The Myth of Talent

Weekly Teaching Tip – Jan. 2, 2017
by Tricia Grey, MM

“Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.”
― Lao Tzu

“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Three books that you should own and read if you have a desire to make it in the music business are:

Outliers by Malcom Gladwell

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

While there certainly is such a thing as innate gift, it is by no means the only determining factor of success. Very often someone who is gifted but undisciplined or not hard working will be passed up by someone who may be less gifted but is more hard working. And where innate gift is roughly the same the determining factor of success is what I call “time in the saddle”- how many hours per week of practice you do over time (not all at once).

Excellence in performing evolves over time and repetition. Studies indicate that the difference between excellent, good, and just ok correlate mostly to the number of hours of concentrated practice that has occurred over time. Not just mindlessly “warming up”, but focused and concentrated practice with the aim of improving something specific. Performers at the top of their game differ from others not so much in their DNA or inherited gift, but in the amount of intense and focused practice time they have spent perfecting their craft. The critical minimum amount of practice required has been documented in various studies on expertise, including studies by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in his book The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. How many hours is it? Get ready….

It takes 10,000 hours of focused and concentrated practice to become a world-class master at any given skill. That could be ice-skating, piano playing, tennis, or chess. Numerous studies have confirmed the 10,000-hour rule holds across all disciplines. Again, that is not just mindlessly putting in the time, but paying attention and trying to improve each time you are in a practice session. It’s analyzing mistakes and repeating something slowly, over and over, until it is perfect. It’s called deep practice or deliberate practice.

Let’s say you practice singing an hour a day and really focus for that hour. Let’s say you never miss a day. It would take you 27 years at that rate to become a master. Ouch. It does help to start young, but don’t despair if you are an older singer! Let’s say you put in 2 hours a day. Now you are down to 14 years to become a master. Let’s say you spend your weekends immersed in your craft. Now the time becomes shorter. You may not be able to physically sing for 8 hours a day every weekend, but you could use some of the time to listen to other singers and analyze what they are doing. The key is focused attention.

The reality is that if you are totally dedicated and work really, really hard it takes about ten years to become world class great. At anything. But that doesn’t mean you are going to spend ten years in a practice room before the world sees you. Part of that ten-year arc is going to involve functioning as an artist in the professional arena, while still improving your game.

In a year or two of really intense vocal training and study you could be good enough to perform on a local level. That is the first rung of the ladder. A year goes by really fast when you are busy working at something. Once you have achieved that first rung, keep working just as hard and you will make it to the next step. And then the next. Every level of proficiency you achieve prepares you for the opportunities available in the next step. When you get to the point of making your living as a singer the hours really start to add up faster. If you do club gigs and you sing 5 hours a night for 5 nights a week that is 1250 hours (with two weeks off a year). How you do those hours is the key. Drinking alcohol on the gig is probably not going to do much to improve your skill level. But using the time toward focused improvement will.

The Beatles played seven days a week for eight hours a day in Hamburg. before they found fame. This experience transformed them, honed their skills, and refined their stage presence. Any performing you do on any level is going to help refine your skills and add to your 10,000 hours if you analyze and reflect on your performance. Video record everything you do, from rehearsing to karaoke performances to professional gigs, and analyze your performances. What could be improved? How is your pitch, musicianship, believability, connection to the song? Take your recordings to a professional coach for help with this.

10,000 hours is a lot of time. What does this tell you about priorities? If your goal is to be great, and there are only 24 hours in every day, and you still have to work or go to school and sleep for a few of those hours, the question of how you allocate your time in the remaining hours will determine your ability to rise or not.

There are so many distractions in our world today. Facebook. Video games. The phone, TV, Kindle, Netflix, Twitter, and the list goes on and on. It’s your choice. How will you spend those precious few free hours? Developing your talent, or watching someone else perform on TV?

Practice must be deep and deliberate to be effective. What many people think they are doing when they practice is not really practicing at all, and is not particularly effective.

Each practice session needs to be designed with a specific and identifiable goal in mind. You have to isolate and identify a specific skill that needs improving and focus on that one skill in your practice session. That is where the Eight Steps of Vocal Development concept works particularly well. At each step you are focused on developing a specific and identifiable skill. Choose a skill or habit that is just out of your comfort zone, one that you need to reach for just a bit, but that is not completely out of reach. Work on that skill until you perfect it, and then move on to the next skill.

A great singer who knows how to practice will isolate a particular skill and focus on improving that skill, with numerous repetitions, reflection, and analysis. This is completely different from just singing an entire song over and over and wondering why you don’t sound any better at the end of the day. A more effective method is to isolate one phrase or riff of the song and repeat it many times until it is perfected, then incorporate that phrase or riff back into a full rendition of the song.

