Could the “Aggregation of Marginal Gains” Be the Difference Between Good and Great?

Have you ever had one of those days where music just feels really difficult?

All those notes, compounded by having to worry about intonation, sound production, phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, pacing, and then having to put it all together under pressure?

Sheesh. It’s a lot.

When faced with daunting challenges, whether it’s winning a big audition/major competition, losing 50 lbs, or turning $1000 into $1,000,000, our tendency is to look for the home run. The one dramatic breakthrough or strategy that will pave the way to success.

I spent countless hours in school reading books and interviews, searching for the elusive key to unlocking my potential.

A different way of holding the bow to enhance my sound perhaps, an exercise or etude that would help me play perfectly in tune, the perfect practice routine, a mental strategy or mindset that would banish my nerves forever, the right strings to use, the best rosin, and so on. (I never did find that one transformative insight or epiphany, by the way.)

The trouble is, in searching for some big dramatic life-altering game-changer, we may fail to notice the real game-changer that’s right in front of us.

The snowball effect

You know those days when things start off bad, and only get worse as the day goes on?

It starts with sleeping through our alarm. Then we rush through our shower, and cut ourselves shaving. Can’t find matching socks. No time for breakfast. Sprint out of the house, get to the hall late, and discover we left our good bow at home on the piano.

Everything feels tight, and just a bit off. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon our mind is racing a million miles an hour, we can’t focus, and are missing things left and right, certain that we are never going to be asked to play with this orchestra again.

Individually, none of these speed bumps are a big deal, but when you put them all together, it starts to feel pretty overwhelming. Like the universe is conspiring against us.

The good news, is that the same thing can work in reverse.

Team Sky

Team Sky is a professional cycling team based in Manchester, England, managed by a fellow named Dave Brailsford.

In 2010, they set upon the rather audacious goal of winning the Tour de France by 2015 – a pretty tall order since there had never been a British tour winner in the 97-year history of the event.

But a mere two years later, in 2012, British riders took first and second place (Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome) in the Tour. Even more remarkably, Team Sky repeated in 2013, as Froome took home the yellow jersey.

What was their secret?

A principle they call the “aggregation of marginal gains.”

Tiny improvements, big wins

High-level musicians and athletes are terrific at paying attention to detail. But sometimes we can get tunnel vision and focus an inordinate amount of time and energy on too narrow an area. Focusing on trivial intonation issues at the expense of phrasing, for instance. Or focusing on nearly-imperceptible sound glitches at the expense of practicing run-throughs in simulated performance conditions. Or obsessing about tiny technical details, and neglecting to ensure the piece is memorized.

Team Sky looked at not just the physical training of their athletes, but every area that might contribute to overall performance. And rather than looking for radical breakthroughs, they focused instead on trying to improve every key area by just 1%. Their theory was that tiny gains, aggregated across many areas, would result in a meaningful advantage.

“The science is Team Sky’s famous philosophy of ‘marginal gains’: examine everything that might have an effect on the riders’ performance, and find a way to make it slightly better. By assembling a crack team of sports scientists whose expertise includes ergonomics, nutrition, physiology and psychology, Brailsford has turned Team Sky into a seemingly-unstoppable Tour de France juggernaut.

“People often associate marginal gains with pure technology, but it is far more than that,” Brailsford said. “It is about nutrition, ergonomics, psychology. It is about making sure the riders get a good night’s sleep by transporting their own bed and pillow to each hotel. It is about using the most effective massage gel. Each improvement may seem trivial, but the cumulative effect can be huge.”

~Dave Brailsford in

Here are more examples from Team Sky’s website. And video  of Dave Brailsford explaining the concept of marginal gains.

And a great article outlining what the US Olympic ski team is doing.

Take action

From the practice room to the stage, what are all the ingredients involved in a successful performance?

What could you do to improve each area by 1%?

What if you practiced performing non-judgmentally for 5 minutes every day? Practiced sloooowly for 5 minutes? Spent 5 minutes playing your instrument just for fun? How might you reduce tension by 1%?

Or even in areas of your life off-stage, what could you do to enhance the experience of each day?

What might change if you wake up 5 minutes earlier and give yourself an extra few minutes to enjoy your tea? Or if you give a genuine compliment to someone, once a day? Smile at 1 person every day? Write down 5 things you’re grateful for, just once a week?

