I’ve been reading the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. In it, he describes the kind of deliberate practice you have to do to get good at something. This is extremely important! If you’re doing anything new with a learning curve, you can vastly accelerate that learning curve with the right kind of practice.

I’m learning to sight-sing (sing directly from a musical score) despite playing no instruments and having no musical background. Not only do I have to learn to sing, but I must learn to read music, to hear pitches, to match pitches, etc. It’s a very difficult learning curve for me, at a time in my life when I’m many years away from the last time I tried to learn an entire skill set from scratch. Here’s how I’m using deliberate practice to accelerate my learning.

First of all, I have to deal with the fact that sight-singing is skill-based. No amount of intellectual understanding can help me get it any faster. I need to drill. I drill every day. It is very clear that daily drilling separated by sleep cycles builds capability. There’s a measurable improvement every day in my skills. That’s neat. It’s frustrating only because there doesn’t seem to be any shortcut. The results only show up when I put in practice time during the day with sleep in between.

When I notice a chronic problem in my practice, I design an exercise for that particular problem. For example, there are certain intervals I just can’t remember. So I plunked out little made-up songs (with words and imagery) 30-seconds long on my keyboard that emphasized the troublesome intervals. Then I listen to them for 20 minutes each day until my brain starts to memorize them.

Learning to sing intervals is trickier because I have no outside source of feedback to know if I’m doing it right. Often, I’m not. To the extent possible, I use a piano for feedback. I sing slowly with a piano keyboard, and concentrate on listening to the external sound of the keyboard and of my voice, rather than my internal imagination of what the note *should* sound like. I’m gradually becoming able to sing most intervals.

One intermediary skill in learning to sing intervals has been to explicitly develop comfort singing a note when it sounds dissonant. If a note is playing and I’m supposed to sing a major 7th above it, I have to hold that note even if it sounds a bit jarring to my ear. So paradoxically, I’ve had to develop the skill of singing a note even when my ear tells me it’s out of tune. Because it’s in tune, it’s just a dissonant harmony.

My next step is to work on stretching the range where I can hear and sing intervals. I’ve discovered that I’m essentially tone deaf below G. I never noticed before, but I can’t even tell which notes are higher or lower in that part of the keyboard. Unfortunately, drilling that one seems to require an external keyboard. For reasons I don’t understand, my iPod keyboard doesn’t produce the same confusion that an external keyboard does. When I get my hands on the right equipment, my next set of self-drills will all be around developing that part of my range.

Next time you are learning something new, don’t just practice; practice deliberately. Design exercises to stretch yourself where you’re having trouble. You’ll find if you stick with it, it’s possible to learn much more quickly than you ever though possible. (And no, it doesn’t feel any easier. You just make faster progress through the uncomfortable parts.)

Learning to learn: How to get better at what you d…

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