The difference between being able to execute a skill in the privacy of your practice room and being able to do it in front of millions in a stressful environment like a TV show, audition, showcase, or performance is correlated with a high number of repetitions of that skill. The number of correct repetitions of a specific task during focused and concentrated practice and in different environments is the determining factor as to whether or not you can execute it under stress. High repetitions of a skill in different environments and under different conditions ensures that you will be able to execute the skill under stress. So if you are rehearsing for an audition, create opportunities to perform your audition material in as many places as possible before the big day. Do it in a karaoke bar. Do it for your friends. Go to a nursing home and perform a set. Do anything you can to perform your material in lots of different environments before the big day. And video everything, take the recordings to your coach, and analyze your performances.

Effective practice is going to be mentally demanding. It is deliberate. It requires focus and concentration. Most people can focus and concentrate to this degree for about an hour at a time. The mind has to be focused and engaged for improvement to occur, not just the body. Using a mirror is vital- it helps you avoid spacing out and it keeps you focused. Anyone aiming to become a professional singer should practice twice a day, morning and evening, with focused attention.

Metacognition is the ability to step outside our own minds and self analyze. It’s a process of observing your behaviors and patterns and analyzing their efficacy. (“Was I tense when I did that run? Am I singing too loudly? Would improved posture help my sound here? Should I be trying to push the envelope a little and work a bit harder?”) Analysis and reflection of practice, rehearsals, and performances will make improvements happen faster and will ensure that they are permanent. Record your practice sessions and then sit down and analyze them later. Be mindful, not mindless, when you are vocalizing on scales and exercises.

Compared to singing songs, which is fun and enjoyable but doesn’t really improve your skill level much, focused practice on scales and exercises-let’s face it- just isn’t all that much fun. The results are fun and enjoyable, but the process is not that much fun. Doing things we are good at already is fun. Deliberate practice requires isolating a skill we are not so good at and working at improving it. Sometimes this is a painful process because we are focusing on something we are weak at or lacking skill in. Not fun. We sing the scale, and then listen back and analyze how we did. We hear the imperfections. We try again. Sing the scale, listen back, analyze, over and over. We watch our performance on video and think how stiff we look. It’s painful! But that is how we improve- otherwise we are simply oblivious to what everyone else is seeing anyway. It is in confronting our weaknesses that we build strength.

The fact that hard work is not all that fun means that most people will not do the work required to rise to the top. If you are willing to do that work, you will be way ahead of most people, who engage in magical thinking and ignore the reality of what is required to be great. The effort that you put into each practice session should leave you pretty much mentally exhausted if you are really focused on improvement. It’s all about pushing yourself further than your comfort zone.

Those who work the hardest tend to appear as though they are the luckiest.

Is there a physiological reason why deep and deliberate practice works and unfocused and random practice does not? There is. It’s a neural insulator called myelin. Whenever we perform an action, that action is initiated by chain of nerve fibers carrying electrical impulses or signals. Myelin is the insulation wrapped around those nerve fibers, containing the signal, making it faster and stronger. When we practice any skill repetitively, myelin grows and gets thicker. The thicker it gets the better we get at the skill we are practicing. UCLA neurologist and myelin researcher Dr. George Bartzokis has said “All skills, all language, all music, all movements are made of living circuits, and all circuits grow according to certain rules”. In other words, all skills, whether it’s surfing or flute playing or singing, grow by the same mechanism that responds to focused, deliberate and deep practice, because specific types of practice result in more myelin growth. Myelin does not grow as a result of hoping or wanting or wishing; it grows in response to habitually repeated actions.

The old saying “practice makes perfect” is only true if one is practicing with deliberate focus, with attention placed on mistakes. “Practice makes permanent” is a more accurate maxim. If you repeat an action many times imperfectly, you are making that action a habit.

