A Secret Trick That Will Improve Your Intonation by 212%

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

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10 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post. Myself, like many others, sometimes just expect progress too quickly. However sometimes it’s simply a brutally slow process. I like to think of this idiom when I get frustrated: “baby steps”.

    1. Hi Omar,

      Baby steps is a great philosophy. I recently learned of a management philosophy popular in Japan called “Kaizen” – have you heard of it? Seems to basically boil down to taking baby steps on a daily basis.

      Kaizen is a system that involves every employee – from upper management to the cleaning crew. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a once a month or once a year activity. It is continuous. Japanese companies, such as Toyota and Canon, a total of 60 to 70 suggestions per employee per year are written down, shared and implemented.

      In most cases these are not ideas for major changes. Kaizen is based on making little changes on a regular basis: always improving productivity, safety and effectiveness while reducing waste.

      Suggestions are not limited to a specific area such as production or marketing. Kaizen is based on making changes anywhere that improvements can be made. Western philosophy may be summarized as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Kaizen philosophy is to “do it better, make it better, improve it even if it isn’t broken, because if we don’t, we can’t compete with those who do.”

      Kaizen in Japan is a system of improvement that includes both home and business life. Kaizen even includes social activities. It is a concept that is applied in every aspect of a person’s life.

  2. I remember hearing this sort of thing from my high school band director.

    Anyway, I’ve found it to be true in my own playing and wrote about it without knowing someone else had presented the idea already.

    Thanks for the book suggestion!

    1. Chris,

      Thanks for the link – I like your step theory. Interestingly enough, just knowing that the road to excellence is long and bumpy increases the likelihood that individuals will persevere through those frustrating dry spells. As such, personal tales of persistence like yours are valuable indeed.

  3. When I notice that my intonation is off, or my wife starts complaining (She is awesome!), I have found it very useful to spend 10 minutes a day with an application that shows me precisely what my pitch is. I happen to use Vocal Lab for the Mac, but there are many other fine applications available, either for free or for very little. 10 minutes of intense, slow practice with an app like this is all my sanity can stand, but it’s all that is necessary to recalibrate my ears and fingers with my violin in a few days. This is of course in addition to one’s normal practice schedule, which should not be shortened.

  4. The theory of plateaus is correct. As Bruce Lee says, “There are no limitations — only plateaus.” I find that each plateau is successively longer. When you first start an instrument you can double your skill in a week. The next plateau will take you two weeks, then four weeks, then two months, and so on. Eventually you reach a point where it seems like a year passes without much progress. But that magical moment will indeed come if you continue. I often find that leaving a thing for a stretch and then returning to it is useful. Body builders know that if you work a muscle group out every day it will not have time to recover, and so they they schedule ‘rest days’ into their routines in which no muscles are exercised. Working out actually destroys muscle, and it is the rest that allows it to rebuild stronger than before. I think it is the same with musicianship or any skill. Practice, practice, practice, but then give yourself a break to allow your subconscious or your muscle memory to piece it all together. Some of my greatest leaps have come when I forget about an instrument for months, because then when I return to it it’s as if I’m playing it again for the first time.

  5. There is one short cut that does work, at least for me; playing guitar with the ball of the thumb of my fretting hand against the back of the guitar neck. This enables the fretting fingers to dance about more freely and at a better angle to the fretboard. I learnt it as a young classical guitarist, albeit at the cost of having to concentrate on keeping my “thumb down” for a month or two.

    Copy classical guitarists on youtube. It works, at least for me.

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