How to Learn Music: 22 Techniques

This is a series about we improve music learning technique; a ‘learning-how-to-learn’ if you will. This is essentially a collection of critical thinking skills and motor learning techniques that are collected from my years studying at music school, reading on performance psychology and applying them in my own teaching practice. I hope you can learn them and put them into practice as well!

Consider taking private lessons with me if you want help applying these to whatever you are trying to learn.

  • Chunking
    • Microscoping and Telescoping
    • Starting at the End
    • The Meadowmount Technique
    • Splitting and Weaving
    • Externalization
    • Making and Taking Space
      • The Matrix Technique
      • The Shooting Analogy
    • Crystallizing
    • Expanding (Creating Variations)
    • Earmarking
  • Speed Expansion
    • The Glacial Tempo/Going at the Speed of Your Senses
    • Speed Bursts
    • Medium-Slow Synchronization
  • Sandbags
    • Blindfolding
    • Speed Expansion (again?!?)
    • The Matchstick Game
  • Other Techniques
    • Recontextualizing
    • Playing the Edge
    • Budgeting Enough Energy
    • Cross-Training
    • Mnemonics


This is essentially ‘breaking things down into tiny pieces and putting them back together.’ The easiest way to understand this one is to realize the carnivores among us love eating hamburgers but might balk at the idea of eating a whole live cow. Similarly, our memories are designed to work by absorbing small bits of information that get integrated into larger wholes.

Many complex activities must be learned this way. Some examples include chess, math, languages, music, dance and soccer. The acknowledgement that an activity must be approached this way is an essential step to mastery, so it’s actually empowering to know that we have to bite the bullet and invest a lot of hours working on minute details. Once we commit to this process, we find that the flow state can emerge in the joy of mastering small goals and building to larger ones.

The way this shows up in music is usually to focus our attention on 1-7 notes at a time. If we are still learning an instrument and finding the notes, or if we are practicing a new technique like vibrato, we may actually spend a lot of time on one note. This is the stage where a lot of people give up because they think ‘I am never gonna get done at this rate!’ The opposite is actually true. At the beginning it seems worst because the beginning is the slowest. Our rate of growth actually accelerates exponentially as we become more skilled, and actually our chunk size changes. At first we are practicing individual notes. Then groups of notes like arpeggios become familiar. We expand to measures and then whole pieces and then shows and then multiple albums. We zoom in and out constantly to work on different levels, which brings us to our next skill…

Microscoping and Telescoping

The essence of microscoping and telescoping is a change of focus. The main goal is to put enough attention on a small area for your brain to be able to process and improve it. The amount you have to focus surprises most people at first, but calibrating this is essential. You need to get used to what it feels like to zoom in on something enough to get all the details right. Once you get comfortable with the right amount of focus, you will move much more quickly and more easily through challenging pieces.

One essential characteristic of microscoping is the use of handles. Handles is a term I used to describe the areas a little before and a little bit after the part we are working on in order to gain context. If you just learn a bunch of dissociated notes, you won’t be able to build them back into the piece you want. At the same time, if you always start at the beginning of the piece or really far away from the part you’re working on, you will never focus your attention enough. The first step is to identify exactly where the problem area is, or identify where your knowledge of the piece gets fuzzy. Once you’ve identified the smallest possible area where the problem exists, you start as close to the beginning of that as you can without being totally lost. Most students have an easier time with more of a wind-up, starting maybe a couple measures or phrases before the section they want to hit. That’s fine if you must, but it wastes time. You will learn faster and more efficiently if you start closer to the section that you want and slowly zoom out.

This is zooming out is what we call telescoping. After you have fixed the problem area, you slowly zoom out to a couple notes before and after to create a wind up and follow through. Then you slowly zoom out even more and eventually play the entire piece with your attention on the problem section, trying to make sure you integrated what you practice when you zoomed in.

Speed Expansion

This is an umbrella term that I use to describe a cluster of techniques that involve changing the speed that you play at. Most people have heard of music teachers talking about slow practice. The higher-level music you play, the more different ways of thinking about the piece you will need in order to learn it well, and so there are many speeds that you can practice at and many different reasons for practicing at those speeds.

In the Fretboard Anatomy metronome course, Josh talks about one of his teachers and quoted one of the greatest sayings about music practice I have ever heard. It goes like this…

“Never try to beat your fastest speed without also trying to beat your slowest”

Yoda Bob

This idea basically sums up what speed expansion is about. It will challenge you to push yourself both in patience and in dedication to your plan, and it will improve every aspect of your playing tremendously if you commit enough energy to it!

The Glacial Tempo/Going at the Speed of Your Senses

I have also referred to this as concerto practice tempo, and Meadowount tempo. In Daniel Coyles book The Talent Code, he talks about the instructors at Meadowmount teaching their students to practice their pieces so slowly that someone who knew the piece could listen in on their practice session and not know which piece they were working on. This is a tempo that is best felt rather than explained, and even when I show students how to do it, they inevitably start too fast and start going even faster. They usually are pretty frustrated by the number of times I tell them to go slower, but once they are calibrated for the speed, they realize that they have the ability to coordinate every single detail I have been challenging them practice, and at any faster speed it is either impossible or simply not done as well or as quickly.

I also call this type of practice ‘going at the speed of your senses.’ This type of practice is not so much about a slow metronome marking as it is about going slow enough for your senses to experience everything they possibly can about what you were doing both internally and externally, and integrating that information into a different pattern. It is going at a speed that allows all the different processes you use to learn to coordinate with each other. This is often difficult for people because it is brutally honest about where they are in terms of mastery in the process, and it’s usually not where they want to be. That being said, if you commit to going this slow, you will actually progress at the optimal pace because you will make time for everything that needs to happen including remembering all the skills you learned in your lessons and making them happen at the same time. In order for mastery to occur, you need to repeat all of the right actions in the correct sequence and in conjunction with other actions that need to happen simultaneously. Hard skill mastery is a very complex act, and every time you execute too quickly or without correct technique, you reinforced incorrect technique. You actually progress the fastest when you commit to going very very slowly so that you can do everything correctly, and allow the technique to build in its own time.

More coming soon! Comment if you liked it!

Theory and Embodiment: How to Put Exercises Into Practice