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The deliberate practice of Johnny Marr

December 17, 2012

Johnny Marr has announced the release of his first solo album, The Messenger, on 25 February 2013 and a UK tour, playing Manchester on 22 March at The Ritz, reviving memories of The Smiths debut gig at that venue on October 4 1982. I first saw The Smiths in October 1983 at Sheffield at a free gig, I’ve still got the ticket somewhere.

Back in May 1982, the 18 year-old Johnny Marr formed The Smiths after seeking out the reclusive Stretford poet, Steven Morrissey. The Smiths were an indie guitar band with a sound nostalgically familiar yet jaw-dropping in its sharp newness. The tunes were giant, euphoric and instant, woven together with nimble flair by Marr’s guitar, and the maudlin poetic, story-telling lyrics of Morrissey.

Early critics undersold him, describing his style ‘Indie jingle and jangle’ when they might better have described the sound of Johnny Marr as that of a starry night in angry animation …or the echo of breaking glass raining down upon silver plated cobblestones…or the sound of kitchen cutlery bouncing off a gaffer-taped Telecaster – which, ridiculous as it sounds, is how Marr achieved some of the resonant clangs on This Charming Man.

Throughout The Smiths’ short five-year life, Marr continually challenged his skills as a guitar player. The biggest tunes were those that shocked with their melodic ingenuity and stopped you in your tracks How Soon Is Now? Still ill, You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby, This Charming Man, The Queen Is Dead and There is a Light That Never Goes Out. Paired with Morrissey’s generation-defining words of love and hate, wit and wisdom, sorrow and greater sorrow still, Marr was half of a truly influential British song writing partnership.

By the time Marr departed from The Smiths on 1 August 1987, they’d made four classic albums, none entering the charts lower than number two and released 17 singles – 70 songs in total and not one dud. Almost everything you remember musically from The Smiths happened on Marr’s guitar. He revolutionised and renewed the guitar’s role in popular music, his innovations lit the touch-paper for a full-scale renaissance of the instrument in British guitar groups…all roads lead back to The Smiths…all roads lead back to Johnny Marr.

But what makes Johnny Marr such a great guitar player? Natural talent, a born genius, hard work, experience? When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?

It’s not down to talent. Successful sports figures and musicians have long understood the value of time and practice in perfecting their skills, and the importance of a practicing mind-set. Practice is required to replace bad and unproductive habits with desirable habits. But this is a process that must be practiced. Firstly you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit. Then set up triggers to help you remember the action and the time, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition on this action with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

This thinking, around for some time, was reinforced by a groundbreaking paper published in 1993, in which cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak – Deliberate practice. It’s not a minor change. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately – whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill – you might as well not practice at all.

So how does deliberate practice work? Ericsson’s makes it clear that a dutiful daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough, tinkering around on the piano or idly taking some moves on the chessboard is definitely not enough. Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. The secret of deliberate practice is relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up. But research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the good from the great. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there.

I know from may years of academic study myself, clumsy efforts to learn musical instruments and a passion for chess, that you have to do the same thing again and again and again to hardwire it into ‘long-term muscle memory, which I’ve found out is stored in the cerebellum. It is exactly the same long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: It’s just like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it once you’ve hardwired it into the skill centre of the cerebellum through practice.

Leonardo da Vinci coined the word cerebellum in 1504 when he was making anatomical wax castings of the brain. The cerebellum is the size of a kiwi fruit and tucked under the much larger cerebrum in the base of your skull. The average cerebellum only weighs one-quarter of a pound but ounce-for-ounce packs a walloping punch. Although the cerebellum is only 10% of total brain volume it holds more than 50% of the brain’s neurons.

Anyway, back to Ericsson, he studied a vast array of expert performance before getting at the drivers of all expert performance. His first experiment involved training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20. He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.

This success, coupled with later research showing that memory itself is not genetically determined, led Ericsson to conclude that the act of memorising is more of a cognitive exercise than an intuitive one. In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorise, those differences are swamped by how well each person encodes the information, and the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process he labelled deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — Johnny Marr laying a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, until his shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome – it supports Thomas Edison’s famous formula for genius: 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So how does deliberate practice correlate with success? All the superb performers Ericsson investigated had practiced intensively, revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell supports this, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. How does Gladwell arrive at this conclusion? And, if the conclusion is true, how can we leverage this idea to achieve greatness in our profession? Matthew Syed picks up on the 10,000-hour rule in his book Bounce, recalibrating it to 10 years but he also argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice.

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that’s 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in the field. Those that start their pursuit as children have a head start and an advantage — plenty of time to get those 10,000 hours in, and Ericsson showed this.

One study conducted at the Academy of Music in Berlin was on three groups of violinists.  The first group had stars pupils, the second had good students and the third had students who would probably never play professionally. The groups started out at the age of 5 and in the beginning they all practiced roughly the same amount of time for the first few years.  Around eight years of age the difference in commitment to the craft started to become obvious.  Here are the numbers of hours per week and by age practiced by those who would go on to become stars:

  • 5 years old = 2-3 hours
  • 9 years old = 6 hours
  • 12 years old = 8 hours
  • 14 years old = 16 hours
  • 21 years old = 30 hours

Ericsson discovered that all the students, no matter what group they were in, had remarkably similar backgrounds and none deviated greatly from the standard pattern. They started playing at more-or-less the same age; they decided to become musicians at more-or-less the same age; they had on average 4.1 music teachers and so on. However, the one stand out difference was in the amount of practice time. By the age of 20, the top performers had practiced an average of 10,000 hours; the good violinists an average of 8,000 hours and the least able only 4,000 hours

Closer analysis of success stories prove that the element of innate talent plays a lesser role in achieving expert status than one might think. Neither did Ericsson find ordinary people who worked harder than anyone else, and yet never made it to the top.  In other words, he never found people worked hard and never made it. As Alexander Fleming remarked of his penicillin bacillus: It didn’t just stand up and say, ‘I produce penicillin’, you know. It was all that advance preparation with the Petri dishes. It’s blood, sweat and tears.

Finally, it also goes some way to explaining why England’s footballers don’t achieve more. We’ve only just introduced the Academy training system for our youngest, most capable players, whereas in Spain and Holland it’s been in place for years. Barcelona’s La Masia is founded on the principles of Ajax’s Toekomst Academy where youth teamers will have five contact hours a day, four days a week over up to 10 years. You do the maths. (Hint: it’s about 10,000 hours).

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in deliberate practice – practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.

So view expert performers not simply as domain-specific experts, but as experts in maintaining high levels of practice and improving performance. The goal is to practice at the edge of your current ability, remembering it is the quality of practice, not the amount of time, which is key. It’s about practice in your head too.

I’m looking forward to seeing Johnny Marr in March and admire the great new tunes resulting from his deliberate practice. He’s a guitar genius, as Noel Gallagher has identified: He’s a f****** wizard, even Johnny Marr can’t play what Johnny Marr can play. Is that deliberate?

3 Comments leave one →
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