Learning Shortcuts: For music and anything else
Imagine teaching ourselves new things; it can be fun, easier than we think, and builds a better brain — at any age!
She began piano lessons for the love of music. Hour-long weekly sessions were followed by repetitive daily practices. Seven years later — and unable to play anything, other than scales and easy songbook pieces — she quit out of frustration and a dislike of music.
Unfortunately, this sad case is all too common, but easily remedied.
One of my first patients was a computer genius who helped develop some of the early breakthroughs in hardware. During my consultation, while trying to uncover sources of stress at work, I asked about a typical day. He would arrive and make coffee in the morning, then sit at the computer evaluating his ongoing research. After about 20-30 minutes he would start pacing in his lab, and often wander outside in the pleasant outdoors of the facility thinking about the work — letting the brain go into a deep reflective, contemplating state, not unlike meditation. It might be an hour until he was on the computer again. A short time later, he was wandering the grounds again; the remainder of his day was similar. Upon hearing my patient describe this I thought: I’d like a job like that.
When my writing began to evolve, I suddenly found myself pacing as well, and for longer periods than I spent physically writing.
Years later Apple computer founder Steve Jobs became known as a prolific pacer.
The brain loves pacing. Increased circulation brings in vital nutrients, while the moving muscles send messages up to the motor cortex creating a sort of neurotherapy.
Training and practice clearly and significantly can affect learning. The entire process is also a powerful brain therapy, and it should be fun. Even one short practice session is adequate to start learning and building a better brain. Moreover, when beginning to learn music or another unfamiliar topic, more brain-wide benefits occur, and eventually increased topic-specificity takes over.
This brain-body connection is much more than a cool groovy notion — it’s grounded in neurophysiology. From sports to music to science, those who let the brain lead the way can benefit and enjoy more. Frequency and duration are valuable features of this natural approach, one followed by humans probably from the beginning.
Of course, a healthy brain learns better. Avoiding junk food may be as important as feeding our head new and exciting information.
Regardless of the topic, the key features of the brain play very similar roles. For instance, spending hours in the gym each week trying to improve muscle strength may be unnecessary as very short, easy, single-lift no-pain workouts can be more effective (check out my book, Get Strong!). Likewise, learning the piano or guitar, a new complex piece of music, or other topics, follows the same learning path — shorter sessions containing rest periods within them can be significantly more effective.
These rest periods are a key, as during this time (such as while pacing) the brain keeps imagining the practice routine. Resting between shorter sessions are powerful opportunities to learn better; faster and remember what we’ve learned for longer periods. (Mental imagery in many sports has been used for a long time.)
Similarly, classroom learning, including over the Internet, is best with shorter sessions and more breaks to increase learning.
Measurable performance decrements can appear toward the end of even shorter practice sessions, so it’s understandable why longer periods of learning or training don’t bring more benefits or a plateau but reverses them. This is due to neurological and muscular fatigue (especially in an activity such as singing).
And, not unlike exercise, more mental learning can occur during the rest interval than the physical practice session itself. (Some studies show rest periods can continue to increase learning for several days.)
Overall, compared to fewer shorter sessions, more practice sessions — especially longer ones — may not improve performance, while it can bring the risk of reduced enjoyment.
Less is best is not being lazy, although I often refer to the human brain as naturally lazy in a positive way. When following this natural learning, less is more, and it’s best we don’t put our noses to the grindstone! This obsessive attitude can prevent maximum learning and reduce enjoyment.
Unfortunately, the myth of no-pain no-gain is everywhere in our society. Put your nose to the grindstone — really? It’s no surprise that burnout, overtraining, poor learning, or other brain-body breakdowns are very common in virtually all fields. It also takes the fun out of learning our passions. Instead of encouraging music and all the arts to be enjoyable and enriching for the brains of children and adults, it’s often turned into drudgery.
Since our brains are uniquely individual, just how long a short session should last, and the rest interval, can vary. Going back to the computer or piano at the optimal time for another session is more about following our brain’s instincts rather than timing the interval. (In exercise training, one of my favorite techniques is fartlek workouts, where individuals allow the brain to dictate the paces of each session rather than blindly following a predetermined schedule.)
Even learning very difficult tasks, or impossible ones, can be beneficial.
Of course, an accumulation of sufficient numbers of practice sessions over time, albeit shorter ones, are required and reflect individual needs.
So, remember, like exercise workouts, brain learning not only occurs during training itself, but even more so during the rest periods — such as while pacing — and especially during longer recovery during sleep (overnight consolidation).
It’s never too late to learn something new, whether easy or difficult. While our bodies change more significantly as we age, a healthy brain can keep learning to keep us young. What are your passions?
Donovan JJ, Radosevich DJ. A meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect: Now you see it, now you don’t. J Appl Psychol. 1999;84.
Molloy K, et al. Less Is More: Latent Learning Is Maximized by Shorter Training Sessions in Auditory Perceptual Learning. PLOS ONE. 2012; 7(5): e36929.
Steenstrup K, et al. Imagine, Sing, Play- Combined Mental, Vocal and Physical Practice Improves Musical Performance. Front Psychol. 2021; 12: 757052. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.757052.