Learning music is the journey of a lifetime. Depending on your attitude, that statement can either be spiriting or utterly repellant. It is common for aspiring musicians to become frustrated with their lack of progress; and to feel they will be stuck in the “wax on/wax off” phase of development that never ends.
Feeling like you want to give up is normal; perhaps mandatory. But being “stuck in the practice stage” should very definitely not be the reason you actually throw in the towel. Because those people who make it look all so easy compared to you and your struggles..? Well… they practice like crazy as well. Waaaaaaaay more than they would have you believe.
Whether you’re just starting out in music, or have been doing it for years, there’s a concept that’s worth thinking about. It’s known as The Four Stages of Competence, and you can read all about it in detail at various places around the internet.
Yes, it’s all reasonably simple and self explanatory, but it’s nonetheless worthy of your time, because it signposts the road ahead. In a nutshell the model describes the stages of learning any skill you care to mention; but we’re here to discuss music, so let’s use the example of learning how to sing.
1/. unconsciously incompetent
Everyone starts here. Your first attempts at singing are horrible. You quickly become very consciously, perhaps painfully self-aware of how bad you are at it. People around you either laugh at you, or cringe and beg you to stop.
Singing feels intensely embarrassing, humiliating. All you know is that you cant sing; and you have absolutely no idea how to get any better.
You may even feel like giving up.
2/. consciously incompetent
You start getting information on how to get better at singing. Maybe you start looking at singing lessons online, or perhaps someone gives you some pointers, or you get a singing teacher.
In any case, you realise it is going to take a ton of effort to get any better; that the road ahead is going to be long; and the embarrassment isn’t going to be going away any time soon.
You are now painfully self-aware of two things: a/. that you’re a poor singer, and b/. all the reasons why. Your head is full of everything you have to practice and learn… but it doesn’t seem to make much difference.
You feel like giving up.
3/. consciously competent
After a lot of work, you can now sing. But… each performance requires a ton of effort. You really break a sweat doing it. You find the experience of singing to be extremely challenging––maybe even exhausting––because it takes so much preparation
You wonder how others make it look so easy; and that maybe you don’t deserve the praise people give you for your performance.
You feel you should quietly let it go.
4/. unconsciously competent
You have now sung so many times, for so long, that you can do it without even thinking about it. You’ve clocked up your ten thousand hours and you do it all on autopilot. Singing is now as natural to you as, say, talking.
You’re so good at singing that it appears to others to come naturally to you. People often tell you that you’re talented.
So that’s the theory. It definitely falls into the category of “things you’ve always known, but never really had a name for”.
But… here’s the two main reasons I think it’s worth your consideration:
Reason 1: Don’t Give Up!
You’ll notice that the feeling of giving up is a common character to the bulk of the journey.
Being at the consciously incompetent stage is like standing at the base of a cliff that you have somehow got to climb. This is where self-doubt can creep in. It’s the feeling (or excuse) that only ‘talented people’ can climb the edifice, and you’re not one of them. This is perfectly natural. Almost everyone feels like this.*
So… you climb the mountain to arrive at the consciously competent stage. It requires a exhausting effort, but you get there… only to find you’re going to have to climb this cliff again tomorrow.
Because unconsciously competent is the aim. You just have to keep climbing that cliff until you can do it without even thinking about it. You may look around you and see other people (especially kids*) doing it quickly, seemingly without effort.
You may conclude that they must be talented; and you must be not. You feel like giving up because it’s so freaking hard. This feeling is also perfectly normal. Almost everyone feels like this too!*
Becoming unconsciously competent might happen comparatively quickly; it might take a lifetime. There’s only one way to find out, and that is to do it and see what happens. However, there is every reason to believe the more you do it, the better and quicker you’ll become at it.
Reason 2: The Fifth Stage of Competence
Obviously, you don’t need this blog to inform you that practice makes perfect. Practicing something isn’t about becoming unconsciously competent so you never have to practice ever again. Even if you have mastered a skill, it is important every now and again to go back to thinking about the skill consciously.
This is the fifth, “dirty-little-secret” stage that you rarely ever hear about.
The very best musicians are constantly going back to conscious competence so they can be even more unconsciously effortless! What this means is that they mindfully re-practice things that they have already mastered.
After 30 years of professional playing, Rush drummer Neil Peart went right back to basics at the behest of one of his drum teachers (you read that right) who insisted he change his grip from matched to traditional; leading to a journey back from conscious competence that lasted a year and a half!
99.99999% of all accomplished musicians are engaged in some kind of process of going back to the basics. But, just like you wouldn’t expect a magician to reveal their secrets; don’t expect a professional musician to reveal how much time they invest in practicing and re-practicing.
The truth is making it look like it’s easy is one of the hardest things to do.
The day that U2 gave me a music lesson
I was once directing a shoot for a TV commercial. The ad was for my city’s basketball team, and we were at their official training facility on the outskirts of town. Completely coincidentally, the band U2 were in town and just happened to be set-up and rehearsing in one of the facility’s basketball courts. Not only that, they were playing at full concert volume.
Now, at this point in time, U2 were one of the biggest acts in the world; you wouldn’t have thought they needed to rehearse anything. But rehearse they did… for hours and hours. However, for this world class band, on this day at least, practicing wasn’t about playing through the setlist of tunes for their world tour. U2 spent that entire afternoon doing nothing but playing through the endings of just a handful of their songs… over and over and over and over.
This was a revelation to me. Most people have no idea how much time so-called ‘talented people’ spend at their craft. U2 were spending literally hours consciously working on just the last few bars of a few songs so that they could be unconsciously competent at them the next night at their gig.
A gig that I just so happened to have tickets for, and they made it all look so incredibly easy. But U2 and me know better.
So, whether you’re working your butt off to be competent at something; or you just find it all incredibly easy; spending time consciously going through the basics will always be of benefit.
The discipline of consciously re-practicing skills you can already do unconsciously is what makes a master musician.
The realisation is that the journey never ends.
The journey is the destination. The destination is the journey.
There is no Mt Impossible.
* Footnote: Experience May Vary
Of course, you may well find the climb an utter pleasure. Rewarding, challenging, giving you a real sense of achievement. You just cant wait to stand at the base of that mountain again tomorrow. In fact, you might even perceive the climb more like a casual stroll up a hill.
But this has more to do with motivation than it does with ‘talent’. I think it’s fair to say that if circumstance were to ‘gift’ you anything, it would be the desire to learn, rather than the ability to do so.
Kids, of course, are typically unfettered by self-imposed limitations; which explains to a large degree their ability to pick up music easier and faster than adults. More to do with their attitude than their talent.