Since the release of my album I Wanna Work For You, I’ve been writing a book about practicing. More specifically, I wondered how I could finally get better at things that had eluded me despite a lifetime of effort. Were there keys to motivation, method or memory that the virtuosos knew? After much research, I discovered secrets no one ever told me. And I put them all in a book! It’s called Practice Secrets of the Pros: Motivation, Method and Memory for Musicians (and Other Athletes)!

Practice Secrets of the Pros: Motivation, method and memory for musicians and other athletes

Now available as a Kindle e-book on Amazon!

Here’s a condensed excerpt from the book, now in press:

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Forget about your talent!

Since the Renaissance, there’s been a resurgence in the Western belief in genetic talent, moving away from the Greek concept of the muse. In the last 30 years, however, research has refuted this obsession with genius. (Author Elizabeth Gilbert makes a compelling case for doing the work and letting the muse show up when she will in this brilliant TED talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”)

“Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born. These conclusions are based on rigorous research that looked at exceptional performance using scientific methods that are verifiable and reproducible,” according to K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article, “The Making of an Expert.”

Starting with a 1985 book by professor Benjamin Bloom, Developing Talent in Young People, studies consistently find “no correlation between IQ and expert performance in fields such as chess, music, sports, and medicine.” Bloom looked at the childhoods of 120 award-winning, elite performers in a range of technical fields and found three factors: intense practice, devoted teachers, and enthusiastic family support.

An interview with Dr. K. Anders Ericsson

Swedish psychologist and expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson took time in 2012 to talk with me further about musical expertise.

Q: Do you still hear arguments that talent is paramount to artistic achievement?

A: I hear that to a lesser degree than 10 or 15 years ago. Though it maybe has to do with the audiences I talk to.

When you understand how skilled athletes or musicians achieve their expertise, it becomes even harder to understand where the talent is located. What are the genes?

Predicting who is going to be successful, if you exclude height and body size for certain sports — there isn’t any evidence of a gene, or 200 genes in combination, that would create an advantage. Who knows what’s genetic and what’s not?

In teaching music, I find some students are what we call tone-deaf. Is it wrong to consider that a good test of innate musicality?

Well, perfect pitch was often mentioned 10 years ago as an innate ability. Now we understand that the Chinese, because of their tonal language — something like 96% of musicians with early training in China have perfect pitch.

In dealing with tone deafness, I’d think about improving auditory skills related to musical judgements.

Also, sometimes when students are bad at something, they avoid it. They’re not going to get any better if they just tune out whenever they’re supposed to be singing and don’t get involved.

We see that in so many other activities, say in bilingual cultures where, for political reasons, someone decides not to learn another language. They can have years of mandatory classes in that language yet never learn it.

That speaks to motivation!

Yes, I’m researching motivation. I’m not ready to talk about it.

How do you study mastery, anyway?

We’re looking at the developmental path that takes years or decades. It’s a different type of phenomenon. In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, published in 2006, we have over 1000 pages of academic findings. We’re not dealing with just another set of anecdotes. These are really consistent findings across different performance domains. This is not lab research that looks at what happens after one or two hours. That’s not the same as thousands of hours or years.

Does your work point to a different philosophy of life? It seems like it contradicts theories such as Freudianism, individualism, determinism, fatalism, geneticism…

Expertise is not just something that’s God-given. The expert performance approach is giving you engineering knowledge that you can use. We see that once you’ve achieved your expert status, the way you lead your life is quite different. The traditional view, say, that you have a certain intelligence — intelligence may be good in the beginning, but you are paying through the training.

How does an expert lead life differently?

Being an expert, you’re more aware of what the limiting resources are. For example, as a writer you see successful book writers finding the most effective time to write their books. Their understanding of their area of expertise is fundamentally more informed that someone who is not at their level.

How do you define expertise in something like jazz, where creative improvisation and live performance are critical?

It can be a challenge looking at claims of being more creative. Historically, famous jazz musicians did a lot of practice by themselves. Then, performing, they integrated the riffs they developed in private.

Even in a domain that’s so focused on performance like jazz, I’m intrigued by how much the productions of new things, or recordings, didn’t just happen, they evolved in preliminary forms.

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