The Snowballing of Practice

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

I really want to be a better musician. Someday, I will be. I know what it takes: practice.

I want to get really good. I want people to hear me play and say to themselves “hey that guy really knows how to play.” I want to be able to sit down with other musicians and make things happen. I want to understand music in a lot deeper way than I do now. That’s going to take a boatload of practice.

Say the day comes I’m really motivated about this. My life has morphed such that this is my top priority. I’m gonna get good at this. I’m gonna do whatever it takes.

There is a weird barrier in my way. I can’t practice eight hours a day. I’m not good enough to practice eight hours a day.

Physical barriers are a part of it. You need finger strength (or lung strength or arm strength). You need skin that can take it. You need specific kinds of muscular endurance.

But that’s small compared to the mental barriers. Frustrations will build up very quickly. I won’t be able to play certain parts. I won’t be able to figure out what I need to know to even start trying to play that part. I won’t have enough things to practice because I don’t know enough to have the pool of things to practice be very large. I don’t even know what I don’t know. I will fatigue easily.

I can still practice, but less. An hour a day. Two hours a day. Maybe split up into little chunks here and there. It’s gotta be that way so my brain can digest it all. So I can reset my fatigue timer.

There are some tricks. I can listen to a lot of music. Having the tunes you want to play solidly in your head helps you play them. I can practice on my own in addition to taking lessons. I could take take a music theory class. I could get some friends together and try and start a band. Those contexts are all different, so they will, in a sense, reset my frustration and fatigue timers.

In time, practice will start to snowball. I know more tunes, so I can practice more tunes. I know more theory, so I can apply more theory. I know more styles, so I can play around with more styles. My fingers have some intuition, so they will start doing things more effortlessly. My muscles are more used to the actions, so they won’t get tired. I’ve broken through enough barriers that I know where to turn when I come across another one.

Now I can practice eight hours a day. It’s easy. I look forward to it. My practice is even more fruitful, because my brain is able to draw more connections. I start understanding more interesting things about music. How one tune feels like a long lost sister to another. How a melody and harmony work together. How an unexpected chord feels. I can refine my movements. I can pinpoint my bad habits.

This is true of all things. A first time snowboarder likely can’t throw eight hours a day at snowboarding and breeze through the learning curve. You can’t take twelve thousand photographs in a single day and become a great artist.

You also can’t learn web development overnight. The path is full of frustrations. It takes time to know what you don’t know. It takes time to build up your barrier-busting reflexes. It takes time to understand what is connected to what. It takes time to know when to reach for tools, where you can be most productive, where your talents can be applied.

The tricks to improve more quickly are similar: vary the context. Read. Listen to talks. Code something small. Peck away at coding something big. Look at other people’s code. Try to figure out what’s happening on your favorite websites.

Snowballing will happen! You’ll understand more. You’ll feel like your time yield more results. The work will feel more rewarding and potentially fun. You’ll be able to spend more time learning because that learning isn’t so frustrating. The learning will be stronger because these news ideas will fit into the fiber of everything you already know, rather than a loose thread ready to float away.