Practice, pt. II: Getting Out of The Way


Practicing can make playing as simple and free as breathing. There’s not much in life that tops the sense of satisfaction you get from realizing that something which used to seem extremely difficult is now something you can do without a particle of conscious effort, whether it’s playing a simple scale, flying through a dense section of a complex piece, or playing a beautiful solo on your favorite song. Like all skills, the more you give, the more music gives back.

The reason for this, the whole goal of practice, is to hand off as much work as possible to the unconscious mind.

Empty your mind when you play.

[If you’re low on time or patience and you want the very short version of these notes, just listen to a 1950s broadcaster quote Bill Evans and sum up my point in 20 seconds. For those of you who want the nitty gritty, read on.]

What do you think about when you’re playing your instrument?

I thought of a new way of looking at practice (at least for me) that I found intriguing. The Music Collective students got a visit from some friends of mine at NEC, and after they showed us their skills, one student asked, “What do you think about when you’re playing music?”

The answer the bassist gave was basically “Nothing,” which might seem trite or confusing- he must be thinking about something. There’s so much to think about, so much going on in music of any style! Even if you’re just playing one long note, you’re maintaining intonation (which itself has multiple components), counting, looking ahead in the score (if you’re reading), watching the conductor (in orchestra or band), listening to the rest of the ensemble- there’s an overwhelming to be thinking about!

Thinking vs. doing

Now, the thinking mind doesn’t keep track of all those things at once.You may know that that there’s no such thing as multitasking– if you’re thinking about multiple things (like eating while watching TV or doing homework while chatting on Facebook) you’re just switching attention back and forth between different tasks, one at a time.

This is a clue about what most of us call “thinking” really is: the direction of conscious attention. Whatever your conscious attention is focused on is what you’re “thinking” about, by most definitions of the word. But you are doing a whole lot, all the time, all at once, without any conscious effort- breathing, beating your heart, and maintaining a safe core temperature, to name a few (and each of these is made up of numerous individual actions by different parts of the system we call the body). Dreaming happens without conscious effort, but you see things you would never imagine if you were fantasizing to avoid boredom during a lecture.

Great players don’t think about playing music. They just do it, in much the same way that they breathe. In fact, thinking and doing are at odds with one another- you cannot really think about doing something and do it easily at the same time.

Why? And what does that mean for our approach to music?


Last time, I framed learning/practice broadly as a process of memorization- of preparing  information of all sorts, whether facts or patterns of movement, for easy recall.

There are a couple things we know about memory which might illuminate this process for you a bit.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of memory.

Short-term or “working” memory can be viewed as whatever you are thinking about- whatever is within your conscious attention. It’s very narrow- studies have estimated that most of us can only hold between 7 and 12 “bits” of information in our conscious attention. To demonstrate, have someone read you a phone number and see if you can repeat the whole thing back. Then try it with a credit card number- most of you probably can’t manage that. The limits of working memory are what make problems hard. Think about word problems in math- the difficulty lies in holding all the various parts of the problem in your “mind” (another word people typically use to refer to their conscious attention) and figuring out how to put them together.

Long-term or “implicit”memory is all the other stuff that you know but aren’t thinking about- the lion’s share of what’s engraved on the more evolved parts of your brain, your “unconscious mind.” It is, of course, very broad- everything you can look at and identify, for example, is stored somewhere in your long-term memory. Without it, you’d forget everything as soon as it passed out of your conscious attention- you’d basically be unable to form any memories (like Guy Pearce’s character in Memento).

When you answer a question on a math test, or visualize something I’m describing to you, or play a scale and know that it is a scale, you’re experiencing the interplay of these two functions of the brain. Very simply, information passes from implicit to working memory.

The unconscious becomes conscious.

The magic of “chunking”

You might notice a quirk of short-term memory as I just described it- what constitutes a “bit”? How many “bits” does the process of visualizing a polar bear take up? Or doing arithmetic? Or playing a scale? How is it possible that a problem that once contained an overwhelming amount of information (like counting to 10 or saying the whole alphabet when we were a toddler) can become utterly trivial? In other words, if conscious attention is a strictly limited resource, how do we get smarter, solve bigger problems, play better music?

Well, it turns out that the size of a “bit” of information is flexible. We perform a wonderful trick that cognitive scientists call “chunking,” where we combine bits to make bigger bits, which of course shrinks problems down by making more information available at the same cost to our focus.

For example, I can tell you I’m thinking of a big, white, furry, four-legged creature that lives in the Arctic circle and hunts seals. If you don’t know what a polar bear is, you’ve got a very fuzzy picture in your head. If you’ve heard of and seen polar bears,  I can just tell you to think of a polar bear and all that you can recall about them comes bubbling up to the surface of your mind. All words are like this, markers that point to images and meaning- countless “bits” of information are made ready at hand with a single phrase.

Another example,of course, is a scale. If asked, most of you can recall all the notes in a C major scale. If you know the series of intervals that make up a major scale (another “chunk”) you could easily tell me all the notes of a major scale starting on ANY note. The concept of a “scale” is like an anchor for a bunch of other “bits” that makes them readily available, close to the “surface” of the mind, and you can then string them through your conscious attention and tell me about them, one by one.

