How To Improve A Skill
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By: Hugh Sung | September 11, 2014
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A Tale of 3 Skills: Love, Hate, and Hope
LoveAs a classical pianist, I’ve given concerts in cities all over the world. One of my tours took me to Japan, with a bit of an extended layover in Korea. During that layover, I was set up on a blind date with an amazing, beautiful, charming woman. She took me to parks and cafes all over town during that first date and I became captivated by her lively presence. There was one slight problem: she didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Korean. The enormity of that minor roadblock hit me hard when I returned home to the States and tried to give her a phonecall (mind you, this was back in the day before there was anything like an “Internet” or “Skype”). I didn’t have the words to say anything to her, quite literally, beyond a rudimentary “hello” and “goodbye”. That awkward silence in between those two words made me feel like a total idiot. How can two people have a relationship – a long distance one, in particular – if they can’t even talk to each other? I was never very good at my French or German classes in school, and the thought of trying to learn Korean of all things seemed like something beyond impossible. Ah, but love can be the most powerful motivator. Armed with a Korean-English dictionary and a badly indexed Korean language grammar book, I set out to tackle this mountain of a language the only way I knew how: one baby step at a time. To be specific, I set a daily goal for myself: to learn 5 new words each morning and have them really memorized by the end of the day. I started with words that I wanted to use to describe my day – for example, a day at the beach made me want to tell this woman about a seashell, about sand, waves, ocean, and swimming. I would look up my daily 5 words, write them in my pocket notepad which I carried around with me everywhere, and come up with funny mnemonics and even cartoons to help me visualize the words I was memorizing. After 30 days, the awkward phonecalls were peppered with a few fragments of nouns and simple adjectives. After 6 months, my phone bill was getting so expensive I had to cut the calls down to just once a week instead of every day. At the end of two years, when I went to Korea to visit, I was riding in a taxi and the driver asked me (in Korean) if I was Japanese, because he couldn’t quite place my accent. A fun conversation ensued with a total stranger as he zipped me to my destination.
HateAt one time, I was a bit like Homer Simpson, with a belly large enough to perch my beer on while lounging on my sofa watching TV. I had never been athletically inclined, and almost felt a measure of pride at how rotund my stomach was to function so well as a makeshift bar shelf. It wasn’t until I was going through some digital photos that I came across a picture of myself at a water park playing with my kids that I realized with horror what I had become: a fat, balding, 30-something with a midriff tire that could fit on the axle of a monster truck. I was so disgusted with that picture that I was determined to do something about it. The next morning, I laced up an old pair of sneakers and tried to jog around the neighborhood. Well, “jog” might be too strong of a word – it was more like wheezed walking. I barely made it to the end of the block before I had to stop, completely out of breath, drenched in sweat, and doubled over with the most painful side splits I had ever felt. I was in far worse shape than I had expected. Now I was disgusted and discouraged. I became so angry with myself that I came up with a new strategy. I filled a cheap MP3 player with some of the ugliest, angriest heavy metal rock with ear-splitting guitar riffs and shrieking banshee vocalists. Not the typical listening fare for a classical pianist, mind you. On my next jog, with a cacophony in my ears and teeth gritted in anger, I hit the pavement and thought to myself with every labored step, “I hate this. I hate this. I hate this!!” The energy from all that rage got me about a quarter of a mile to the top of the neighborhood hill in my revenge run. In about 3 months, I was able to make it past the hilltop to hit the half mile mark. In 6 months, I ran the “big loop” – a full mile. By the end of a year, I was running 6-8 miles, up to two hours at a time, and exulting in the rush of “runner’s high”, whispering to myself with every nimble step, “I love this. I love this. I really love this!!” I’m still not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. But within a few years, I got good enough to run my first half marathon and I have my eyes set on hopefully running a full marathon sometime in the next year or two.