What one thing might you try this week?

photo credit: kwc via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


18 Responses

  1. Boom ! Here it is, right there, the answer I was looking for ! Since I took up the 5-string-banjo and started practicing “seriously” 4 years ago, I was looking for an overall strategy, “the elusive key”, that would help improve my playing. Just learning tunes or backup-licks are helpful, but they seem not to advance my progress as much as I would like. I think this approach, the “philosophy of marginal gain” will ! I will draw up a schedule of areas in which I want to gain a 1% increase this year. I’m sure this will help me to become the musician I want to be !
    Dr. Kageyama, can I just thank you again for your insightful blogs. It’s amazing what one can learn from your writings, and it’s all for free ! I even feel a little embarrassed about that, I would gladly contribute financially in some way. This blog deserves it !
    All the very best
    Erwin Bauwens
    De Pinte – Belgium

    1. Thanks, Erwin! Yep, I think we sometimes leave some stones unturned, thinking that they’re not that big a deal. But I do think it all adds up when we step out on stage, and the big moment arrives.

  2. This is the elusive epiphany I’ve been waiting for! I had been trying to go into my practice sessions with a narrow focus of “fix this interval” or “work on that attack,” and the lack of perfection gets frustrating. This puts it all back in perspective!

  3. True, beyond any doubt. And the “trickle up” works in reverse too. For many it’s a case of neglect that prompts a 1% daily loss. Not enough to notice but either way, it adds up.

    It’s just one more reason to settle for nothing less than a truly consistent and strategically conceived practice regimen and to seek out colleagues who will magnetically add another percent every time you play together.

    Beyond all, it’s the main reason to stay inspired, regardless of your credentials or musical station in life. It’s not about hope, but putting in the work every day. That is the definition of being a true artist.

    Perhaps stated more eloquently than I can: (from Wikipedia)

    American comedian George Carlin, in his interview for the Archive of American Television, refers to Casals when discussing the restless nature of an artist’s persona. As Carlin states, when Casals (then aged 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, Casals replied, “‘I’m beginning to notice some improvement…’ [A]nd that’s the thing that’s in me. I notice myself getting better at this,” Carlin continued.

  4. Such a good reminder. There is no magic wand, only trickles of pixie dust. Life’s like that.

    On a tangent, aggregation of marginal gains can make the difference between alive and dead. My fire fighter husband just attended an emergency medical services class on cardiac survival. Every 6 seconds of CPR improves survival chances by 5%, and the converse is also true. Studies have shown that training dispatchers to ask a couple of critical questions so they can send out paramedics faster; having dispatchers coach callers in CPR; more CPR-trained people out there who can help; and similar small measures can increase survival a lot. No rocket science, just little improvements of a few seconds each. It adds up. CPR is much easier to learn now, and does not require mouth-to-mouth.

    Thank you for your excellent blog. I took up flute again after 20+ years off & need all the wise tips I can get.

    1. That’s interesting, Moana. I think I’ve read a similar thing about tiny changes making a big difference in hospitals too. Had no idea that CPR no longer required mouth-to-mouth. Going to google the new CPR technique now…

  5. Thank you Dr. Kageyama, for this post! So true, that there is no one miracle trick to music making – or anything in life for that matter!

    Also – I think that sometimes we want to believe and tell ourselves that certain things are “small stuff” because we either feel overwhelmed by the many many things that we have to work on and want to “prioritize”, and/or because some of those things don’t give us instant gratification (though they do have many benefits if we put our mind to it – like slooooow practice. . . .). In fact I think a lot of “small stuff” does give us more than 1% marginal gain! Just like a fad diet doesn’t really work in the long-run because it doesn’t help you improve your lifestyle (sorry for the strange analogy), music making/performance can’t improve if our approach is too simplistic.

    Thank you for this great reminder!

  6. I’ve been following your blog for a while, but this one really hit home on a couple levels. As a professional drummer/percussionist I try to practice like this, taking one thing and improving it over a period of time. I tell my private students that the one thing that keeps going is time and what are they doing to make those improvements. At 62 I look back at the times I could/should have been thinking like this and where I might be as a player. Secondly, I’m also a band director at a small school and realized this is what I do with my students, from my side of the podium. We’re going to be discussing and implementing this process from their viewpoint and see where it leads us. Please keep up the great thoughts.

  7. A very useful article Noa. I will be looking to find those small improvements in my playing.

    Just one caution: there are times when a largish improvement is possible, perhaps if your posture is corrected by an expert.

    As a negative example, hearing can be damaged by a single very loud noise or by incremental damage over years.

  8. Thank you so, so much. I am another one of those people who would like to express exactly how helpful this article is. It made me think about my successes and how they’ve been achieved: in the end, very little success has ever been due to to some sort of huge epiphany; it’s the little things. And for that, I’m not going to try to “fix everything” when I resume practicing. I’m going to try to improve a whole lot of things just by 1%.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.