Become a World-Class Musician One Percent at a Time

Quite a few years ago I heard a story about John Hagstrom. Mr. Hagstrom has been a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s trumpet section since 1996. I have no idea whether this story is true, and I don’t remember who I heard it from, but the point it makes is valid regardless of the details:

​When John was a student at the Eastman School of Music, he was known as kind of a “middle of the road” player; a player who would probably do well, but not likely to be “world-class.” What set him apart, and propelled him to the amazing and unambiguously world-class career he’s had so far, was the approach he took to the practice room:

Every day, try to improve your playing by one percent.

​In the story, he said “If you improve by one percent every day, then every 100 days you will be a 100% better musician.” Being the slightly OCD person I am, I actually did the math, and thanks to the principle of compounding, it actually only takes 71 days to improve by 100 percent at the rate of one percent per day. But, the idea is the same. Just get a little better every day and over time you will see huge gains.

​Again, I do not know if this is a true story. But for at least 15 years, I have kept this idea in the back of my mind and tried to use it in my own practicing and teaching. I see the opposite of this in my students all the time, in the form of overly long and ultimately fruitless sessions hammering away at one measure of music. I’ve done this myself, for sure. It’s so pervasive that it’s almost a badge of honor to talk about spending hours and hours on one small passage, as though that proves our supreme dedication to the art. But the fact is, this is not an effective strategy.

​Let’s say you’ve got a short passage of music that you just can’t seem to crack easily. You’ve played it 20 times, worked it slowly, tried everything you can think of, but it’s not getting any better. You could just double down and “woodshed” the heck out of it for an hour, and you might even be able to play it decently well a few times by the end of the hour. But tomorrow you get the pleasure of starting over from scratch again. Frustrating.

​But what if, instead, you look at the passage and analyze what, exactly, is making it so difficult? Is it an aspect of your technique that isn’t quite up to par? Could you come up with an exercise to work on that specific aspect of your playing? What if you spent five minutes working on improving that part of your game just a little bit (one percent), then just move on and try this again tomorrow. I suspect you would make more progress, more quickly, this way rather than the brute force method we usually take.

​Research bears this out. As luck would have it, one of my favorite podcasts, “Freakonomics,” ran an episode last Fall titled “In Praise of Incrementalism.” In their words:

“What do Renaissance painting, civil-rights movements, and Olympic cycling have in common? In each case, huge breakthroughs came from taking tiny steps. In a world where everyone is looking for the next moonshot, we shouldn’t ignore the power of incrementalism.”

I highly recommend listening to this episode if the subject interests you. It’s fascinating. Click here to listen now.

One of the stories they use to illustrate the power of incrementalism in the Freakonomics podcast has been showing up all over the interwebs, and it’s an incredibly interesting and inspiring story. The British cycling organization, Team Sky, was founded in 2010, and by 2012 they became the first British team ever to win the Tour de France. They won it again in 2013, 2015, and 2016. There are, of course, may reasons for their success, but one of the most important is their relentless application of the “Aggregation of Marginal Gains.”

If you’d like to read more about Team Sky and the Aggregation of Marginal Gains applied to learning music, check out this post from the Bulletproof Musician Blog.

​I’ve been doing my own unscientific experiment with marginal gains since May of last year. Like most trumpet players, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with high notes. It’s a fact that there is nothing quite like the feeling of laying down a screaming high note that cuts through the orchestra and echoes off the back wall of the auditorium loud and clear. It’s a hard thing to do, and once you get it figured out, it is a source of enormous satisfaction. That’s one reason we trumpet players get a bad reputation… sometimes we get a little carried away and overdo those high notes because, well, we can.

​Anyway, as a symphonic trumpeter, my need for the extreme high register is not huge. But the allure is there for sure, and over the years I’ve played my share of pops concerts and broadway shows that pushed me to my limit in that department. Last May, I was feeling frustrated with my high range, and decided to spend just a little time working on it every day. I added an exercise to the end of my warm-up that forces me to spend a little time pushing myself to play as high as I can each day. I spend less than 5 minutes on this, and I only do it if my chops are feeling reasonably strong.

​During the 303 days since I began the experiment, I’ve practiced my high range exercise 241 times, or about 80% of the time. It’s sort of faded into the background for me mentally now. It’s just a thing I do, and I hadn’t given it a great deal of extra thought until recently.

​A few weeks ago the Flint Symphony performed a program with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite, and Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige Suite. This program was a serious workout for trumpet, and especially the Bernstein contains plenty of opportunities to flex your high note chops.

​I’ve performed the Bernstien a few times over the years, and each time I’ve been frustrated that I couldn’t punch the high passages out over the orchestra the way I know they should be done. As soon as I got the music for the concert, I put it on my stand and started playing through it to see where I stood. I was amazed. The high passages that had so vexed me in past years were coming out loud and clear, without feeling overly difficult. Until that moment I did not realize how much progress I’d made on my high range. It was very gratifying!

​Have you ever applied the concept of Aggregation of Marginal Gains to your practicing? If you have, tell us about it in the comments, below. If not, try it! You’ll be glad you did!

Mark Flegg

Dr. Mark Flegg is the creator of Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice Method. He holds degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music, Arizona State University, and Michigan State University. An active free-lance performer and educator, he is the Principal Trumpet with the Flint and Saginaw Symphonies, and has been a trumpet instructor at Saginaw Valley State University and Wayne State University.

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Zeynep - a couple of years ago Reply

Great article Mark! I want to translate it for my students. Thank you, all the best,

    Mark Flegg - a couple of years ago Reply

    Thanks, Zeynep, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I hope your students find it helpful!

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