Cramming is a valid strategy to get yourself ready to play “not-just-good-but-good-enough” on a fast-approaching gig. But it’s a crappy approach for someone striving for Actual Badassery.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Tim Ferriss’s work, and obviously I’m interested in the process of learning an instrument. Tim has a brand new TV show that’s centered around rapid skill acquisition, and in the very first episode he tackles learning the drums.
I’ll start with a little rundown of how Tim approaches such things, how he fared at this particular challenge, and then follow up with my commentary & take-aways.
The Ferriss Approach
Tim is all about picking things apart and reassembling them in ways that work better and faster. He started with work life, then moved on to personal fitness.
Tim’s most recent book is about learning to cook–then using that framework to learn other skills. In the book he outlines a process for learning any skill, which goes like this:
- Deconstruction – What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO bricks that join together into the larger whole?
- Selection – Of those minimal learnable units, what are the most important––the 20% of stuff that yields 80% of the results?
- Sequence – What’s the best order to learn them in?
- Stakes – What’s at risk? If you fail, do you embarrass yourself publicly? Lose a bet to your friend?
It’s a solid framework, and if you hang around this site for long, you’ll see bits of it pop up again and again.
Learning To Drum
For Tim’s first challenge on his new show, he learns enough drumming in five days to be able to sit in with Foreigner for a live performance of their song “Hot Blooded.” He gets a drum teacher at the School of Rock, takes on Stewart Copeland as a mentor, and scrambles like a mad man to to not fall on his face at the gig.
He deconstructs the song into its three principal grooves, then identifies & selects those grooves as the 20% of the song with 80% of the importance.
Sequencing comes up almost right away. His instructor at SoR has the whole song written out in notation, but with no prior training, it’s more of a hindrance than a help. Here, to help you memorize your lines, I’ve written them out in a language that you don’t understand.
The stakes are obvious: he’s going to play for 1700 people at the end of the week, whether he’s ready or not.
Tim plays the song with Foreigner and it goes alright. He’s (unsurprisingly) not amazing at the drums after five days, but any shortcomings he has are well-covered by the band’s actual drummer playing alongside him.
What You Can Take Away From This
In the episode, he shares a few gems that are applicable to you and I:
The question is, do I try to do the fills, or just work on going doom doom tsh doom doom doom tsh until my brain melts out of boredom?”
and then later:
I can omit the flourishes so long as I keep the heartbeat.”
That’s right, if your current skill set dictates that you have to lose either the flashy stuff or the groove, ferfμcksakes lose the flashy stuff.
And of course, if you’re sharing the stage with someone who’s much better than you, stand down and let them do their thing.
When Jake Shimabukuro sat in with my friends & me, we sure as sh¡t didn’t try to outgun him. We concentrated on supporting the amazing stuff he was throwing down.
I actually like doing things that make me this uncomfortable. It takes this sort of sphere within which you can act and get good results [and expands it]. The more you do that, the more you inoculate yourself against making mistakes when you’re afraid. You’re still afraid, [but]…”
Damn skippy! The primitive part of your brain is wired for survival. But the same instinct that kept you alive on the savannah leads you astray in our modern world where very little is life-threatening.
Yes you should audition for that band. Yes you should take that gig. Yes you should approach that girl. Yes you should speak in public. Yes you should use your limited Spanish to talk with native speakers.
Lean in to the discomfort instead of shying away and you’ll be amazed where you find yourself.
What You SHOULDN’T Take Away
Though he gets through the gig just fine, some of the lessons he shares are almost exactly the opposite of what you should be doing with your playing.
The 20% that you cram to get you through a gig without embarrassment is not the 20% that’s going to move your playing forward in meaningful ways. In fact, they’re almost diametrically opposed.
You have the time to execute a more patient approach, which is exactly what you should do.
For example, when Tim asks Foreigner drummer Chris Frazier if he should be learning the song straight through (linearly), Chris says yes.
Ugh… no, no you should not be learning songs linearly. You should be hunting out the bits of the song that are most difficult and practicing them in isolation. This yields much better results.
Chris also tells him to “learn the song, not the drums,” which is great advice in this particular situation.
But you already know plenty of songs. These days your mission is to learn meta-guitar.
Reading music is not working for me, there has to be a more effective way.”
Tim says this and in this situation, he’s right.
But you are not in this situation. In fact, the situation you’re in now is a direct result of this sort of ad hoc approach to learning.
To get where you want to go, you’re going to need to ignore that tiny voice in your head telling you that attaining Guitar Badassery is scary.
That’s just the primitive part of your brain talking, telling you that it’s safer to relax back into the couch.
But that voice is wrong.
Yes you should learn the notes on your guitar.
Yes you should learn to love the metronome.
Yes you should learn to read charts.
Yes you should be leaning into the uncomfortable bits.
Yes this is going to take a helluva lot longer than five days.
Yes you should be excited about applying the deconstruction-selection-sequencing-stakes framework to your playing.
Just don’t go getting starry-eyed about the prospect of attaining Badassery over the course of the next week.
Check out the show here, and Tim’s book here: The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life