Ability, especially if it is exceptional, has this wonderful and mysterious quality of fluency and grace. You can see and hear it every day in the most ordinary places and situations: a skateboarder gliding past on the street, a barista producing another cup of perfect aromatic coffee, the clear voice of a child speaking, the sure motions of a chef creating a culinary masterpiece.
What ability looks like
- Fluency and ease of movement.
- The skill looks and sounds natural and seems effortless. Observers are often unaware of the level of difficulty – until they try to do it themselves.
- The skill is integrated into the whole. Physical actions seem to involve the whole body rather than just one part, such as an arm or leg.
- It works spontaneously and can easily adapt to different situations or contexts.
- The performer’s self awareness is minimised, and absorption in the activity is near total.
Musicians and other performing artists who have achieved high levels of ability are able to focus on expression, communication and subtle details while performing the most complex passages. I once watched Vadim Repin rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with orchestra, chatting away with the conductor as he played. (In the video below he is playing the Tchaik in 1989 – when he was a teenager.)
Many of the everyday abilities and skills we possess were acquired by repeated actions in a mostly unconscious process. Paradoxically, most people see learning by consciously doing something over and over as difficult and laborious.
Take the young student who said to me in frustration one day, “I’m no good at learning.”
I reminded her of the abilities she had already learned and gave her some humorous little examples. First I asked her to walk over to the far corner of the studio and back.
“Oh,” I commented, joking, “You walk very well, and I notice you didn’t fall over. Do you walk often? How did you learn to do that? And I hear you are speaking excellent English. It’s such a difficult language to learn. How did you manage to do it?” She laughed and looked at me as if I was a bit thick and being silly. (Both partly true.)
She couldn’t remember, of course, how she learned to walk and talk, and the exercise gave me the opportunity I needed to explain how learning worked – and that she was just as good at it as anyone else.
Despite acquiring many wonderful everyday abilities, we are led to think people are just born smart or dumb, good at stuff or hopeless. It’s a limiting, mistaken belief with important consequences for a person’s life.
Looking closely at learning by repetition as it flowers into ability reveals the deeper principles at work.
How to use the magic power of repetition to acquire ability
- Make correct and perfect repetitions. It goes without saying that if you repeat a mistake or an imperfect skill, this too will become fluent and corrections will need to be made down the track. It is vital to get the guidance of a good teacher. If possible, get them to model the motion, such as guiding the arm for particular bow strokes or getting the feel of vibrato.
- Break up the skill into small learnable segments. This enables you to focus with clarity on one thing at a time with shorter repetitions.
- Do a sufficient numbers of repeats. Practise being completely relentless and patient in your pursuit of ability.
- Remember to put the skill segment back into context. When mastered, it needs to be fitted into place within the whole to become part of you.
- Always seek objective guidance – from your teacher and expert sources outside yourself. They see instantly what is needed.
- Make sure the skill will serve your long term goals. Avoid watered-down hobby-type skills and learn the real thing.
Well, that’s it for now. Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin. Happy repetitions!