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Inner-Vation©: my ukulele world

July 24, 2011

Some months ago I met a Hawaiian lady called Melalia one Saturday morning on the bus into Burnley, and she lent me a book called Ho‘oponopono. There’s not much in common between Burnley and Hawaii to be honest – we’ve got a better football team, they’ve got the better beach – but to my astonishment we’ve got a Hawaiian café, run by Melalia,  just opened next to the bus station, so I wandered in there last Friday morning to return the book. As I sat in the Ala Moana café, I could have been in Honolulu, the soft, absorbing sound of ukulele music filled the room, the warm breeze wafted sweet smells and peace….Ok, it was lashing it down in reality, but the music did create a mellow ambiance not previously enjoyed in hilly East Lancashire. The café also sells second-hand ukuleles, an instrument I knew nothing about other than Elvis brandished one in Blue Hawaii and so with little better to do, I went into the back of the café to check out the ukuleles on offer. Twenty minutes later I wandered out again with a battered secondhand KoAloha soprano ukulele under my arm, just £20 spent, and my musical world has not been the same since. Neither, I hasten to add, has that of my family as my clumsy concrete fingers bash away seeking the melodic tunes of a faraway tropical idyll. in pursuit of Inner-Vation©.

After years of thrashing away on bass guitar in homage to Paul Simonon, cello and latterly saxophone – not to mention X-Box Rock Band, I’ve found the instrument for me. Not only that, I’ve opened up a whole new musical and cultural vista for myself as I had to find out some details about the origins of the instrument. The ukulele story began in Hawaii when the Ravenscrag docked in Honolulu with a boatload of immigrants from Portugal on August 23 1879. The story goes that one of the Portuguese, Joao Fernandes, was so excited to have arrived after his 15,000 mile, four month voyage he pulled out his braguinha, similar to the modern ukulele, and played joyful tunes on the quayside. The watching Hawaiians thought that his nimble fingers looked a little like a jumping flea, which in Hawaiian sounds a little like ukulele. Hence the name, so they say. I have entered Ukeworld. Believe it or not the ukulele is cool. Not only are the likes of Pearl Jam and the Black-Eyed Peas extolling its virtues, but when Neil Armstrong went into three-week quarantine after the first moon landing, he took a ukulele in with him. Isn’t Google a big help.

Playing a new musical instrument is all about technique and memory. How we learn and retain new information fascinates me. If I was to give you a list of short, three-letter words now, how many could you remember this time tomorrow? Net week, or in three weeks time? In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus did this exact experiment and his results are widely accepted as a general theory for how we learn and retain information.  He developed a formula for how long items remain in our memory. Some people may remember better than others, but the general trend for how long we retain information is the same. The result is called Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. The bad news is, it’s steeper than you may think.  The good news is, there are strategies you can use to improve your memory retention.

According to Ebbinghaus, the level at which we retain information depends on a couple of things – the strength of your memory and the amount of time that has passed since learning. Keep in mind, your unique memory strength will determine whether you retain half the information for three weeks (a critical period for memory retention) or more, or less. Depending on what you’ve learned, I’ve read estimates that say we forget 90% within the first month – or even first week! Why is memory retention so hard? There are two primary factors that affect our level of retention for items in our long-term memory – repetition and quality of memory representation (I’ll get to discussing what this is below)

Repetition is easy enough – the more frequently we repeat something, the more likely it is to stick.  Practice makes perfect I keep telling kids as I strum a new ‘melody’ on my battered ukulele. Sounds obvious doesn’t it –  frequent review can help retention, but over time, we still tend to forget what we’ve learned. There is one caveat though, one aspect that can increase retention is that vague phrase mentioned above – quality of memory representation.  A better approach for long-term retention is to focus on the quality of the information held in your memory and the meaning of the information to you.  In plain English – the more relevant, meaningful connections you can make with the new information in your mind with things you already know, the better your memory retention over time – the underpinning framework of mind maps.