The best way to engage in deep and deliberate practice is to:

Take It In Sections: Don’t just sing the whole song over and over. Take a phrase at a time, and perfect that phrase by focusing on what could be improved in that phrase. This is called “chunking”.
Take It Slower: The more slowly and deliberately you repeat the section, the more it is likely to stick. When learning riffs and runs, take them really slow to make sure you are singing every note in tune, and then slowly and gradually build up the tempo.
High Repetitions: The more often you repeat a skill in various environments the more likely is will become that you will be able to pull it off in a stressful performing environment. So rehearse mindfully, many many times. Then put yourself in various environments, singing the song in as many unfamiliar places as you can, evaluating your performance each time.
Do It With Feeling: Move past rote repetition into performing with feeling every single time. Don’t tell yourself that you will emote once you are onstage. Wrong. Singing with feeling has to be as much a habit as any other aspect of technique. Don’t save the emotion for the big day, sing it with feeling, every time.
Self evaluation of practice sessions is vital, and evaluating your performances specifically is important too. Rather than, “I was pretty good” or “I really sucked tonight”, specific analysis like “I refrained from pushing too hard even though the band was really loud” or “I carried up too much weight when I tried to hit the high note, and that is why my voice cracked” are much more helpful. Specific analysis tells you what to work on to improve for next time.

At Sing Like a Star Studios, we video record our showcases and we analyze the performances, both for things done well and things that could improve. This is performing with feedback, and the result is a better performance next time! Video-record all your performances and sit down with a pencil and paper (or ipad, whatever) and analyze. What was good? What could improve? How specifically will you take steps to improve?

Self evaluation includes figuring out what caused the errors that were made. Instead of blaming outside factors (“the sound system was bad, I was tired, we had to drive all day to get to the gig, I must be getting a cold, there is a lot of pollen in the air”, etc) take personal responsibility for anything that wasn’t up to par, and figure out how to fix it. (“I need to warm up better before the next gig, I won’t talk all day before the next gig so my voice is in top form, I need to work on that specific phrase of the song over and over so I can nail the high note even when I am nervous”). Focus specifically and relentlessly on improving your own performance by isolating specific skills and improving them. Even an unpleasant performing experience can be of great value if you use these analysis tools instead of blaming outside factors for problems.

When you are deeply and deliberately practicing, you:

Decide on a specific goal for that day.
Reach for that goal as you sing the phrase or section you are working on.
Self- evaluate- how close did you get to the goal you are reaching for?
Rinse and Repeat- do it again. Many times.
When you are deeply involved in creating music you can often find yourself in a “flow” state where time ceases to exist because you are so engrossed in what you are doing. This is a wonderful feeling, and it doesn’t happen every time (sometimes you just struggle). But the more advanced your skill level is the more often you will be creating music in a flow state.

Self -Motivation:

Being self-motivated is key. Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business school says “the intrinsically motivated state is conducive to creativity, whereas the extrinsically motivated state is detrimental.” Someone who is doing music because they love it and they really don’t want to be doing anything else is going to be much more successful at music and happier in the music business than the person who is extrinsically motivated by money, glamour and fame.

Having a vision of where you want to go (such as The Eight Steps of Vocal Development provides) and personal goal setting are vitally important. The best performers set specific goals, both long term (such as “I want to have great high notes and record an album this year”) and short term (“in this practice session I will learn how to perform a delayed vibrato”). Keeping records and documenting your goals and how close you came to achieving those goals for each practice session is extremely valuable.

Making progress toward goals increases our motivation and inspires us to set the next goal. Chunking big goals into attainable compartments increases motivation as each goal is achieved. This is called setting SMART goals.

Smart goals are: specific, measurable, attainable (maybe not in one day, but over time), relevant, and time-bound.

Success at anything is really all about self motivation; you must be able to keep your motivation high by focusing on your long term goal and then breaking that goal down into smaller short term goals, attainable in relatively short periods of time.

In addition to goal setting, you need to have a strong belief that your hard work will pay off! (And it will!).

When we want to evolve from being unskilled to being skilled and acquiring eventual mastery at a task, we move through four basic steps:

First we are unconsciously unskilled. We are not even aware of what we do not know. In other words- oblivious!
As we become more aware of our limitations we become consciously unskilled. In other words, “OMG, I have a lot of work to do!”
As we practice with deep and focused attention we become consciously skilled. In other words, “As long as I stay focused I can pull this off!”
As we successfully perform the skill repeatedly we become unconsciously skilled. That means our new skill is an automatic habit. No thought required.
In The Eight Steps of Vocal Development, we call this process:

1. Discover

2. Develop

3. Automatic Functionality, or Habit

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologistand physician. James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced.

He says “Never suffer an exception to occur until the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right”.

In other words, “Don’t screw up 20 good days on day 21!”

With deep and deliberate practice you will significantly reduce the time it takes to become great at your craft. It’s much harder to do and requires more of you, but the payoffs are much, much greater.

Another way to improve more quickly is to receive educated feedback. Recording your practice sessions and listening back is one way of giving yourself feedback, but the right teacher or coach can be extremely valuable to let you know if you are hitting the mark or not. A skilled and effective teacher can make the process of improvement infinitely faster.

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