On Learning an Instrument

Evidence-based proof is a very effective way of discovering an innate motivation. There are two types of motivations – extrinsic and internal. External motivation is driven by overt juxtapositions of a secondary proof with a personal agenda, eg watching a singer blow your mind with a performance could sometimes be the spark you need to get disciplined and start deliberate practice to achieve your goals.

However, this presents a problem.

The dependence on external sources is presumably a volatile way towards growth, driven by subjectivity and romance, a performance could stay with you only for a while before the effect starts to fade and diminish. Sooner or later, the discipline and routine crumbles and you find yourself in the same place you started, caught in a loophole of false promises and pseudo ideas of growth. It is redundancy at its primal.

Internal motivation

Of course, our culture insists on comparisons and driving motivation from the well-respected Sharma ji ka ladka. It is conditioning to such an innate level that subconsciously even if we disagree we fall victim to the same behavioural patterns that induce this false sense of growth. Regardless, this method of motivation and drive is fragile and breaks at the faintest of glimmers of disappointment.

The other way to stay driven is to find an eternal source of inspiration within. This method is tricky and to a certain extent, the skill set required to do so is on the verge of extinction.

Everything is an outward projection of dreams and ambitions. People who want to become civil servants quite often are driven by the romance and fame of the prestige the power of being a servant brings, seldom do people inherit this desire to bring a change. Movie stars, models and influencers who present an unreal parameter of social standards have driven an entire generation to an almost social mania, which is both celebrated and even encouraged.

The very skill asks for a difficult and often excruciating diversion of inquiry from the world to within one’s self. It asks for an internal dialogue accompanied by a barrage of questions, queries and quotations for the exact location of the innermost desire.

Desire may be seen as a social evil from the spiritual and metaphysical perspective of the pursuit of arts. Highly accepted and normalised, this belief is incomplete and misunderstood. Desire is a strong fundamental emotion and could bring you a step closer to achieving your goals, given you don’t lose awareness and stay grounded during the trip.

To figure out an internal desire is the beginning of the discovery of the inner eternal flame. The fire grants both the will to persevere and the power to execute. There is more to than just the discovery, if you fail at keeping it alive, then my friend the path ahead is complicated.

Emotional detachment from the concept of work

There is a Japanese philosophical concept called Wu Wei (non-action). It says that detachment from the subjective interpretation of difficult tasks makes it much easier. It reminds me of the Shia LaBeouf – “just do it”.

We suffer more in our imagination than in actual factual reality.

The idea to sit down and practice with focus and attention for a few hours every day is not as tiresome as it is perceived. The overwhelm is only the false conditioning of the brain and an inherent human orientation of avoiding tasks.

Just sit with it for a few minutes, and once in motion, it is easier to sustain it. Remember high school concepts of dynamic friction – the analogy is uncanny.

So far we have spoken about two concepts that could help you get better in significantly less time if you are learning an instrument – finding a source of internal motivation and detaching the emotional quotient from the action to perceive the act as no different than of having a meal.

A functional methodology

There are a few steps to the process I find incredibly efficient while learning a new skill. Start with doing the same thing at the same time. Decide on a time frame, maybe twenty minutes, and just sit down with your instrument at the same time. You don’t have to actively participate in any acts of practice or growth, that come later. For now, just train your internal biological clock.

Habits are derivative and can be deduced to three main parts – the cue, the action and the reward. With the first step, we are working on the cue. Building rituals of sorts helps a lot in making sure the habit sticks. For example, you could start by making yourself a cup of tea, the journey from the kitchen to your practice space can cue your brain into thinking that “it is practice time”, given you sit down with your instrument.

For the first few weeks, just get comfortable with the routine, make changes if need be, and spend time with your instrument, play around, experiment, watch YouTube videos, but just sit.

Once you manage to do it consistently for the first few weeks, now it is time to design a curriculum for yourself. It is very academic but efficient. If you know your skill set, then you know exactly what to work on, or you could outsource the curriculum and seek professional help in building a functional and effective routine.

Check out The Artist’s Workshop.

The third and most important part of the equation is to develop a growth mindset and get rid of the fixed one. Dr. Carol talks about it in detail in her brilliant book Mindset.

We are in here for the long haul, and any temporary motivations and goals are only going to fade in vanity. We need to dig deeper and find the eternal flame. Setting goals and their execution is critical of course, but more than that it is the systems that help you materialise a vision and accomplish goals.

Habits take time to build but are also prone to failure. It is not rare to find yourself back in the same old routine of wasting time and coaching around. They take managerial skills and a deep self-awareness to cultivate and harness the true potential of habits. And like everything, skills can be built and cultivated by anyone.

Another highly effective system to learn something quickly is by making notes. It could be a diary, bullet journal, a Google document, or an elaborate and intricately designed second-brain on notion or obsidian, any note-taking system works.

If you have never done this before, here is an easy introduction. Buy a small notebook, and a pen and keep it around your practice space. Before starting the routine, write the date, and day on the top of the page and write exactly what you ought to work on. For example, for a guitar student –

05 June, 2024 | Wednesday

  • warm-up
  • practice major scale
  • ear training for intervals
  • work on the right-hand strumming technique
  • work on song b
  • have fun for ten minutes

Keep it short, keep it simple and keep it very organic.

It helps you stay on track, know what exactly you are working on and could help you materialise your vision. I started doing this only a few years back, and I can’t insist enough on how much it has helped me.

The last and most profound insight comes from the great Steve Vai. In a performance/talk at Guitar Centre, Mr Vai says – imagine yourself playing your song on a stage in front of thousands, imagine as if you are playing it flawlessly. Screenshot that picture and hang it somewhere in your mind. Before practice, post-practice and at times when you feel demotivated, bring yourself to that picture, reflect on how it feels and you will watch the motivation flare up.

This is a profound illustration of the power of visualisation. Of course, taking it literally is absurd, your idea and dream could be the stark opposite – you with your instrument in the middle of the jungle, showered with bird songs, performing for no one but just for the sake of it. The essence though remains the same.

At the beginning of this text, we mentioned the evidence-based approach. It is quite evident. The internet and social media are full of uber-talented musicians and phenomenal performers, how did they get so good? If you say it is a natural talent, then it is incorrect. There is no such thing as talent, of course, aptitude is a thing, but as humans, we love to romanticise natural talent, when there is no such thing as that.

Kobe became the legend he is, not because of his physical prowess, but because of the amount of work he put into his craft. His teammates and coaches say he would practice twice as much as any elite performer of basketball.

It is clear, with determination, proper internal motivation, perseverance, consistency and under the right guidance, you could indeed become the next Mateus Asato, or dare I say, the first you. It sounds cringe, but you get the point.

All the very best for your endeavours.

If you need assistance with setting up a routine, managing a curriculum or a resolution for an artistic problem, book a one-on-one session, or check out The Artist’s Workshop.

Congratulations on making it to the end. I am doing 30 Days of Writing, a self-imposed challenge where I try to write one text every day for 30 days. Today is the 6th day, and honestly, I didn’t even think I would make it to Day 2, but here we are.

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