How I Improve A Skillset

Photo compliments of Calo Gitano Flamenco Academy
JC went golfing on the Fourth of July.  I asked how it went.   “Gee got frustrated, and left early”.

I was very surprised at this – not at the frustration - I know our friend is often frustrated – but that he left the course, before he had even finished the front nine.   JC and his friends love to golf; they live for the times they spend out there on the greens. 

Gee has taken lessons with a pro, and he's upgraded his gear.  When they play, he constantly tries new things, to figure out how to improve his game.   JC says that his game has actually gotten worse.

To love something that much, and to feel like you’re not getting anywhere with it, is one of the worst feelings in the world.

I can certainly relate.

See that picture above?  It was taken last month, at the end of a Bata da Cola flamenco class I’m taking this summer.   I’m the red-headed woman on the right.   See my expression?   Perhaps it looks determined to you, but actually, I was very angry and frustrated with myself.

The Bata da Cola skirt is very heavy and unwieldy, with a long train.   The dancer flips the skirt around gracefully around herself as she dances.   There are too many niceties and technical points to outline here – suffice to say, this requires doing the most awkward rond de jambes in attitude, while keeping your foot flexed at bizarre angles, so that you can catch the ruffled underlayers at the right point, to successfully bring the skirt around, without catching your foot in layers of fabric, tripping, or slipping.    It's hard on the hip flexors, to the point of exhaustion.    And that's not adding in the arm movements, the floreos of the hands, and body positions.

After every class, I’ve been furious with my failure to consistently get these movements - usually to the point of tears.   It was only recently that I realized that I was not putting in adequate work, outside of class.   

My process for improving a skillset:

This is the process that I use, to learn and practice, in order to perform - as an actor, a dancer, or a musician.  I think this process could be adapted for just about anything - studying, learning a language, playing a sport.   

1.  I assemble my tools.   For dance:  dance shoes, practice clothing, a metronome,  videos I’ve taken in class or at rehearsal.  I also scour YouTube for tutorial ideas.    For music:  the score, a recording if possible, a metronome, and a sharp pencil with a clean eraser.  For acting:  the script, a folding chair, a table, and a pencil.

I always have a timer, and I work in 15-minute increments.

2.       I do a warm-up.   For dance:  stretching.   For acting:  relaxation and sense memory exercises.   For music:  vocal or piano exercises.   Whatever the activity, I warm-up for 15-30 minutes, which helps get my mind 'right'.

3.   I break down what I want to learn, into manageable 'chunks'.   I set my timer for 15 minutes.   I divide music into 32- or 64-bar passages.   If I’m singing, I learn the melody and rhythm first, then add in the lyrics.  For piano, I might even work one hand at a time.   I find the lowest common denominator of the dance step or choreography I’m working on, and gradually build on that I learn the monologue in chunks.  

4.  When the timer goes off, I move on to the next chunk of material, even if the previous chunk isn't perfect.   Alternatively... if I have gone through all of the chunks, I start over, doing clean-up and adding to what I've learned.

5.  I work for 45 minutes, followed by a 15-minute break.   This is so important.   It keeps me sane, and it keeps me from hitting a point where nothing makes sense anymore.

If I reach the “this makes no sense” point early, I revert to an easier form of what I’m working on, and try to break down the material into simpler terms, until that 15 minutes is up.   Then I move on to the next chunk.

 6.   For metronome work (dance and piano).... I start on a slow setting and make sure I can correctly execute the material three or four times.  I drill individual passages, and I try to sweep through the entire chunk of material, as a whole.   Then I advance the metronome two markings, and try to do it at the elevated tempo three or four times.   If you try this, expect to blunder here - you're just training the body and the brain to react more quickly.  Then I lower the metronome speed by one marking.

I keep doing this:  up two, down one, until I reach a tempo that is a little faster than the speed I want to perform at.

Some general thoughts about improving at any skill:

 You have to accept being uncomfortable, mentally or physically.   Don't let this discourage you - being uncomfortable is how you improve and grow.   Caveat:  if you are experiencing actual physical pain, STOP AND RE-ASSESS WHAT YOU ARE DOING.

A good teacher or coach can make all the difference in the world.   Find someone whose work you greatly admire, and ask them who they study with.   Or if they teach!   Or look online, read reviews, try and find videos of performers who have used a particular teacher or coach.

Remember that your teacher or coach can only guide you so far.   You have to put in the work.  

Also realize… you may eventually outgrow your teacher or coach, or you may find that they’re not the right fit.   Give it a fair shake – but if you’re putting in the work, and you’re not seeing improvement in three months, it may be time to find a new instructor.

*Gee is not our friend's real name, obvs.


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