So  as a part-time hyperactive, I’m off on another learning journey, but Where to? might not be as important as How loud?, or as my kids said between guffaws of laughter when I got home with my new friend, What are you going to do next? I can’t play a tune on it just yet, I can finger pluck a couple of nursery rhymes. Anyway, the point I’m trying to enthuse is to just grab stuff as it comes across your face, be it a ukulele or a brand new idea – 20% Thinking 80% Doing. Get stuck in. For me it’s the tension between innovation and stability, of trying something new and settling for what you’ve got. I see these two distinct lessons forming the background for the pursuit of your business goals – on the one hand, you want your business to be full of interesting, challenging missions that force you to learn, adapt and improve. On the other hand, you want a stable routine which ensures you don’t lose what you’ve gained. The balance between these two is crucial. You need to have one eye always on what new innovation (personal and business) can be undertaken, trying to ensure you don’t burn yourself out. You need another eye on the routine itself, making sure it’s strong enough to maintain your skills, but light enough that gravity doesn’t completely pull it down. Similarly, a mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one, so just do things.

So, ukulele player or business player, ask yourself Are the commitments, pursuits, and uses of my time currently taking me to where I need to be? Am I adding Inner-Vation © and stretching myself, and more importantly, is where I am going really where I want to be?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 24, 2011 1:14 pm

    Ian – another thought stimulating post, thank you. And relevant. My son bought himself a uke recently; a friend of mine uses one a lot in her music (check out http://www.iamjemcooke.com); and my work is heavily focused round how we retain information & develop skill…

    For my money ‘practice makes perfect’ is a dangerous half-truth. What if you’re practising the wrong thing? You become an expert! That’s what people have done when they’ve built their bad habits. Many people are happy to practise something half-heartedly, not really paying attention to how good their practice is, in other words, no Quality Control.

    The reality is “practice makes permanent” and if you practice something that’s sometimes right and sometimes wrong, or always almost-right, or a completely flawed execution, then don’t expect the result to be perfection!

    Often the most important first thing (which people often skim over or skip past in their anxiety to get on an practise SOMETHING!) is to KNOW exactly what ‘the skill’ entails, to know exactly how best to practise it, to know exactly what will be easy, what will be hard, to know how to fix different problems, and to know exactly what principles to follow when pursuing your practice regime.

    (This is the opposite of your 20% thinking 80% doing. And as with all ‘models’ or principles, I’m sure there’s scope for BOTH to be right! But let me push the point home…)

    Knowledge is Power. And Knowing-that-you-Know-Accurately brings Confidence. And Confident, Accurate Practice… now that can lead to perfection – and often faster than people might think!

    For a physical skill like Ukelele (or touch typing, or golf, or knitting, or stripping down a bit of machinery) as well as for many other ‘soft’ skills & performance (foreign languages, presenting skills, handling difficult customers)… one of the best things to do is ensure that Speed is sacrificed completely (to begin with) in favour of Accuracy and Quality Control.

    Accuracy is King. Speed is Nothing. It’s not good to put ANY time or effort at all, EVER, into doing some practice which is fast and wrong! It’s a waste. (Again this clashes, I know, with other teachings: be prepared to fail, learn from your mistakes, etc… but let me persist…)

    Slow down and be right. Stay slow and be right again. Enjoy the slower pace of life and be right again! And see if you can start to be Slow and “Slick” (ie play / speak / stand / swing etc… with flair and poise and confidence and pride – but always accurately and slowly).

    And do it some more. And some more. Holding back on speed, never pushing for it.

    What you’ll find is that you CAN begin to speed up, or you FIND yourself speeding up, simply by dint of the fact that you’re practising repeatedly. Slow and Slick gives way, with practice, to Quick and Slick. And it can happen within minutes or hours, depending on the skill in question and the amount and quality and frequency of practice.

    Because Speed is a direct by-product of the frequency and regularity with which you repeat your (accurate) practice. Other by-products are Automation (unconscious competence) and Comfort (a sense that what you’re doing is ‘natural’).

    The more frequently you practise (perfectly, mind you!) – or the more frequently you revise/demonstrate *accurate* knowledge – if we’re talking of intellectual learning – then the sooner you’ll have turned learning into habit.

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