Context-smashing mistakes

Around the beginning of the year, I started to learn Ukulele. It’s my first attempt ever at learning to play music… so it’s been slow going but also very rewarding.

Part of what keeps me playing is that I feel like music is a perfect laboratory for reflecting on the nature of practice and methods of practice. To illustrate that point, I’ve recorded a short snippet of me trying to muddle my way through the melody of Joseph-Joseph:

Bear in mind, I’m an absolute beginner… so I’m still very much focused on the basics of “playing the right notes” and have not yet come close to mastering “playing the notes right.” So you’ll notice that I’m not playing perfectly cleanly, my rhythm is off in various ways, and that certain things cause me to pause or hesitate a little… like the jump from C to E in the first few seconds of the song (which repeats several times throughout).

Those are all examples of the kinds of problems that will hinder you from performing well, but they don’t stop you muddling your way through something. We deal with thousands of those kinds of things in our daily work, and with dedicated practice, you can address and eliminate those issues one by one.

A more severe kind of error happens about 25 seconds in. If you’re not familiar with the song though, you might not notice it until about ten seconds later, when I helpfully call attention to it by aggressively strumming all four strings and then come to a dead stop.

What happened here was that I was playing a part of the song in which the first piece sounds exactly how the song begins, but the second part of it diverges into a different pattern. But instead of playing the second part correctly, I played it the same as in the beginning of the song… which if not caught might leave me stuck in an infinite loop. 🙂

After that, the fifteen second delay before I resume playing the rest of the song wasn’t for dramatic effect. I was lost, and was trying to remember where I was.

Now what does that tell us from a practice perspective? Well, it’s a result of both sequential practice and over-practice. I’ve been trying to play this song from start to finish, and anytime I’d play a wrong note I’d start over from the beginning. That’s a good way to get a feel for what a whole song looks like from end to end… but it also means that I’m necessarily playing the first part way more often than the last!

Because brains tend to be greedy, they tend to over-apply patterns that you practice a lot. So when I play E-A-C-E-E-F-E-D-C-F-E in sequence, my brain wants to follow that up with E-A-C-E-E-F-E-D-C-B-B. That works for the beginning of the song! But in the middle of the song, I should be following up with E-A-C-E-A-G-F-A-G-F. Because I over practiced the first sequence, it became automatic and now I need to apply conscious thought to get the second sequence right.

All of this has me now wondering… if I look for this similar pattern around sequential practice and overpractice in my programming work and my writing work, how often would I see a similar problem emerge? How often will I breeze through the first part of something only to crash on the second part because it doesn’t match the pattern I practiced so much. How often will I know cold steps 1-5 but then muddle through steps 6-10 because I’ve never practiced them outside of the full 1-10 sequence before?

It feels like music is a whole universe that can be explored to answer these sorts of questions. And that is what keeps me playing.

If you have questions or thoughts to share, open an issue in my “Ask Me Anything” repository on Github, or email gregory@practicingdeveloper.com.