Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Playing the piano for 10,000 hours

I've not read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers: The Story of Success", but I've come across the theory that an expert at anything is not an innate genius, but has practised for an average of 10,000 hours. This has been attacked as over-simplified or plain wrong, but it has revolutionised by attempts to learn to play the piano.

I have tried to learn the guitar, piano and even penny whistle many times over the years. I decided to try again in January 2019, but decided that this time I would practice every single day for at least an hour. That made me think of the 10,000 hour theory. I did a calculation and found that if I practised for just over an hour per day then I would reach 10,000 hours in 26 years' time.

That brings home how much practice is involved.

I was not put off, however, reasoning that after even a few hundred hours, I'd be able to knock out a tune as a party piece without becoming flustered.

I investigated apps promoted for forming good habits and downloaded one where I have set my target of 10,000 hours and enter my daily total of actual hours to eat into this. I already use a pomadoro timer on my phone to time 30-minute chunks of time for work activities and added the category of "music" to log the time spent on this.

And away I went, working through the exercises in a piano tuition book I had downloaded on a previous attempt to learn the piano.

This time, I did not get so disillusioned with apparent lack of progress, or the fact that my progress showed me still far off being half-competent at playing "London Bridge is falling down". I checked my app and I had only done, say, 30 hours, so what could I expect? That's less than a week of full-time study.

One of the criticisms of the 10,000 hour theory is that it is not just the time spent practising, but the type of practice, which has to build up the fundamental skills. This led to two thoughts. Firstly, it doesn't matter if my playing is plodding or error strewn, as long as I am building up a particular skill.

I once taught myself - and then many friends - to juggle. In that, my approach was to focus on one thing at a time. Throwing from your right hand towards your left, for example. Throw it in a nice arc and catch it. Once you've seen you can do that, take a second ball in your left hand and drop it before catching the first. Don't worry where it goes, just get rid of it. Once that is mastered, think about throwing the second ball in a reverse arc in the direction of your right hand. The throwing and catching of the first ball goes to hell. Just remind yourself you have already cracked doing that - and remind yourself a few times, so that you do it out with a corner of your mind - then go back to the task in focus. Before too long, you can do arcs from both hands, then introduce the third ball. Soon you are juggling, without having to focus overly on any single task, although you can zoom in on any aspect to perfect it.

So I focus on my left hand playing the piano. Then the right. Then matching the rhythm perfectly to the metronome. Then thinking about the chord changes. And so on. Once I've mastered a song – or I'm tripping myself up by over-thinking it – I'll increase the speed, or play it with my eyes closed, or change the instrument. When I return to it again, usually better than before, I'll focus in on different aspects, looking for patterns, rhythms, muscle memory, coherence of notes, expression and the pleasure of playing. Moving on to the next piece, I can see that a new element has been introduced to develop another aspect of skill.

The second thought arising from the need to focus on skills was to have some lessons. So I booked a trial lesson, where some answers to my questions made an immediate difference to my abilities. I had tried guitar lessons a couple of times previously, but a combination of the tutor's approach and my lack of time investment meant I didn't progress – or, at least, didn't notice the progress.

Three months' later, I'm on 110 hours practice. Which, if this was a full-time endeavour, would be about three weeks' study – nothing at all if you think about how long you spent studying at school or college. Yet, even in this short time, I have pieces of the jigsaw coming into focus, if not yet coming into place, and feel that I am getting somewhere.

Just 9,890 hours to go.

Monday, 8 April 2019

So many days, so many years

I'm now over seven years into this process of remembering every day that passes, having started on 17 December 2011.

I've had to adapt the refresh process to review the images pinned to my mental calendar, but I still aim to revisit each day once per month.

Sometimes an image evades me now. But, even so, I do not accept they are fully lost, because on a subsequent run-through, I've had them come back to me with a flash of endorphins and relief that pins them more firmly to the calendar for next time.

This process has changed my concept of time. Many of these years are so long ago that, save for this process, the whole year would be largely lost to me. If I choose a year before I began – let's say 2009 – I can work out where I was and what I was doing in that year and, if I think about it, maybe remember some specific events, some of them vividly. But the images are sparse. What did I do on my birthday that year? My wife's? My mother's? I have no idea and, if I do scratch up a memory, then I'd have no certainty it was for that year.

