Why smart work is overrated in music – sometimes, learning the hard way is best


This post probably won’t go down well with many of you but I don’t mind. It’s important to speak the truth on these matters.

I see a lot of advice on various sites for becoming successful in any area of life talk about “working smarter, “getting an edge” and “saving years of effort” with this or that technique. I agree with looking for easier ways that are available in order to accomplish a task. If something can take less time done one way then why choose the more labourious method?
However, I think it’s important to realise there won’t always be quicker fixes to challenges you encounter and that you just have to go through the long, arduous but necessary process of doing the hard work for as long as it takes.

An old friend of mine who used to play guitar recalled how he wanted to learn Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘Under the Bridge’ and looked for a technique that would allow him to play the notes (especially the opening riff) without bridging. He spoke to a few people including a neighbour who used to teach him and they all said it would take as long as he intends to practice it thoroughly. Undeterred, he searched online for fast ways to play the tune. The thing was, there were sites with video tutorials about this – just not ones gving him the shortcut he wanted. After two months of slow progress he got impatient and gave up.

None of this would have mattered except his reason for learning ‘Under the Bridge’ was for a gig his band had been rehearsing for. In the end, he fell back on some Smashing Pumping songs he’d learned years before (partially by simplifying some of the riffs and other complex areas). The other band members were ok with this but I know they were hoping to perform new material and  ‘UTB’ was one everyone was looking forward to. All this because my friend wanted the quick fix or nothing. A shame.

I have experience of this learning the piano piece ‘Islamey’. View below:

It was once considered the hardest piece ever written for piano. Each morning I would get up and work on the difficult passages like the fast-moving chords on the second page that requires rapid hand movement up and down the keyboard. Little progress was made and I considered ‘cheating by getting my left hand to do some of the work of the right hand. I found this to be awkward and soon realised that the areas I was working on, left little room to ‘cut corners’ I resigned myself to methodically going one/two bars at a time, painstakingly monitoring my technique and progress. If I noticed an easier way to do things, only then would I incorporate that into my learning. What I didn’t do was waste practice time searching for short cuts that might not have existed.

Just be careful you don’t confuse smart work for ‘easy way’ and get caught up looking for shortcuts all the time. This is important is because when it comes to learning your instrument, you will either be ready to put the effort in for as long as it takes or you’ll cultivate a mindset of “where’s the quick fix/short cut?” If there isn’t one, you might get frustrated and give up instead of knuckling down and practicing for a sustained period of time (as all great musicians do)

What do you think? Is smart work falling out of fashion?

3 thoughts on “Why smart work is overrated in music – sometimes, learning the hard way is best”

  1. Hi there,
    I do agree with you entirely about 'short cuts' I believe it was Sir Adrian Boult who said that 'there weren't any short cuts'.
    It also follows that the public believes in 'luck'
    I think it was an amazing (cannot think of the name ,sorry) American golfing whizz who said 'The more I practise the luckier I get'.
    Yes the nitty-gritty is ALWAYS fudged by those who just don't want to face the truth about the work and the sheer pleasure of hard work as well as the toil. Honestly, it isn't all toil. Especially when things you are working on start to come together or begin to gel.This applies to any field of endeavour not only music.
    Learning an instrument is not an act of isolation it involves the whole self after all we are not performing animals we have consciousness and we should understand the musical context and be able to communicate it. Which takes immense amounts of work.So to be in a position to have that incorporation of the music into the fingers and body, of course you must work to get to that point.
    About nerves Dame Myra Hess said that she did not get nervous in fact she did not believe in nerves. She said,'If you really know your music thoroughly, what is there to be nervous about?!
    Which brings us back to practise of course.
    These are my comments,hopefully without giving ALL my secrets away!
    Clare F.Deniz L.R.A.M.Dip Ethno M.Mus F.R.S.A

  2. Clare, I have to disagree with you on your point of the 'nitty-gritty' being "fudged by those who just don't want to face the truth about the work and the sheer pleasure of hard work as well as the toil"

    I (and many others I know) was indoctrinated with the well-meaning (but flawed) advice of "work hard", "toil & suffer", "nothing is free/comes easy" and "nobody hands you anything on a plate" You what that means? Months and years of frustration, misery and occasional banging your head against the 'brick wall' in the pusuit of your goal.
    I learned guitar and violin as a kid but HATED (yes I'm emphasising the word) the practice, because I felt it shouldn't take so long and my playing should improve if I found an easier way to do things. I pushed myself and suffered and 'toiled' through four exams before quitting.
    So I know about hard work.

