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!

The Tyranny of the Streak

Practice streaks can be motivating, but they have a dark side too.

Streaks are everywhere, including the Structured Practice Method. As I write this post, I'm at the end of a streak of 367 consecutive practice days. That streak ends today, and I have mixed feelings about it, so I decided a post on the subject might be a good idea.

​Back in 2013 I realized that my concert clothes were getting harder and harder to fit into, and I was getting close to having to decide between taking a full breath or zipping up my pants. I knew I had to do something, so naturally I turned to Google. I found an app called MyFitnessPal, which I could use to track everything I ate and make sure I stayed within calorie and nutrition goals to lose weight. As you might imagine for the creator of the Structured Practice Method, this kind of thing appeals to me, so I signed up.

I struggled for a couple of months while building the habit of logging all my food. Believe me, this is not easy, but I was determined, and I eventually got it worked into my normal day-to-day activities. The weight started to come off, and over several months I watched as I steadily progressed toward my goal. By the time I was within just a few pounds of where I wanted to be, I had a streak of around 230 days of logging my food, which I was really proud of. Keeping that streak going was the only thing that kept me on track more than once during that time, for sure!

Losing that streak completely killed my motivation

But one day, I didn't get around to logging any food until pretty late in the day. In fact, it was past midnight, and the next day, when I went to log my breakfast, my streak was gone!! And I hadn't even really missed a day!! I was furious!! And, it turns out, really discouraged. All that effort to maintain my perfect streak, and it was gone in the blink of an eye. In that one instant I completely lost my motivation​, and I have struggled to get back on track ever since.

​I think the worst thing about it for me was the fact that I hadn't really missed. I felt betrayed by the app. What was the point if it could take away my streak on a whim?

Of course, if I'd simply shrugged it off and gotten back on track the next day, I would have been perfectly fine, and that's the thing. A streak is great, but shooting for that perfect, uninterrupted run is ultimately not realistic. And even if we only hit 70%, we're still way ahead.

​For me, this was a case of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

The story above is one reason that I actually resisted putting the streak statistic in the Structured Practice Method. I was worried that it could demotivate just as easily as motivate. But in the end I couldn't resist. And I do enjoy getting a good streak going, as with the one I'm breaking today.

​And this streak has actually been very motivating for me. It's gotten me through some busy weeks where I would very likely have dropped off if not for the desire to post that elusive full year.

But today I'm letting it go. We're in the midst of a huge week for me in the Flint Symphony. We're doing a program of American music: Bernstein - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin - Porgy and Bess Suite, and Ellington - Black Brown and Beige Suite. I simply don't have the chops to practice even a little bit and also get through all our rehearsals and concert on this program, so the streak has to go.

I'm also taking a vacation immediately following the concert, so it was​ on the way out anyway. I'm really looking forward to taking a few days to just hang out with the family and not be a worker bee, but I am also really excited about not having this streak hanging over my head. I've been really proud of the accomplishment of getting a full uninterrupted year of practicing in, but it's also become a burden that I'll be quite happy to be done with.

Over the past few months, I've come to feel that practicing every single day over an extended period of time might not even be something all that desirable. Arnold Jacobs, one of the greatest brass pedagogues of the twentieth century, is quoted as having said "Sometimes just sitting under a tree is the best way to become a better musician," or something along those lines. I think he was onto something. As humans, we need breaks. As a trumpet player, sometimes my face needs a break even before my brain does. As long as the overall trend is one of practicing most days, I don't think it's so bad to have the occasional day off.

As I design SPM Version 2.0, I expect the streaks feature will change to reflect this understanding. I already have some ideas. I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are. Do streaks motivate or demotivate you? How to you handle the inevitable missed day? As always, let us all know in the comments below!​

Happy practicing!​

Are Your Students Learning What You’re Teaching?

Study shows disconnect between what students and teachers think is happening in lessons

This past December, while exhibiting the Structured Practice Method at the Midwest Music Clinic in Chicago, I gave a talk about how to use the SPM to help your students get more out of their practice and lesson time.

As I was preparing for my presentation, I discovered an article from the Summer 2002 Journal of Research in Music Education. Written by Marilyn Kostka, Practice Expectations and Attitueds: A Survey of College-level Music Teachers and Students discusses the results of a study in which 127 college studio instructors and 134 college music students were surveyed on four subjects:

  • Attitudes about specific music skills
  • Expectations concerning use of practice time
  • Expectations for routines and strategies for practicing
  • Attitudes toward practice in general

The results of the study are fascinating:

  • While teachers expected, on average, 14.5 hours of weekly practice from their students, the students reported actually practicing 9.93 hours
  • 94% of teachers said they suggested a "regular practice routine" for their students, but only 45% of the students claimed to use one
  • All of the teachers indicated that they discussed strategies for "good practicing" with their students, and yet 41% of the students had no memory of these discussions

The first point, regarding practice time, doesn't really surprise me. I would even go a step further and say that, for the most part, I doubt those numbers are even meaningfully correct, considering how haphazardly students in the real world keep track of their practice time. Time-tracking numbers can also be tricky to interpret because different individuals require different amounts of practice to achieve the same result. I'm personally far more interested in the quality of practice, and the depth of thought my students (and I) exhibit during practice.

The second point above is more surprising. Taken at face value, this means that 48% of students who are being taught regular practice routines are actually using them. I don't expect all of my students to do everything I recommend, but that's definitely a larger percentage than I would expect, and I certainly hope my studio does a better job with this.

The final point above is the most disturbing one to me. 41% of students have no memory of discussing good practicing with their teachers. That is surprising, especially in light of the 100% of teachers who say these discussions are taking place. It's one thing to fail to implement something the teacher is discussing, but to completely forget about arguably one of the most important aspects of learning an instrument! I'm left a little bit speechless by this.

It's important to note that in this survey, the students and teachers were not matched. In other words, the teachers who were surveyed were not ​the same teachers the students were studying with. The teachers and students were to entirely separate groups.

Because of this, it's possible that it was simply the case that while all of the teachers in the survey discuss practice techniques and strategies with their students, the students in the survey might study with teachers who do not teach those things.​ I would love to see a study done with matched students and teachers to compare the results!

Double Down

My takeaway from reading this study is to redouble my efforts at helping my students consider practice strategies, and to be purposeful, mindful practicers on their instruments.

What are your thoughts? Do you teach your students about good practicing? If so, how do you do that, and do you think it's having an impact? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, below.

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