How to learn difficult skills faster and more deeply

I am very excited to be finishing up my new book. The point of the book is, strengthening one’s musical ear to enable better musicianship and improvisation. That’s not the title, just the concept. The working title is Jazz Patterns for Ear.

As I reached the end of creating and embedding the almost 150 audio files to finish the book, I realized today that the book needs an additional page on the subject of how to learn faster and more deeply.

I am obsessed with helping people play their musical instrument at the level they wish they could play but haven’t yet reached. Listening to musicians young and old and hearing how passionate they are and how much they practice, yet have fallen short at the proficiency they desire is a constant source of intrigue to me. I ask myself, why are they stuck or progressing so slowly?

The following will be that additional page of the book. Providing musicians with powerful and unique tools is one thing, but providing them with the knowledge of integrating those skills into one’s performances is critical.

My many conversations with psychologist and musician Dr. Rodney Brim has elevated my understanding of how the brain learns best, and much of the following comes from our hours of conversation on this topic. The rest comes from my own research, study, and experience.

How best to most quickly and deeply integrate this material into your playing.

Increasing the acuity of your ear and strengthening the relationship between your musical mind and your instrument is not an overnight task. Actually, I find it to be a lifelong endeavor. That doesn’t mean, however, that you must wait years to hear progress. Not at all.

Since starting the writing of this book, composing the patterns, recording them, and practicing along with them, my harmonic connection with both the trombone and keyboard has increased. The result has been exciting. My harmonic vocabulary has increased as has my improvisational flexibility. I am no jazz genius, so I am convinced that a transformation can occur for you as well through the proper use of this book.

In order to stimulate your own musical transformation, however, you must know how best to learn. Your brain has a particular nature that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. It strives to survive and to be very efficient with its energy in the process. Your brain is a sponge for learning, but you must feed it the right stuff and do so within the proper context of its nature. The following are some principles for learning that you should apply to your work within this book.

1. Have fun

Remember high school? If you’re like me, boredom prevented me from more engagement and better grades. The exception was music. Easiest A’s I got, and with what seemed like very little to no work. The reason was that I was having fun. It didn’t feel like work. Certainly not like Spanish!

I’ve composed a variety of fresh rhythm tracks over which you’ll play the 60 patterns in this book. Play those rhythm tracks as you work on the patterns. Doing so will feel like you are playing songs, and feeling less so like strenuous exercises.

Playing music is more fun than playing exercises in silence. Play the rhythm tracks either in headphones or on a quality sound system so that you feel the full impact of the tracks.

2. Make meaning out of playing through this book

Back to my high school Spanish class. I did poorly because for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why I need to learn Spanish, other than it was a graduation requirement.

As you progress through this book, remind yourself why you are doing this work. To be a better musician, you must develop a closer connection to your instrument. To be a better improviser, that connection must be that much stronger so that your instrument is almost not there and instead, is simply an amplifier of your inner musical voice.

This book and the 60 patterns within it have been developed specifically to expand your hearing of intervals and as a result, develop your intuitive musical nature so that the notes emerging from your instrument more effortlessly project from your musical imagination.

No matter your current skill and musical ear, the patterns will get progressively more difficult. If you become frustrated, it’s all the more vital that you remind yourself that the work you are doing will lead you to a more satisfying and pleasurable result of playing and improvising much better than you do now.

3. Gauge the right level of difficulty for you

This is a common mistake people make when improving their skills and practicing. How easy or hard should the thing you are practicing be in order to maximize your development as quickly as possible?

The range of difficulty throughout these patterns is extremely wide, and that gives you lots of options. A good rule of thumb is to play things that are 10% to 15% more difficult than what you can do without much difficulty.

For example, if you can play through all the minor third up patterns using the rhythm-only track but you stumble on three or four of the minor third down patterns, work on these minor third down patterns until they become as intuitive as the minor third up. And work on them first using the rhythm track with the recorded patterns. Once you can play them with the recorded patterns, play them with the rhythm-only track. Think baby steps.

You may be tempted to start with wider patterns like major sixths because you like a challenge, you want to explore deeper into the book, or you want to prove you can do it. But if you stumble on all of them determined as you might be to get one or two of them right, you will not improve these particular skills. In fact, you will ingrain bad playing habits as you continue to struggle with something too hard for you at the moment.

