Meadowmount School of Music, Westport, New York

A remote, rustic (to put it nicely) classical-music camp in New York’s Adirondacks where students cover a year’s worth of material in seven weeks—a 500 percent increase in learning velocity. Alumni includeYo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zuckerman.  Telltale sign of a Meadowmounter: they all have hickeys on their necks from the violin.

Deep Practice by Goofing Around: How Meadowmount Students Hone Skill Circuits

At first glance, this looks like standard-issue music-camp horseplay: two students playing one cello in a dorm room, for the evident amusement of their roommates.

But when we look more closely, we see something else. By introducing this new difficulty (the right hand literally doesn’t know what the left is doing), these two students are forcing themselves to adapt: to discern errors, to make rapid adjustments, to knock themselves out of automatic playing and into the kind of attentive, focused state on which deep practice is built.

The music they produce is pretty bad (which is in some ways the point). But it also contains bursts of fluency – at 14 seconds, 26 seconds, 34 seconds, and 44 seconds.  I also like their expressions: their classmates might be joking around, but the two studetns are deeply engaged – and earning more skill with every passing second. A two-headed deep-practice monster, you might say. 

Lessons

A 500 percent boost in learning velocity doesn’t happen by magic. It’s a “turn inward,” according to Meadowmount teachers, where the students don’t practice harder, but deeper. This means:

  • Practicing more slowly. Then still more slowly. Then even MORE slowly. The rule of thumb: If a passer-by can recognize the song, it’s not being practice properly. Skill circuits don’t “care” how fast you go – what matters is firing it correctly – the same rule followed by tennis players at Spartak (link).
  • Breaking the skill into chunks, then reconstructing it. Meadowmounters scissor their sheet music into strips, learn each strip, then rebuild the entire piece. This reconstructive act (which, btw, is exactly how teenage Ben Franklin taught himself to write essays) works because it exactly mirrors and reinforces the desired skill-circuits – which are, after all, literal connections in our brains.
  • Locating errors. Meadowmounters practice what they call “discernment”: finding the mistake, and using it to navigate toward the right notes – the basics of deep practice.

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