Want to improve your intonation by 212% in the next week? Use this simple, but little-known trick to eliminate mistakes in even the most difficult passages.

Did the title lure you in? Couldn’t help it, right? Hey, I would have clicked on the link too. Sorry for pulling such a sneaky little trick!

My point is that we live in a culture that has led us to become fixated on instant gratification and the quick-fix. Just cruise around the internet for a few minutes – there are signs of this everywhere.

“Lose 26 lbs in 26 days!”

“$4000 cash per week – make money from home, no selling, no convincing, FOR REAL!”

“Guaranteed Fast, Effective, All Natural Pain Relief”

I’m sure you’ve seen many such examples of the “get it now” culture that permeates our society. I’m a big proponent of efficiency and maximizing productivity, but I’m also afraid that this preoccupation with fast results and overnight successes is leading to a couple not-so-helpful misconceptions.

Two misconceptions

One, the constant barrage of overnight success stories and testimonials of seemingly effortless achievement seduces us into believing that if we aren’t seeing such results, that we are either doing something wrong, or that the strategy itself isn’t going to work for us. So, we keep looking for the next big miracle diet/drug/exercise tool/make money at home strategy that might finally be the one that works for us. Ultimately, this constant switching from one thing to the other fails to get us any closer to where we want to go.

Two, we forget or fail to notice just how many years of blood, sweat, and tears it actually takes to become an “overnight” success, and instead of concluding that we need to keep on going when we hit the proverbial brick wall, we instead begin to doubt ourselves and come to the conclusion that perhaps we do not have the ability or talent to achieve our goals. Sadly, this leads many of us give up when the light at the end of the tunnel might be just around the corner.

The reality is that there are no shortcuts to true mastery and excellence.

Finding joy in the practice room

For as long as I can remember, I had a pretty healthy dislike of practicing. I found it frustrating, unsatisfying, and seemingly pointless at times. In hindsight, this was because (a) I didn’t know how to practice effectively and efficiently, and (b) because I had some misconceptions about what the pursuit of excellence is supposed to look like.

If you had asked me back then to draw a graph of the relationship between effort and results, I would have drawn a straight line going diagonally up to the right. The more work I put into something, the more progress I expected to make. Only makes sense, right? Of course, this was rarely, if ever the case, and often, I’d just quit for the day when it didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere.

Everything changed when I began to understand the true path of mastery. In his book Mastery, George Leonard explains that mastery does not occur in a regular and predictable manner. Rather, growth occurs in sudden, often unpredictable spurts, interspersed between plateaus that make us feel like nothing is happening. Many of us interpret these plateaus to mean that we are doing something wrong or that perhaps we have reached the limit of our abilities.

But this is where we are wrong. Just because we don’t see anything happening doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Remember the classic Jack-in-the-box toy? My kids used to freak out when the clown would suddenly pop out of the box. What makes this so freaky (or hilarious, depending on the kid), is that they don’t yet recognize that there is a mechanism inside the box that, with each turn of the crank, is progressing one step closer to releasing the catch that makes the clown appear. In much the same way, so long as we are practicing deliberately and thoughtfully, change is happening, and learning is taking place.

expected performance vs. actual performance

Automatic mode vs. manual mode

Imagine yourself as having two systems that control your skilled movements — an automatic system and a manual system. When you have a skill that is well-learned and successfully programmed into your automatic system, it doesn’t require much conscious thought to execute. For instance, if I were to ask you to play any old note on your instrument, you could do so pretty successfully without having to think about how to do it.

As you increase the complexity or difficulty of a skill however (e.g. having to play the note with a particular kind of articulation, sound quality, and volume), we have to temporarily shift from automatic mode to manual mode and work out all the details of how to execute the new skill. Once we’ve figured out the how, and have successfully programmed these details into our automatic system, we can switch off the manual mode and rely on our automatic system to take care of executing this newly learned skill for us without much conscious thought.

Embrace the plateau

Next time you are feeling stuck or discouraged in the practice room because you can’t tell if you’re making progress or not, remember the mastery curve. Remember that quite possibly, you are somewhere on that plateau, and as long as you stay focused and keep practicing the right way, you will get to the next little burst of progress.

In fact, consider the plateau to be your friend (or your competition-maiming hitman if you prefer). What do I mean? Well, now that you know about the mastery curve and what the frustrating plateau experience actually means, you won’t be so quick to give up when you encounter this brick wall. Your less informed colleagues or competitors on the other hand, will get to this plateau, get frustrated, and be more likely to quit. Advantage, you.

Action step

Mastery is one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read. If you’ve never read it, go check it out. It’ll not only make you want to be a better musician, but a better person too – no joke.

The one-sentence summary

“There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.”  ~Beverly Sills

photo credit: chasingfun via photopin cc