Domain Knowledge 3: How to increase your perceptual skills

If you’re a regular reader of The Practice Habit blog, you know that the path to mastery takes focused attention in increasing your abilities in three areas: Direct Practice, Domain Knowledge, and Self-Management skills.  Recently, we’ve been focusing on increasing domain knowledge, on gaining and managing the huge amounts of information that masters use to create great performances.

Today I’d like to share a practice habit that will increase your ability to gain and retain musical information. 

It’s a habit that will make your practice more enjoyable, and it will start to pay off dividends when you realize that you’re accumulating little bits of practice time when you’re doing other activities like watching movies or standing in line at the bank.

There’s a danger, though.  If you go down this path, you’re also likely to find that certain music is ruined for you, and sitting through mediocre performances may become unbearable.

So what is it?

Practice perceptual skills as part of your routine.

It’s more than just paying attention to the way you sound.  It’s practicing solfege, tuning in harmony against a drone (instead of with a tuner), paying close attention to your internal monologue through mindfulness practices, practicing with a metronome (and setting it to only play every four or eight beats to improve your perception of pulse), practicing relaxation and body awareness techniques, and studying audio and video recordings of yourself and others.

Perceptual skills are deeply interwoven with domain knowledge.  A master architect has practiced perceiving small details about buildings, so he can see things that you and would never notice unless they were pointed out.  And his ability to see things the rest of us can’t makes it easier to make sense of the whole building and retain more information about it.

Likewise, a master musician can hear things that a novice cannot.  Ask a beginner whether he is playing sharp or flat against a reference pitch, and it’s likely he won’t have any idea.  Meanwhile, a master can not only tell you that, she can also hear what function each note has in a piece of music, knows whether to raise or lower it to fine-tune it within the underlying harmony, and can adjust it as she goes.  She can literally hear things that the novice musician cannot.

When you prioritize perceptual skills as part of your practice routine, you start to build the awareness that makes deliberate practice possible. 

At first it might cause some stress or discomfort.

You hear errors that you never heard before.  You unearth challenges that you didn’t even know were there.

But gradually, you’ll find yourself stretching for new levels of musicianship.  Music will become a richer experience.  Practicing will become an endlessly unfolding challenge instead of mere drudgery.  And performing will be more rewarding than ever before.

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