I can answer that question for every year since I began this process. Of course, I only easily remember the images pinned to my mental calendar. Sometimes these will open a door to much more regarding both the event represented and the rest of the day, but often, they are all I have left. After all, as I write this, there are 2,669 days stretching behind me.

The most curious – and even disturbing – aspect of having these memories and revisiting them as I do, is the shock at how long ago these years are. I will recall an event at, say, the Olympics in 2016 and it seems staggering that was almost three years' ago.

As I have carried these days and years with me, like no others, there is a freshness to them that makes it hard sometimes to separate one year from another. In the normal scheme of things, the fading of our memories perhaps gives us a sense of how long ago a time was.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Just no stopping

It's a while since I've posted here, so this is to check in to say that this process of remembering every day that passes continues as I near the 7 year landmark on 17 December.

I continue to use the same methods discussed here to add memory tags to my mental calendar, reviewing the past month, morning and evening, and calling up a selection of days preceeding that. Sometimes I'll use a two or three-day window covering the same days of the week, such as Friday to Saturday of every week from January 2018.

Once I've covered the year over the course of a week, I might just take the same days of the months. Today being the 8th December, that would be the 8th and 9th of each month.

My technique for reviewing a selection of memory tags prior to that has become much more relaxed. I've been switching between sequential reviews, covering the whole period month by month until I reach the present day, then doing the same year by year in reverse: 2017, 2016, 2015 etc.

Other times, I'll take a month from each year, then cycle back to the beginning.

With over 2500 days, it might take me a couple of months to do the recall of the whole period in spare moments of time, out running, waiting in a queue, driving, etc.

I run through some sequences with ease, like a familiar song. Others seem as faded as they should be by the intervening years and there are taunting blanks on my mental calendar. But if ever I think this process has run its course, they come back to me, often flooding me with gratitude that I have not forgotten the events captured in the tags.

I fear it will become harder and harder as the review periods become longer. For a long time a month between reviews seemed the limit, but now I am stretching to two months.

Yet, such is the powerful feeling of reward when my synapses fire and an elusive image reasserts itself, I am hopeful that my brain will become better at doing this with time.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The importance of the map

For over six years I have been pinning images to a mental calendar as memory tags to remember every day that passes. 

To prevent these fading away, I find I have to review them within a month or so. This simply involves calling up the image, which may take a few seconds. Less, if I have a sequence of related images.

I now have over 2300 days to recall since December 17, 2011, and the review patterns I have used over the years have had to evolve as the number of days has grown.

Currently, I recall the days sequentially, aiming to cover several months during the slack time during the day, when driving, exercises, or preparing to sleep or after waking up.

Previously, I used patterns. For example, at the outset I recalled the images for the same day of the week from past months, or for a two or three day window.

The sequential approach is easier in some ways, as there is often a progression of activities or events from day to day. It is easier to orientate myself.

But recently I have found that more recent days have presented the greatest problems with recall. I have to find my way through the sequence. The images are less associated with the mental calendar that I picture in my mind's eye.

So I have returned to the past technique of recalling a two-day window per week for the past six months. Today being Thursday, I recall the images for every Thursday and Friday in this period. 

Stepping from week to week on the month-to-view calendar sheets I visualise more firmly fixes the image to the geographical location of the day on the calendar. 

This spatial awareness is an important additional tool for helping me find the images.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Six years later

I began remembering every day that passes on 17 December 2011.

The sixth anniversary has passed and here we are in 2018, over 2200 days later.

I'm still going strong, though recently switched the nature of the long recall of days I do every month to refresh the images pinned to my mental calendar as memory tags.

Last time, I start on 1 January 2016 and went through the whole year, day by day. Then the same with 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 (much of 2011 is blank as there were few landmarks I was able to identify retrospectively).

I started with 2016 because in the previous strategy of jumping through the months, recalling two weeks chunks, was becoming increasingly confusing and I'd struggle to complete the final year or two in the time available before I had to start again. So I took it leisurely and sequentially, which makes it much easier to find the tags.

Then I started again with 2011. I'm currently up to August 2013 and fit in a few months each day, with no real pressure as to when I finish. I'd like to do so in less than a month, just because that is the longest I've ever left a memory tag before refreshing it. I'm not sure how well they will survive otherwise.

