Slow Down, You Move Too Fast Blog 3
(Stop Multitasking. Do One Thing At A Time To Improve Faster And Get Better Results–In Guitar, Running, And Maybe Anything)
I Turned 50 And Ran My Fastest Mile In 15 Years. Here’s How I Did It–And Why It Is Changing My Approach To Practicing Guitar!
Doing One Thing At A Time Can Help Make Us Healthier and Better Guitar Players (Or Anything)
(or How I ran my fastest mile in 15 years by running only once per week.)
I’ve dedicated my life to helping people play guitar better, and I’ve constantly asked questions like “How can students be more successful? How can the learning process be improved? How can people sustain their motivation until they can get the awesome feedback of making beautiful music?”
As a young guitarist, my personal answer to these questions was always the same.
Q: Any random question?
Dan: “Harder, faster, stronger.”
Playing for hours a day is a great way to become a better guitar player–no doubt! But as I grew older I realized that a lot of that time was misspent–I spent more time trying and sometimes failing to push through barriers than I did thinking about what those barriers really were; it took me several years to realize that I needed to spend money to get the best lessons I could; and I even managed to lock some bad habits into my body by practicing mistakes at high speed. And I also spent a lot of that time playing entire songs or blowing through complete scales at high speed, mistakes and all, instead of focusing on different aspects of playing. FInally, although I’m still proud I didn’t miss a day of practice for years at a time, now I realize that my body could have used a few rest days, too!
Wow–I really coulda used some coaching from my future self!
Over the years I’ve become a big believer in focused practicing, with ebbs and flows between performance, playing, practicing, and shredding. This belief in the power of Deliberate Practice underlies all the curriculum here at NYC Guitar School.
I recently had an incredible experience in a non-guitar arena–in running–and it really has me wondering how the lesson can apply to music, and to other arenas. Two years after a bad running injury, I ran my fastest mile in 15 years, all while running only once per week. That is not “harder, faster, stronger.” But it was “effective.”
As a younger guy, running was super important to me. I ran college track and cross country and multiple marathons, and I always felt a sense of joy and peace when I hit the roads or trails.
When I turned 40, I began a tradition of working on my speed each summer. Every summer I’d run a sub 6:00 mile–5:50, 5:55, something like that. I wasn’t setting any records, but it made me feel good to know that I was in good shape for a middle aged music teacher, and the yearly cycle of getting faster and then having a friend or child time me on the track was fun.
Then, at 48, I tore my achilles tendon, repeating a lifelong pattern of overtraining (yes, back to the old “harder, faster, stronger” strategy!).
The doctor was encouraging. “Listen,” he said, “after a couple years it is very probable that you’ll be able to run again. Well, jog. But never more than a few miles, and never fast.”
I was despondent. For almost a year, I couldn’t even walk for more than half a mile without a lot of pain. I realized that running far, or fast, just wasn’t important. The only important thing was to be healthy enough to go on walks with my kids, or do regular chores, and my new dream was to be able to hike Breakneck Ridge with my kids, like we’d done in past years. If only I had known then how lucky I was to be able to hike with them!
I did miss running, though, so after a year I made my first very tentative return to running–with two very important rules. First, I would only run once per week. And secondly, if I felt even a slight amount of unhealthy feeling tendon pain, I would stop for the day. My first jogs were incredibly slow–my wife and I would go out on the trail, I’d slowly jog for one or two minutes, and then she’d run off into the distance while I walked.
But I did begin to working out in other ways. I replaced my 15 minute morning subway rides from Grand Central to NYC Guitar School with a half hour walk–and after a couple of months I added another 30 minute walk back to the station after work. Then I started to bike 18 miles to work and back every Friday. I lifted weights twice a week. And since the doctor said that stretching was really important, I created a ritual of stretching after I brushed my teeth, so I got two stretching workouts in every day.
But I still actually only ran once a week!
And always, if I felt that I was re-injuring my tendon, I would stop for the day, whether that meant ending my jog, or taking the subway instead of walking.
I treasured my weekly run. Gradually I ran a half mile, then one, then two–but I decided not to run much more than that. Instead, about six months after my first little slow jog, I began to incorporate intervals into my workout–so I’d jog perhaps 2 miles, with one fast quarter mile, at a sub 10:00 mile pace.