I also want to mention that the opposite is equally unproductive: playing only those things that come easy to you. You do need to challenge yourself and do so at the right level to provide for enjoyment rather than frustration, and challenge rather than comfort.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring deeper or earlier into the book from time to time, but focus your regular practice on that which is just a bit above your proficiency. Your brain needs the dopamine squirt of frequent success in order to build critical brain connections for new skills.

4. Practice regularly

Perhaps the worst thing you can do is to practice long and hard periodically instead of moderately every day. Once you first open this book, it will be exciting to start the audio files and begin playing through random patterns. You might then settle on one that is cool or on one you think is a good place to start. And you’ll go through it for several minutes.

The next day when that initial excitement has worn down a bit, you will find yourself too busy to work with the book that day. Maybe a couple days go by before opening it up again and start playing. You find yourself playing with them every several days when you feel like it.

After a month or so you may ask yourself why you don’t hear a difference in your improvisation. That may signal the end of your enthusiasm for the book and the ideas within it. Hey, I’ve been there which is why I am clear on the scenario!

Instead, dedicate at least ten minutes each day for a month. 15 minutes would be better yet. Practice consistently at the proper level of difficulty as I described above. You’ll need to be enjoying the process so from time to time, play through some of the other tracks, but don’t lose your focus on your current level of learning that determines which patterns and tracks you are playing over.

Strengthening the connection between your musical mind and your instrument is not something that occurs overnight. Becoming a better improviser is not a quick process. As mentioned above, becoming a better musician is a life-long process, but doing these things I am encouraging will speed up the process for you. I promise. It takes vision and dedication to master an instrument, and those two things are available to you.

5. Record yourself

We all sound better live than after the fact in a recording. I continue to be shocked at the dramatic difference for myself. But that’s how our brain works. We want to believe we are doing as well as we imagine. But the audio and video recorders don’t lie. In fact, they are damn cruel bastards!

To know exactly how you sound, you must record yourself and listen back to the recording. Record yourself on your phone as you play through the patterns. Listen for the things I’ve listed on page four of this book, namely pitch, time, and musicality. It is doubtful you will accurately hear those attributes in your playing as you think to yourself, “What is the major third down from Ab” or “Have I played all 12 keys yet?” or “My God, there are 37 patterns to go!?”.

Recording yourself is probably not a feel-good process for you. Hearing your instrument played in your bedroom on an iPhone is not exactly an example of high-fidelity. But the objective feedback of your playing is a crucial element in you knowing your progress, the proper degree of difficulty for you, and the more subtle aspect of your playing of which you otherwise are not aware.

This book could be one of the most powerful and productive tools you own for improving your improvisation and for gaining the satisfaction from your playing for which you yearn. But like holding the strike area of a hammer and pounding a nail with the wooden handle side, this tool is only as effective as the method in which you use it.

Use it well, my friend!

4 Comments

  1. John Tarr on May 30, 2019 at 9:08 pm

    This sounds just like what I need now, an opportunity to deepen my ear-instrument connection. As with all your books, I’m glad someone has finally developed a method that makes much more sense for me (and probably others as well)!
    Thanks for your work Michael,

    John

    • Michael Lake on May 31, 2019 at 8:41 am

      Glad to hear it John. I’ve been testing out the book with people and getting enthusiastic feedback. One of the things everyone is surprised by is what is shows them about their ears and their connection to their horn. Early feedback seems to agree with my assessment that this is a tool that will expand the acuity of one’s ear leading to more skilled improvisation. Interestingly, a guy flew in from Philadelphia yesterday for a lesson and he mentioned someone who teaches memorization of phrases in a pretty intense way for the purpose of playing complex and impressive-sounding jazz. My comment was that he would HATE my stuff because I am advocating the exact opposite. I want to help expand people’s musical sense and connection with their instrument in order to help them spontaneously compose melodies inspired by what they imagine, the audience, the band, the moment, etc.

      • John Tarr on June 5, 2019 at 12:51 pm

        After listening to Rodney Brim on the LJS podcast, as well as delving into how we learn, I realize that the way I was “taught” jazz way back when was the opposite of what I needed. We were told to learn the theory and apply it rather than given the opportunity to explore and discover what wanted to come out. I memorized changes but didn’t learn to know them.

        • Michael Lake on June 6, 2019 at 8:02 pm

          Great point. Old school to me is using your eyes and left brain to improvise. I think the new school is using ears and the right side.

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