Four times in a row

Several years back, I attended a workshop where a professional guitarist told us about how he knew if he had mastered a particular lick or solo. His practice was to play it in loop until he got it right four times in a row.

Back when he had mentioned it, it didn’t seem like much of a big deal. But the guitarist told us how this can be extremely hard, and how he would often get it right three times only to slip up the fourth time and start all over again. So, I decided to try it myself.

I picked several licks that were fairly easy – getting them right the first time wasn’t a problem. But somewhere between the first and the fourth try, I would make a mistake. Some mistakes could be glaring, like striking the wrong string. Some others could be tiny – a small glitch in tone, an inadvertently muted string or a note played slightly out of time. But I would instinctively know when I had made a mistake, and getting even the simplest sequence right four times in a row was far harder than I had assumed.

The human mind is prone to overconfidence. The idea of being able to do something is often more appealing than the feasibility of its execution. Reading (and highlighting lines)  in a book or following how a teacher solves a problem in class gives us an illusion of having understood the concept well enough. Alas, when a slight variation of the same problem appears in an examination, those illusions come crashing down.

Overconfidence is the separation between the idea of being able to do something from the ability to execute it. Overconfidence also separates the gap between an amateur and a professional.

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