    Hard work isn't such a bad thing. HOWEVER, working hard for the sake of it without thinking if there's an easier and faster way is insanity (also defined by Einstein as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”). Humans (by and large) are not masochists who take delight in making themselves unhappy, expending energy on something that yields little reward.
    After all, if you won the lottery after nearly a lifetime as a hard-working(but modest-paid) employee would you still turn up for work the next day?

    So in order to enjoy the process of achievement more, smart work is where it’s at.

    1. Dave This is my first opportunity to address your ‘crie de coer’ It is such a pity that your teacher did not maximise other possible approaches with practise.The discipline of practise is part of the package and your teacher should have found ways to inspire/impress you to do it. It does take imagination. I am saddened to learn that you were ‘fed’ a ‘toil and suffer’ philosophy. etc etc.Did you not have a passion for playing? Did you not love the piece of music you were learning and did you not have glimpses even if fleeting of part of the completed piece even if it was just half a dozen bars?
      I am sure that something could have been done to motivate you in a better way.With the Great Composers the ‘bar has been set’ Think of a shopping analogy, when you go to buy something you know what it costs. If you want that item you know what you have got to pay.Surely the same goes with acquiring the capacity to perform a specific piece of music well.William Bruce has questioned the 10,000 hours suggested to accomplish a standard of achievement. He believes it is more than that for the ‘cello ( and probably the same for the piano).
      I was interested to hear the writer Barbara Taylor Bradford a writer of numerous best selling novels speaking on BBC Radio 4 at the end of 2016. She said you can teach someone to write , but the things you cannot teach are:
      Drive;Discipline; Ambition; Imagination.
      The student has really got to want to write.I think this about playing music.Ballet must be the same not a comfortable glide to success.It is work and some, and the result looks effortless.For music we are mini athletes, again I quote William Bruce who said that. You see,I think our bodies need coaxing stretching training and disciplining, but not initially in a way that is too much for the pupil.Even some successful writers have little ‘tricks’ to start their creativity off when they sit down to write.Some write rubbish for a little while just to get the ‘engine moving’. Then they are out of the starting blocks. Thinking about how torturous it was for you. I should think that Olympic training would be torture to anyone not inclined to do it.If you do not love it and really love it, music is a challenge.It is a challenge anyway to develop internally and externally and it happens for different people in different ways.Perhaps that is the key. You did not have the ‘what ever it takes’ frame of mind and I am not sure whether it is inborn or learnt from your tutor.It is a pity that you did not play an instrument that allowed you to play with others from the outset.Mind you, today there are beginners piano trios and so forth. Anyway I am truly sorry about your experience.Regarding my examples about writers I appreciate that Taylor Bradford must be thinking of adults or youngsters or youths at the least.There are so many ways of teaching now you only need to read musician Paul Harris’s book on the Virtuoso Teacher to have your mind opened to what he believes can be achieved with any type of student.However the progress would be slower when putting the building blocks in place for someone not naturally able however progress is still possible.I have only attended a very enriching lecture by Paul Harris and I think summarising what you have said, I think it comes down to your teacher not understanding your difficulties and leaving you to flounder which is sad.Maybe you should try again as an adult.
      I thought I should respond to your letter re: smart practise and what ever the opposite of that is, sounds extremely vague. I think that you should have been understood better by your teacher and thereby knowing what makes you tick would enable them to show you how to work. A lesson on practise is not a wasted lesson. You could have a lesson whereby you taught your teacher something that you are working on.You definitely sounded from your letter as if your were not practising in manageable amounts with realistic goals to aim for.You want to feel you are doing something and even if it is like a person learning to walk again, one successful tiny step then another.

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