Our Amazing Ability to Learn

Humans have an amazing ability to learn new things. I’m saying this partly to give myself a pat on the back for learning a new guitar riff. I’m always astonished when I attempt to learn something new on the guitar that at first seems so alien – so awkward – that it seems impossible that my hands and fingers could even twist themselves into the correct positions much less then play the notes and chords fluently. Then a short time later (short being days or weeks but maybe months depending on how frequently and diligently I practiced) – I am able to play this thing without mistakes or hesitation – smooth, fast, clean! I sometimes have difficulty remembering that what I’m doing was recently difficult – almost impossible for me to play.

Wood ShedIf you’re a guitarist, or any type of musician, you probably recognize what I’m talking about. But you also realize something that I suspect beginners don’t. That is, you know that all it takes is proper practice and you’ll be able pick up the riff or technique or tune or – whatever the new thing is you’re working on. We musicians refer to this practice as woodshedding. Many beginners give up before getting to the point where playing is easy, natural and automatic. Perhaps one of the things which distinguishes a musician from a non-musician is the drive and confidence to work through the learning curve and to put in the time in the wood shed.

If you’re a beginner, an important lesson is that repetition of a piece, starting at a slow speed, will eventually lead to your ability to play the piece naturally and fast speeds, without mistakes. The ability to learn the coordination in finger and hand placements to play a piece is often referred to as muscle memory. Your muscles don’t have a brain of their own – but your brain, arm, hand and fingers all work together to play notes and chords. Repetition ingrains the process to the point where it seems automatic – that’s muscle memory.

How many repetitions do you need to learn something? There’s some debate on this. One figure that has been used is you need thousands or tens of thousands of reps. This is a daunting figure that could discourage you from even trying. However, 10,000 reps is the number you might need to become an expert, not the ability to play at any ability.

Metronome - start slowMy own approach is to start small, start slow. First, repeating with mistakes isn’t learning. Actually, you may be learning the errors. So it is very important to play the bit you are learning without errors. Play it slow until you can play it without errors. Then play it 10 times without errors. Small increments work – you don’t need to repeat the exercise a 100 times at a sitting. Yes, more is better but it’s amazing how fast fewer reps mount up. Go through the exercise 10 times without errors twice a day and in 5 days you have 100 reps. Would you be even better if you’d done a 1000 reps? Yes. But will you have made noticeable improvements after 100 reps? Yes.

And that’s the amazing thing. Look back to when you started learning this piece. It might have initially seemed so new, so difficult, so outside you’re experience that you thought it nearly impossible. Your fingers didn’t want to move to the correct positions. Two weeks later, doing a little each day, and you can play it at normal speed with no errors. Two months later you can play it fast without errors. Two years later you truly don’t even think about it. You can improvise your own variations and incorporate it into other tunes. Wow.

Human’s are amazing and so are you. If you keep at it, you’ll get it.

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