron said that 20 years after writing The Artist’s Way, another practice remained one of the most important, after journaling: the artist date. Just as the uncensored morning pages open up your channels and alert the universe to your desires, the artist date is “an excursion, a play date” designed to refill your cup with inspiration. Cameron reminds us that if we’re feeling dry, our creativity, like any other resource, can be replenished.
Losing–and Finding–The Artist’s Way
One way I waste time is by reading. Not always “good” reading, either — compulsive reading of nonessential information (magazines, Internet, newspapers). In The Artist’s Way, Cameron notes that reading is a common time-suck for artists.
Much of my creative success is due to that book. If you don’t know what you want, if you are afraid of what people think, if critics have wounded you, if you’re hobbled by jealousy, if you don’t know how to improve, if you think you’re too old to live your dream, if you hide your light under a bushel, if you waste your creative energies by processing all the words and data the world spews at you—you need to read The Artist’s Way.
It is sad that people believe “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” when in fact, teaching is an art. Perhaps we don’t appreciate teachers because few virtuosos exist. Nonetheless, Cameron’s lovely, clear prose and well designed structure are considered by many to be her masterpiece, even though she, I assume, would like you to also notice the “true” art she writes: screenplays, poems, novels and songs.
Interestingly, Cameron’s own life has continued to churn with drama, even post-Way. In her memoir, Floor Sample, she describes how mania and depression have plagued her, and how she kept it secret. Her first major breakdown occurred in the mid-1990s: “Cast as a ‘spiritual teacher’ and desperate for answers myself in the wake of the loss of Mark, I embarked on a series of ill-considered fasts. I went as long as a week or ten days without solid food. I went for very long walks praying with every footfall.” She describes this as a punishing, ascetic practice, though she didn’t realize it then. Fittingly, the way she unravelled seems rather artistic. She moved to London, where she talked to trees, lost her glasses (“with nothing and no one to care for, who needed to see clearly?”), overdid yoga and, one day in Regent’s Park, experienced a “very gentle rape.” Soon afterwards, she was booked in a mental hospital as a manic depressive.
It appears that Cameron’s truth is stranger than her fictions. Not that that’s a bad thing. Think of writer David Sedaris and his parents and siblings, from whose screwy lives he chisels absorbing vignettes. Still, cinema verité requires discipline—the Way.
Now is the time!
As artists, we may be slightly addicted to drama. Improving your art needn’t be stormy or punishing, however. A small push sets the giant wheel in motion. Commemorate some of those pushes. For instance, I love it — though it can be shocking too — when I see my scrawl at the top of a score showing when I first began learning it, or in the front cover of a music book dating when I bought it. I don’t always do this, but I should. Time has a way of slipping slipping slipping. Drive a stake through its mechanical heart by recording your intentions and progress. Now.