Over time, I realized I could run my intervals faster, and longer. I built up from a quarter mile interval to a half, 3/4 and finally a full mile. Then I went back to a quarter interval at a sub 9:00 pace. Then I built to multiple sub 9:00 intervals, and finally to a full mile at sub 9:00. And so on.
I realized that the combination of a bed of endurance provided by one LSD (that’s “long slow distance”) bike ride per week, lots of walking, and a couple lifting session per week was allowing me to really make the most of my run.
I began running occasional fast miles. And last week I ran a 5:37. Not bad for a guy in his 50s.
I’ve written a lot before about “Deliberate Practice”, and it is interesting to compare my running experience with the science behind Deliberate Practice–and consider how it can apply to guitar. According to one of my favorite books, Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, successful deliberate practice has four components: it is specific, sequential, includes feedback, and is demanding. I’ll add one more essential element of successful practice: it is consistent over time.
1) Successful practice is specific. Too often, guitar students achieve a merely modest level of ability which is far below what they are capable of, because they only practice what they already know how to do, or because they practice everything at once–for example, only playing songs to the exclusion of working on specific techniques or moves. In deliberate practice, the practitioner focuses on one thing at a time–something they don’t already know–and works to master it. In guitar, that means that instead of practicing only by playing complete songs at full speed, the guitarist spends some time working on fretting, some time on strum patterns, some time on a tricky measure at slow tempo, etc. In my running experience, I separated exercise into separate strength, speed, stretching and endurance phases.
2) Successful practice is sequential. Each element builds on previous elements and is a building block for future elements. NYC Guitar School’s classes have been carefully designed to progress gradually and methodically from the very basics of guitar playing to more complicated techniques. The elements in each class build on previous classes and in turn provide the foundation for future classes. And metronomes allow you to gradually build speed. I gradually built on my running successes by increasing speed and duration.
3) Successful practice includes feedback. It includes feedback from a mentor or coach. The greats learn from others, and if you want to be great you need to learn from others, too! Ideally you receive regular feedback from a teacher in a class or lesson. But in music there is another way to receive feedback: it is by playing along with recordings of songs you love! If you are in rhythm with the recording, that is positive feedback. If your guitar part sounds similar to the rock star guitar part that is also positive feedback. And…if you can’t keep up with the song, that is negative feedback, which is telling you to master the technique more slowly before coming back to the song! In running, my feedback included physical pain, the clock and even a few check ins with the doctor.
4) Successful practice is demanding. Deliberate practice takes time, effort and attention. It is the price which must be paid for being your best at your level, whatever that is. For maximum effect, make sure that whatever you are practicing is at the intersection of what is challenging yet achievable. During deliberate practice, you should be able to accomplish whatever you are practicing perfectly only with total focus. If you cannot do the technique perfectly even with total focus, you must make the exercise easier, slower, or more broken down. If you can easily accomplish the task, then you must make the exercise more difficult. It is interesting that tempo is a primary way to adjust demand in both guitar and running. In running, I gradually pushed my limits.
5) Successful practice is consistent. Dozens or hundreds of tiny wins stack up in guitar and running alike. And in guitar, regular practice is the key to long term improvements. In my running experience, it took a year before my first slow jog–but I needed the healing, stretching and walking during that year to make the foundation for future gains.
As a guitar coach, my running experience has reinforced these principles for me. I now realize that breaking skills up and focusing on one thing at a time works even better than I already thought it did!
Want to play guitar better? Playing more is only part of the answer! Break your skills into chunks and consistently practice over time and your results can be incredible!
I love to run and I love to play guitar–but good relationships with my kids and wife and building a stronger team and business are way more important–so now I’m excited to see if I can apply some of the principles of Deliberate Practice to improving these areas.
What Do You Want To Get Better At?
What are you trying to improve?
Have you been beating yourself up for not being “Harder, Faster and Stronger?”
Is there a way that you can stop beating your head against the wall and break your goals into specific areas for sequential improvement?
On to Greatness,
Founder and CEO, NYC Guitar School