You can imagine, of course, that this goes very far in both directions. We can unpack any word in a sentence and find many more words and images which tell us that first word’s meaning, and we can even start breaking those words down into letters and asking what exactly those mean, chopping up everything into tinier and tinier bits. Conversely, we can connect many bits together to weave large concepts- letters into words, words into definitions of other words, into sentences, paragraphs, themes, and books, a single one of which can serve as a sort of mnemonic for numerous ideas.

Thinking things to death

You are now breathing manually.

Did breathing just get harder? A friend in high school used to troll us with that line occasionally, and it really is a trip, because you never think about breathing- you just do it, and when you start thinking about it, it gets weird. What muscle do you use to breathe? Is it even a muscular action? What do you think about, in order to breathe correctly? What does it even mean to breathe “correctly”? I feel like I’m suffocating just writing this.

That’s just one example, but you can think of dozens if you want to quite easily. Just think of anything you do “automatically”- tying your shoe, driving, free throws, dribbling, walking. (By the way, please do not trip yourself up like this while actually driving. This is also one reason why driving under the influence is a terrible idea- an altered state of mind might draw your attention to things that would normally be automatic and make you much more likely to lose control of the car. Just don’t do it, kids.)

You may notice, of course, that most of the things I just listed are things we learned how to do, things that we practiced, step by step, thinking about each one and connecting it to the others until we didn’t have to think about it any more and the process became automatic.

What’s the deal here?

It seems as though trying to think about something you usually just do is a bit like taking the engine out of a car for a closer look- you might learn about how the overall system works, but the system itself won’t be running as long as you’re messing around with just one of it’s parts. You’ve got to put it back under the hood and let it do it’s thing if you want to drive anywhere. That said, sometimes it’s necessary to take things apart to make them work better.

What was practicing, again?

Thinking about this view of our memory, we can view practice process of making bigger and bigger “chunks,” of thinking about each facet of a musical puzzle until it becomes something we can just do.

We go from “play this note, then that one, then that one…” to “play that scale” or “play that passage,” then maybe we realize there’s more to music than notes and figure out that we have to “play this passage, but when you go from here to here be aware you’re going flat.” And then with practice, that becomes automatic, and it just becomes “play this passage” again.

And so as we practice (assuming we’re practicing well) we fold dozens or even hundreds of actions into a simple mental chunk like “the dogfight in The Washington Post” or “shooting a free throw.”

The conscious becomes unconscious.

Thinking vs. doing, again

Earlier, the unconscious became conscious- implicit knowledge was passed to our conscious attention, to working memory.

But remember that that implicit knowledge came in the form of  a chunk, which could be broken down into various parts, none of which when taken alone would completely represent the concept that was drawn into the conscious mind. That chunk can also be enriched by conscious thought to represent even more information. But the conscious mind is not holding that information when the concept comes to mind- it’s just holding the concept, which serves as an anchor for all the real information down underneath, a bit like the strings on a puppet. And like the puppeteer, you (or the “you” that you are conscious of) do not precisely control everything that happens- you use concepts to direct the general flow of thought or action.

This suggests thinking and doing as the interplay of conscious and unconscious- words, names, concepts, cues, are all just anchors for the conscious mind to vast stores of information that are just beneath the surface. However, that information is below the surface– consciously, we just think something like, “alright, time to play this passage” and then do it without any further need to think about what we are doing- in fact, thinking about what we’re doing would screw us up!

So when we hear someone play beautifully, we can now see that they have taken the time to think carefully about each facet of their performance, weaving them into a concept of action that they can do almost as easily as though they were tying their shoe or driving to the store. We can also assume that if we asked what they were thinking about, we’d get a sort of vague, empty  answer- because they know (and now we know) that if they thought about what they were doing, they’d screw up! And of course, there are philosophies that refer to an “empty” mind as one of the necessary conditions of pure action.

This is the idea of “getting out of your own way”- of relinquishing your idea of control to gain freedom by trusting the part of your brain that “you” (as we often identify ourselves with the contents of our conscious mind) can sense conceptually, but never fully grasp.


Being good at things is fun. Here’s how to get good (two versions):

Version 1 (Acknowledging complexity):

  1. Look at whatever you’re doing as a puzzle. People that seem to be “better” than you are those who have discovered a way of fitting the pieces together.
  2. Identify every individual element of the puzzle that you can. Maybe write them all down, so it’s easier to remember.
  3. Think carefully about each part of the puzzle- find the points of contact between each of them. You’re looking to see how the pieces fit together.
  4. Set a goal for the next time you do the thing. Write it down. This goal is hopefully the solution to the puzzle.
  5. When you go to do the thing, just do it. You don’t need to think any more. Pay attention to what you’re doing (being attentive is different than thinking). Forget your goal, too- you can come back to it later (that’s why you wrote it down).
  6. After you’re done doing the thing, think back on it. What did you notice? Did you accomplish your goal? Does that seem to have solved the puzzle?
  7. If you accomplished your goal and all seems right, you’ve solved this puzzle. Now look again, and you’ll see that the puzzle you just solved is just a piece of an even bigger puzzle. If you accomplished your goal but things are still off, there are a a couple possible problems: maybe your goal was not the solution to this puzzle, or it was the solution to this puzzle but you didn’t realize that this puzzle was just part of a bigger puzzle. Either way, repeat from step 2 with new goal or old.

Version 2 (Ultra simplified, and paraphrased from some book):

  1. Pick a target. (Think carefully)
  2. Reach for it. (Stop thinking, JUST DO IT)
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the point you reached. (Think carefully again)
  4. Repeat.

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