What happened when I applied metrics to my piano practice
A five-part essay about the process of learning.
If you follow me on Twitter —
and I’m not at all sure if you should, since Twitter seems to be less valuable to me every successive day —
which in turn makes me less interested in adding value to it —
but anyway, if you read the tweets, you might have seen this one:
Over the past month I have, in fact, discovered the secret to learning — and even if I am not the first person to make this particular discovery, it still counts.
Now I have the somewhat difficult task of telling you what it is.
Here’s how I explained it to L:
Define win condition.
Define action you are going to take to achieve win condition.
Take defined action.
Evaluate action both against its original definition (that is, did you do what you said you were going to do or did you do something else) and against the win condition.
If you’re me, write down the results. If you’re L, keep them in your head. (He keeps all of this in his head. I have no idea how his head can handle it. He told me that he might have more storage space in his working memory because he thinks of things in bits and symbols instead of words.)
Ask yourself what is keeping you from achieving your win condition. Describe it as specifically as possible.
If you’re me, write it down.
Define action you are going to take to solve/address/eliminate obstacle preventing win condition.
Repeat 2-7 until win condition is achieved.
Step #8 — STOP AFTER WIN — is more important to the process than I originally realized. At first I assumed that once you hit WIN you could REPEAT WIN, maybe REPEAT WIN 5 CONSECUTIVE PASSES, but it doesn’t work that way.
Once your brain hits WIN, it’s done with that particular problem for that particular practice session. Successive passes during the same practice session are more likely to be unfocused fails, which introduce inconsistencies that have to be resolved by running additional (time-consuming, frustrating) learning loops.
Plus, STOPPING AFTER WIN sets up a work environment in which you are CONTINUALLY RETURNING TO WON SEQUENCES.
I feel like I just confused you, so let me rephrase it:
If you practice a specific piano passage until WIN and then put it away, the next time you return to that passage you’ll approach it as SOMETHING ALREADY WON — that is, with CERTAINTY.
If you practice a specific piano passage until WIN and then immediately play it again, you run the risk of NOT WINNING, generally because YOU AREN’T PAYING QUITE AS MUCH ATTENTION THIS TIME. Introducing NOT WIN (or FAIL) immediately after WIN creates UNCERTAINTY.
I have nearly a month of spreadsheet data proving that it’s better to STOP AFTER WIN.
If you still don’t believe me, believe Super Mario Bros. When you fail, you start over; when you win, you move on. 🍄⭐🏰
This whole thing got started after I wrote my Substack advice post about how to break out of the content mills. I was talking to L about the process of freelance writing, and how I had discovered very early on that there were two metrics associated with financial success: words per hour and income per word.
“I am astonished that most of the writers I work with don’t know how many words they write per hour and aren’t actively working to increase that number,” I said. “Then again, I guess I don’t know how many measures of music I can learn per hour — or how to increase that number.”
That night, I created a spreadsheet to track those two metrics.
The next morning, I realized that before I could track measures learned per hour, I had to define learned.
And that got us to where we are today — or where we were two nights ago, when I told L that I had discovered the secret to learning.
I would tell L, night after night: I’m figuring things out, but I don’t have all of the pieces yet. Some of the data I’ve been collecting has turned out to be completely useless. Other metrics are way more valuable than I thought they’d be. I’m not going to tell you any more than that until I’m able to tell you the entire thing, the whole theory, all at once.
And he would say But I can hear you working. You’re so much better at solving problems than you were a few weeks ago.
And I would say Yes, but I haven’t found all of the pieces I need to make the process efficient and effective and replicable — and I’m not ready to publish yet.
Now I am.
And now you know everything I know about how to learn. ❤️