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The Four Steps to Musical Mastery (and pretty much anything)

April 15, 2015

 

I have always found with both my students and my own practice, that having a clearly defined path of specific goals can not only be motivating, but much more effective than running head first into the dark. 

Through some of my research, I have come across a four step process that I have found to be the most clear and powerful. To be honest, I don't quite remember how I initially stumbled across it, but it became immediately apparent how well it could be applied for musical practice. Knowing what step of the process you're on for a given piece, and knowing ways to mentally approach each step has done wonders for myself and my students. Here I will lay out the four steps, and give quick tips of how I like to approach each one. Obviously, you can get pretty detailed with these things, but these will just get you started and help with experimenting on your own methods. Email me at the address below if you want some more tips!


Unconscious Incompetence: I generally refer to this as not even knowing what you don't know. If you're a fresh beginner, this can refer to not knowing how to play the instrument at all and having to learn a few fundamentals. Once you know those and are taking on new pieces of music, this can refer to specific techniques involved to play the piece or even just how the peice sounds. Listening to others perform the piece can help with this step a lot. Really trying to identify what you don't know (this is the next step) and almost looking at things from the outside-in to educate yourself is what gets you through this stage. Jazz guys sometimes call this "living with" the song or technique. You have to recognize incompetences and realize the value of learning the skill to move on. 

Conscious Incompetence: A lot of times this is the most frustrating stage. This is where you fully understand the problems, but are still wrapping your head around how to go about fixing them. Very careful study and advice from others is what can get you through this. "How do they do that" is sort of the theme of this stage. Often times you have to experiment a lot and see if you can get things to sound how they're supposed to and figure out exactly what it is you have to do to make that sound consistenly. 


Conscious Competence: This is where most end up and usually stay. This step requires the most amount of patience and time. Here you are aware of problem areas, and you know how to not only tackle them,  but also execute them. The only hang up is the fact that you really have to concentrate in order to pull them off. You can get through the piece, but you have to concentrate so much on the technical facility that often you lack on the musical nuances that seperates the greats from we mortals. A lot of times breaking things down into steps and trying to master very, very small little nuggets and then learning how to string them together (more on this in another blog) helps with this. The cold hard truth is that this step just requires paying your dues and putting in the hours.

Unconscious Competence: Congrats! You've mastered a piece or technique. This step is where something becomes absolute second nature. You can do it while having a conversation with someone or thinking about what's for lunch. People who practice hard enough will get to this stage and use their now free brain power to focus on musical interpretation and nuance. This is what makes a master, and this is what can make a performer really be able to move you. Since they don't to have to think at all, they can fully immerse themselves, and then in turn you, into the music being played. Watching someone do this is amazing, and inspiring. Watching someone at this stage is watching someone who dedicated everything to their craft- a true artist.

Any musician who has been at it for years can tell you this cycle is practically never ending. As soon you get good at one thing and the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn and polish. This can be daunting, but I always see it as so exciting. If I knew absolutely everything about my instrument, I would be pretty bored. A lot of times the journey is just as fun as the end result.


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Happy Practicing!

Mike Lowden
Guitar Instructor, Co-Owner
mikelowden@fallsmusicschool.com

 

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