Editorial Talent Is Overrated

Published on May 20th, 2015 | by Sam


Talent is Overrated – The Models of Practice

Last week I wrote about the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.  This highly entertaining book details the ways that highly successful people achieve and breaks down a bunch of the barriers we tend to put up as reasons why they are successful (taent) and we are not (no talent).

Colvin highlights 3 different models of deliberate practice.  All three can very much be applied, and should.  So find the ones that resonate most with you and apply them to your deliberate practice.

The Music Model

Hopefully this one is familiar!  But I will explain Colvin’s ideas behind this so everyone is on the same page.  The basic idea in his Music Model is that a musician knows what he is going to play before he plays it.  This idea doesn’t work as well with improvisors – but we’ll get to that in a bit.  When you are performing in music (or any arena) there are performers who are performing a rehearsed piece (or music, presentation, speech, play, etc) and there are those who have to perform on the spot (improvisor, sales person, good teachers).  This is for the first group.

The basic idea is to take the small elements of the performance and to practice them.  Eventually you will put them all together for the entire performance.  Practicing this way is not a new idea, but if you haven’t heard it before definitely make sure to listen.  If you are working on a longer piece of music (or solo) you can’t just practice the entire thing.  By the time you finish it you no longer remember the beginning AND you will have forgotten some of the details of the first part.  Most music happens in four bar phrases.  Use those as guidelines.  Practice 4, 8, or 16 bars at a time.  Or use a predefined seciton (the chorus, etc).

The Chess Model

The Chess Model is looking at the games and moves of the masters.  Sound familiar?? A distinction here is to compare those moves to what YOU would do.  In music it would be more of what I teach here – learn the licks (moves) of the masters (champions) so you can use those principles later.  I’m really drawn to this model as you can probably tell because that’s what this entire website is based on.

Some of the chess masters Colvin highlights have spent years studying the games of the greats.  They then use that back ground information when playing games against high level opponents.  They don’t necessarily think “here is a Kasparov move” but that study has taught them how the game is played.

The Sports Model

The Sports Model has two distinct parts and is the closet to the way an improvisor practices.  Atheletes divide their time between conditioning and practicing specific skills.

The analogy is that conditioning exists in music – in the form of scales, techniques, really any type of practice that you don’t use exactly in a performance.   LeBron James gets in shape by lifting weights and practicing flexibility.  He doesn’t lift any weights or do a stretch to win a game. It’s background stuff that he does to make his body perform better when it needs to.

Musicians have very similar demands and practice routines.  You’ll never be asked to play a scale in a performance.  You’ll never have to cleanly play all the inversions of the major chord or name the notes on a performance – unless it’s one weird performance!  But doing these things prepares both the body and mind for the performance.  They build the underlying skills that make a great musical performance possible.

The second element for atheletes is to practice certain skills.  Take LeBron James again. He will spend time in th gym practicing certain jump shots that he has a hard time with. He cannot simulate the intensity of the game, so he has to practice the skill needed in the moment instead.  Another favorite athelete of mine is Peyton Manning.  When he first got to the NFL he would practice short passes and simulations with his 2 best players.  This constantly turned into the exact skill being used in the game.  Again, Manning couldn’t simulate a real game, but the 3 of them worked to have a repor and trust so they could do it when it counted.

In music we can do the same.  The ii-V might trip you up, OR you might want to play something more there that you aren’t right now.  Instead of going to a jam session to work it out, you can isolate that small part and practice it over and over in a controlled environment.  Then when you get to it on a performance you’re much more likely to play some of the things you’ve worked on.  At the very least you’re much more prepared to deal with the situation.

So which parts of these resonate with you? Did you check out the book yet?  Use the comment section below to detail some of the areas you can see this helping your playing.

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3 Responses to Talent is Overrated – The Models of Practice

  1. David W says:

    I think there are ways in which chess skills are very similar to improvising skills. In my efforts to learn to play chess well I (I failed, but it taught me some lessons) I eventually realized that part of learning from the established knowledge of chess players before me was developing situational awareness and pattern recognition. The simplest example in chess is practicing using two pieces to force checkmate against a lone king. When playing a game the board may have many pieces but a vulnerable king may suddenly be checkmated by the very combination practiced on an empty board if the patterns observed in practice are recognized. Furthermore, one may position a piece to be able to move to a place where the practiced combinations can be employed if a vulnerability is found. Similarly, one might begin a line up a scale to be in position to play the leading note in anticipation of a pattern to be employed at the chord change, or use memorized licks queued by the recognition of a musical pattern that resolves in a predictable way.
    Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Sam says:

      Well I don’t think the story really ever ends. You have to keep refining everything you do so you keep making steps forward and improving!

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