Most articles on deliberate practice describe the general guidelines but rarely detail an actual example. I recently experienced a classic arc of deliberate practice where I encountered a problem, struggled to make progress, diagnosed the issue, simplified my approach, improved my technique, failed to follow through and then finally implemented the lessons learned.
Encountering a problem
I recently started over at the beginning of my lesson book and have been working my way through every exercise in order. Progress had been quick, since I had experience with almost all the exercises in one way or another, until I started working on exercise 58: Danny Boy.
Danny Boy was the tune that was chosen to introduce the G major scale. Up to this point every exercise had used the C major scale which has all whole notes and can be played in first position with the first three fingers (pointer, middle and ring) and does not require the fourth finger (pinky).
Struggling to make progress
The G major scale has one sharp, F#, which requires the use of the pinky. While I have had some experience using it during my A minor pentatonic exercises it is definitely the weakest and least coordinated of the fingers. So when I went to play Danny Boy I wasn’t surprised that I was having trouble reaching that F# note with my pinky.
I was surprised to notice that I was struggling more than usual and making a large number of mistakes. I kept trying it over and over, day after day, but I wasn’t getting any better. I even foolishly increased the speed. Eventually I realized that this wasn’t a problem that was going to be solved by repetition.
Diagnosing the issue
I tried it one more time but this time I paid attention to the parts where I was really having trouble. I noticed that they were all related to the F# notes. Whether I was moving to or from it I would often miss one or both notes setting off a cascade effect causing me to miss adjacent notes.
I was struggling to get my pinky into position and was either unable to place my pinky on that F# note or sliding down the neck to get to the F# and leaving myself out of position for the next note. I decided I need to target the problem area with a simplified exercise.
Simplifying my approach
Since the movement to and from F# involves playing back to back notes with the 2nd and 4th fingers I decided to do some exercises focusing purely on that movement. I modified my normal warm-up exercise of open, 1, 2, 3, 4 by dropping the third finger and playing open,1, 2, 4
I quickly realized that while I could easily do the first I struggled to do the second. I had been using the third finger as a support to help push the pinky into position. Without the third finger placed I was unable to easily get my pinky to the fourth fret.
Improving my technique
I focused on stretching my pinky over and hitting the note in the correct place. This caused strain in my wrist and caused my whole body to tense up. I took this feedback and modified my hand and wrist position. By sliding my thumb further down the neck, leaving more space between my palm and the neck, and allowing my wrist to fall into a neutral position the tension released and my pinky was able to reach further.
Within a couple runs I noticed that I could get to and from the F# note without too much struggle. I still had to consciously “stretch” my pinky to make it reach the fret but it was much easier than before. Since I was keeping my thumb fixed, instead of sliding it down the neck, I was in the right position for all the other fingers too.
Failing to follow through
Next I tried to play the G major scale. Since most of the notes are the same as the C major scale I felt very comfortable playing those notes and I started running through them on cruise control only to get stuck on the F# again!
I looked down at my hand and realized that I had reverted back to my original hand position. I reset my hand position and tried to play the scale again. This time I could barely play any note because it felt so foreign.
I practiced playing the scale up and down the fretboard and paid special attention to moving back and forth across F#. After a couple runs my fingers started finding their positions more easily and the notes started sounding cleaner. Once I felt comfortable playing the scale I finally went back and tried Danny Boy again.
Implementing the lessons learned
I noticed a difference the first time I tried to play it. I no longer felt like I was reaching to play the F# note and I wasn’t shifting my hand down the neck. This meant that I was in the correct position to play the other notes. Within a couple attempts I played it clean for the first time in 13 practice sessions.
This is a perfect example how applying the principles of deliberate practice can accelerate your learning. I wasted almost 10 practice sessions approaching this problem in the wrong way. When I finally slowed down and tackled the problem deliberately I was able to make quick progress on the exercise and develop better technique.
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