I still do the last month of tags, morning and night. Every now and then, I'll go through the past 6 months sequentially or two days per week, as of old.

There is still a lot I get out of the grounding of recalling these past days. Although as they have grown to over 6 years - over 10% of my life - the period I can remember day-by-day does not seem so different to the earlier foggy period.

The past is another world, even when I can revisit the memories.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Fitting it all in and playing the song

I can remember each of the 2000+ days since I began this process of remembering of every day that passes. Lembransation works, but I need to spend some time each day recalling the images pinned to my mental calendar as memory tags or they will fade.

The posts tagged with "how I remember" show how my methodology has changed over time.

Recently, I have made bigger changes to make it more relaxed. This is possible because I have confidence in the techniques I have developed over these five and a half years.

Every few days when I am waking up I will think back to the same date in past years. Today is 1st August, so I reviewed the memory tags for 1 - 4 August for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. This takes little time. It serves as a useful reminder of upcoming birthdays and anniversaries. It is nice to be able to tell people, you remember this time two years ago we were....

Until recently, I was doing this review every morning, but to save time I use a larger window. It is often the case that I need to scan over adjacent days in any case to orientate myself, so this makes use of the effort.

Every morning, or at some point during the day, I will run through every day from starting a month ago. Every now and then, I'll extend this to a couple of months, or even longer, if I feel the earlier images are not a set as I would like. Sometimes I will resurrect an earlier strategy of reviewing a two or three day window for every week of the past 6 months, every Monday and Tuesday, for example.

Basically, I am flexible. I have this range of techniques and I'll fit in whatever I have time and feel the need for.

My long-term review now consists of reviewing half a month at a time from the start of this process over a period of half a month. So I am currently reviewing 28 of each month to 14 of the following month and have until 14 August to complete the process, though sometimes I'll overrun. Then I'll take 14 - 28 of every month until 28 August.

I do have the ambition to complete a year per day, but sometimes scrabbling around for memory tags means I get so far and then leave it for the next day. So far, every memory tag comes back to me eventually, though some are a little vague because they are little more than "I was in the office", which is more of a placeholder than something significant with details I want to remember.

I continue to tell myself that the longer the period is ago, the easier it should be to remember, because I have refreshed the images so many times. The landscape is familiar. Often there is a whole week I can cover in a fraction of a second, because I created interconnected images. For example, they may be on the theme of where I had lunch and who with. Once I have one image and remembered the theme, the whole sequence is there.

Philosophically, I'm trying to take this further. I am having another go at learning a musical instrument and can pick out tunes by ear on the keyboards and guitar (a skill I had not developed in past attempts). It amazes me how my brain has stored songs that I may not have heard for years, but are instantly familiar so that I can recognise when I am hitting the right key or plucking the right string.

What if each year of my mental calendar was a song, as easily remembered?

Monday, 31 July 2017

Time lost

I now have over 2000 days of my mental calendar with memory tags to help me remember them.

As I look back on events over the five plus years since I began this process of remembering every day that passes, it is increasingly striking how much of this time would have faded to nothing. As with earlier years, I may have only retained a sense of the year and a few key events. My sister's wedding and the death of my niece in 2013. Attending the Olympics in 2016. Just a few pegs, rather than 365 or 366 for every year.

Every now and then I feel maybe it is time to let it all go. Today is July 31. How important is it to me to remember what I was doing on this exact same date in past years? Let's see:

July 31, 2012: Taking my parents to see my mother's sister. This turned out to be the last time we saw her.

July 31, 2013: Taking part in a committee meeting - in my memory tag I go around the table and remember everyone who was there.

July 31, 2014: Visiting my parents and making them dinner. My mother has Alzheimer's and at this time it was only just becoming apparent.

July 31, 2015: It's hard to believe that 2015 is two years ago. In fact, all these years seem to fresh to be receding so far. On this day we too two of my wife's sisters for a picnic in a favourite country park.

July 31, 2016: On the way to the Rio Olympics.

And then I realise how important it is not to lose this time. There is pleasure and enrichment to be found when the days are not lost forever. Often when I am having a particularly good day, I think this is special and I look forward to remembering it in the months and years to come.

But this process requires an investment of time, which is time lost from other things. As the days have piled up I have had to adapt the process of reviewing the images pinned to my mental calendar to refresh them. I'll post next time about my current method.