Less is more: Marginal gain learning

“Marginal Gain Learning” (MGL) is a training concept employed by the British cycling team which has reaped brilliant rewards, as their success in both the London and Rio Olympics has demonstrated.

The concept was developed by the team’s coach Dave Brailsford, who believes that by breaking down and analysing every tiny aspect of a cyclist’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area, the cyclist’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced. This approach included obvious things like adjustments to the cyclist’s diet, the weekly training regime, the ergonomics of the bicycle seat. But it also included tiny, less obvious details such as the kind of massage gel the cyclists used, or the thickness of the fabric of their racing skinsuits. Brailsford and the team searched for 1% improvements everywhere and this approach resulted in Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France in 2012, the first British cyclist to do so, Chris Froome winning it in 2013, 2015 and 2016, and an impressive medal haul by Britain’s track cyclists at the London and Rio Olympics.

This “aggregation of marginal gains” approach is incredibly simple and very effective – as Team GB’s success attests – and it can be used in any learning/teaching environment as it is highly adaptable and easy to implement. In short, it provides a tool for sustained improvement: from musicians looking to improve their overall performance, to students improving their learning and teachers enhancing their pedagogical skills. I have used concepts drawn from MGL in my teaching and also in my own practising and performing.

Learning music is hard: from the junior student faced with just three or four lines of music to the advanced pianist embarking on a full-length piano sonata or multi-movement work, the learning and upkeep of all those notes is a daunting prospect and requires many hours of consistent, thoughtful practise. For me, MGL is a way of “being kind” to yourself as a musician while also enabling one to practise and process music in a meticulous and mindful way. The trouble is, we tend to define achievement through one significant moment – learning a whole page or movement of a piece of music, for example – and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis which accumulate to create a significant whole.

For the musician, the MGL approach can reap important rewards. As a teacher, I encourage students to focus on very small aspects of their pieces at a time. We might take a single phrase and look at things such as shape, dynamics, articulation, mood. Each aspect is examined, played, evaluated, adjusted and re-evaluated. The various elements are then gradually aggregated and eventually the student plays the whole phrase with all the elements present. What might appear to be an overly nitpicking approach results in the student gaining security in the all notes and nuances of that phrase. And anything learnt in one phrase or section of a piece of music can be applied elsewhere, within the same piece or in other works. In this way, one creates a “knowledge bank” of information and details in music, while the process of MGL becomes almost habitual through repeated use. Because the student has been encouraged to work through this process slowly and carefully, they gain confidence in their abilities to apply the knowledge gained elsewhere in their music without constant reiteration from the teacher.

In order to achieve this, brain, eyes and ears must be engaged at all times – and it’s amazing how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves as they play! – to assess what one sees and hears and to make small adjustments based on that judgement. Evaluation, reflection, adjustment and re-evaluation are important elements in the process and I am careful to ensure that students understand what they are doing and why. What is so satisfying about this method is that it produces noticeable progress through small increments which aggregate to create meaningful overall improvement. It also enables students to work (practise) independently because they have the knowledge and confidence to understand what needs to be practised and how. Thus, they come to their next lesson knowing they have made progress, which is one of the best motivators I know to continue practising!

I use the same approach in my own study and learning of complex/advanced repertoire and have found that it results in my ability to learn music more quickly and more accurately. It has made me more alert to the details and subtleties in a score, which in turn allows me to play with greater confidence, expression and musicality. I find the process of evaluation, reflection and adjustment deeply satisfying as the rewards are consistent and noticeable. The MGL concept can be applied in performance too as one makes small adjustments, evaluations and improvements each time the programme is performed.

On a more general level, one can apply MGL to aspects such as warm up exercises, noticing and reacting to tension when one plays, practising a phrase slowly and relishing the beauty of it, and playing in a non-judgemental way. The positive adjustments one makes are small but significant, and in this way MGL complements a mindful approach to practising and playing.

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

 

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