Hello, this week’s lesson is all about what I call the Bell Curve of Practice.
This lesson is focused mainly at beginners but is applicable to everyone.
When you start practicing
When they first start out, my students often tell me that they practiced loads and started getting somewhere. But, then they started getting worse again.
For example, you start practicing your bends and it is quite hit and miss. After some practice, you start to hone in on them and hit them more regularly. However, disaster strikes and you start hitting them less.
I’m sure you have all been aware of this at some time or other.
The Bell Curve
I started teaching harmonica in 2010 and quickly began to see this phenomenon among my students.
I started calling it the Bell Curve of practice/progress.
What is a Bell Curve?
A bell curve (or Gaussian Distribution) is a graph with a steep upward trajectory, a rounded plateau and then a steep downward trajectory.
For me, this sums up harmonica (or any instrument) practice perfectly.
Stage 1 – You get better and better
Stage 2 – You peak and that is as good as you are going to get in that session
Stage 3 – You start getting worse
The Sweet Spot
What we are aiming for is to never get to Stage 3. Instead, I want you to learn to spot the warning signs of Stage 2. These are; a slowing down in progress or diminishing accuracy.
When you hit Stage 2, it is time to take a break for the day or a couple of days.
Why does this happen?
We are all aware of these excellent musicians who were forced to practice 5 hours a day and are now incredible. However, I don’t buy into this.
There is a great quote from violinist Leopold Auer –
“Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”
I think this highlights the issue perfectly. Indeed, you start to get worse because you lose focus. It is very difficult to maintain the level of mental focus you require to improve as a musician for great lengths of time. This is why you need to stop before you start losing concentration.
The danger of practicing mistakes
When you start to lose concentration, you lose awareness of mistakes. But, your muscle memory continues to update itself. So, your mistakes become habits and your technique suffers as a consequence.
Recap and further reading
Don’t mindlessly practice, instead stop when you get to Stage 2 of the bell curve. Your playing will improve faster and with less frustration!
Here is a great post from The Bulletproof Musician called How Many Hours a Day should you Practice
I wrote an article about Muscle Memory and How it works which you can read here.