by Ron Dickson
Looking to perfect a particular piece of music, section or technique before moving on seems like the obvious way to practice. However, counterintuitively it holds us back from making actual gains learning an instrument. In almost all aspects of life, we can apply an idea called the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule describes how it takes 20% of the effort to get 80% of the results. The remaining 80% of the effort gets the last 20% of the results. Other phrases to describe this can be the law of diminution returns, performance curve, learning curves, S-curves etc.
In learning an instrument, we have massive gains in learning up to 80% of mastering an item, and our gains slow significantly for the remaining 20%. We all have experienced the point where we see the results of our efforts slow down and may have heard some of the above phrases to describe it.
However, we can use this to avoid the poor returns section of development and try to keep us in the rapid progress area. We do not want to spend four times as long to get only a quarter of the results. Any technique we practice will, at some point, start to plateau, and we will slow down in our progress.
Recognizing this point does take experience and is far simpler if we record our progress. Once we decide we are slowing down in progress, we make what we are working on more difficult. Not so complex that we are back to square one, but difficult enough to find it challenging again.
To achieve extra difficulty, we can play it backwards, change the rhythm, swap picking pattern to upstrokes instead of down and vice versa, double how many times we play each chord or note (or triple, four, five times etc.) Play it louder, quieter, slower (it is incredible how hard it can be to play the same thing at less than half speed and still keep time) An alternative to making it more difficult is finding a more challenging piece of music in the same style, working on that until we get about 80% correct and then going back to the original.
Many struggle with this as we are moving on before completing a piece, but it is surprising how much easier it is to find something when we go back after developing our skills further elsewhere. Doing all these things keeps us in the rapid progress zone and is a lot more fun than spending weeks getting minimal improvement
About the Author: Ron Dickson is a professional guitarist and teacher in Fife, Scotland. He is often found playing live music in Scotland's Fife and Tayside areas and teaches guitar lessons in Glenrothes and the surrounding area.
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