HopeOne summer I was teaching a href="http://www.hughsung.com/">piano at a unique music camp that let anyone attend, regardless of skill level. During one of my lessons, I got a call from a colleague who was frustrated with an ensemble he was trying to coach involving one of the piano students I was working with. I told him I would be happy to take over and walked over to the room where they were supposed to be rehearsing. The three students – a violinist, a cellist, and my piano student – were sitting dejectedly in their chairs, either plucking random notes or just sitting in absolute boredom. “What piece are you supposed to be working on?” I asked them. “Something by Mozart”, one of them responded forelornly. I took a look at the music, then dumped it in the trash. That got their attention. “Forget Mozart,” I announced. “If you could play any piece in the world, what would you want to work on?” Their eyes widened in disbelief. They didn’t have to play an assigned piece? They could actually choose what they wanted to work on? The violinist and cellist seemed completely befuddled. But the pianist quickly came up with a great suggestion. He wanted to work on “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles. I didn’t know that song, so I looked it up on YouTube and downloaded the sheet music from Musicnotes.com. This was a really complicated song – two completely different songs, actually, with a bizarre set of orchestral transitions linking them together into an epic masterpiece of pop. At our next rehearsal, I came armed with a stack of sheet music and my laptop. “This is what we’re going to do,” I announced, as I played them a YouTube video of jazz violinist Paul Dateh doing a take on the top 40 pop hits of the time as a multi-panel video playing all the parts himself (http://youtu.be/mdSkr9kRBmY ). The kids were awed and inspired and couldn’t wait to get started. The stack of sheet music was a set of parts I had written out, breaking the piece down into 16 separate tracks, with each student playing 3 or 4 parts tailored to his or her playing level. Some parts were as basic as a single note played once every measure. The only requirement was to be able to stay in time with a click track and a rudimentary level of music reading ability. I set up my cameras, headphones and microphones, and we started practicing and recording each track until late into the night every night over a 2 week period. Soon, word of this “amazing project” spread throughout the camp and one of the top students of the camp begged me to be a part of it. So I had to come up with a custom track to give him enough of a challenge. In the end, we produced a video that turned the kids who thought they were the runts of the camp into the stars, and they had become so good at playing their parts that they wanted to play live in performance while airing the video at the same time during the final gala student recital, which resulted in a standing ovation.
(You can see the video they made at http://youtu.be/7gj5YdxZMYA )
ConclusionI hope these three stories help you to see that to improve any given skill, no matter your ability level or God-given talents, you need three basic elements: passion, time, and consistency. If you’re lacking in any or all of these areas, then having a mentor can be the key to kindling those elements.
Most people set out to learn something because they’ve fallen in love with it. But sometimes hate can be just as powerful a motivator as love. The key idea is to be so dissatisfied with where you are now that you want to make a change (negative passion), as well as having a clear vision of what you want to become through that skill (positive passion). Passion, either positive or negative (or many times both), will provide the fuel that you need to put in the effort to meet your goals.
In his book, “Outliers”, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule. It takes approximately 10,000 hours for someone to become a master at any given skill. There are 8,760 hours in a year. If you could practice your skill 24 hours a day, you could master your skill in a little one year, but of course you’d probably kill yourself along the way. An hour a day will get you to mastery in about 27 years. That sounds like a lot, but with any monumental endeavor, the key is to begin one small step at a time. Which leads us to the third element:
Rather than focusing on quantity, though, the key element here is consistency. With consistent practice, you will actually see progress, which provides additional fuel for your passion, which then cycles back into more practice time to keep your momentum going. Picking up an instrument and cramming 7 hours of practice once a week won’t work nearly as well as an hour a day, both for improving your skill and maintaining your motivation.
Some days you won’t feel like practicing. Other days you’ll feel like you put in the time but you don’t see any progress, adding to your frustration. This is where having a mentor comes in. A good mentor will motivate you to tap into (or discover) your passions and actually help you shorten the time you need to master your skill by avoiding bad habits and pitfalls from ignorance. Such a mentor should also help you make sure your consistency is effective, both by holding you accountable and providing tips on things to look for to stay on the path of progress. In general, the weaker your passion or self-discipline for time and consistency, the greater your need will be for a good mentor.
About the Author
Hugh Sung is the author of "From Paper to Pixels: Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution". Hugh is a classical pianist who co-founded AirTurn, taught over 167,000 people to play "Clair de lune" on YouTube, and continues to combine his love of art and technology in new and cutting-edge ways. Hugh wrote an article for ITHP on how to improve a skill. You can visit Hugh's website here.
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