I’m a big fan of going slow, taking the time to learn and understand something without the stress of having to do it in real time. I held to this strategy for years, thinking that the stress of actual situations was more harmful than helpful. Lately I’ve come to decide that there’s more to the story than going slow.
When I was young I really wanted to become a great sight reader, that is, learning to play a piece of music I’d never seen before on the spot. I spent years practicing nice and slow in the privacy of my room, reading through scores and making my mistakes where no one could hear them, and where they couldn’t hurt anybody. I was sure my hard work would pay off and I would become a great sight reader.
That didn’t happen. Ten years of this, and I barely got any better. Until one day…
I got a job as an accompanist at a church, and I had to read music every day. Except now I couldn’t go at my own pace. And it mattered if I messed up.
Sure enough, I got much better in three months. As I ruminate over the experience, I’ve come to realize that some kinds of mistakes have to be made in real time. They can’t be avoided by learning your way out of them.
The skill of sight-reading includes recovering from mistakes. You have to learn to gauge how much time you actually have as part of the process of reading, to relax into the process, and to recover in real time when you mess up. These skills cannot be learned ahead of time.
I was reading about Judo and learned that one of the advantages it has as a martial art is that it brings people into interactions in real time. They must train to react in the moment, rather than simply practice moves abstracted from fighting situations. If the training is done correctly and is not abusive, this kind of work has the potential to create immensely secure and competent people.
I imagine this resonates with anyone that has had to learn on the job. Salespeople, jazz musicians, soldiers. So is going slow to learn just a useless myth?
I think that in order to succeed in real time I have to prepare myself for the experience. That means learning what I need to know before I am in the failure situation. It doesn’t mean that knowledge will save me from mistakes, only that it will enable me to learn from them.
If I had gotten my opportunity to play piano for the church before I had fully developed my understanding of music symbols, no amount of playing would have been enough. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I had to master the notation first, and then go in and learn the skill of reading in real time.
For the building up of the information you need to succeed, going slow is absolutely the best way, out of stress, engaged in curiosity, taking note of what you do understand and what you don’t. It’s just not enough. Once you know enough to succeed, you have to go out and do it, and fail in real time.
Do you work in an area where real-time failure was necessary? Were you able to prepare for that stage beforehand with slow, careful study? Care to share in a comment?
Adam Cole is an author, educator and performer who blogs weekly on creativity and artistry. To view more of Adam's work, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net