“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

 

My interest in this form of meditation was piqued when a friend talked of following a mindfulness course and employing mindfulness as a way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy as a musician and the exigencies of everyday life. I decided to explore further to see if employing some techniques drawn from mindfulness could help me, in my musical life and every day.

Basically, “mindfulness” is an awareness of yourself and your surroundings. When in a mindful state, mindless “daydreaming” is replaced by presence, and attention to the here and now. It can also refer to specific meditative processes, such as those popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Stress Reduction Clinic. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation.

How I am using Mindfulness in my musical life:

Reaching a state of acceptance

I suffer from a certain lack of confidence as a musician (despite appearances to the contrary when I play and the many positive endorsements I receive from teachers, colleagues and friends). I realised that part of this stems from a habit of constantly comparing myself to others. I have resolved to stop comparing myself to others, to accept that certain repertoire just isn’t “right” for me (for whatever reason, technically or emotionally), that I don’t have to attempt pieces just because others are, and to focus on developing my own playing in repertoire that I enjoy and which interests me.

Banishing the inner critic

Alongside this sense of acceptance, I am learning to switch off the voice in my head which tells me I am “just not good enough”. I’ve realised that this voice is, in part, the manifestation of a variety of critical comments, from a music teacher at school to certain others who have hinted that I am committing some form of pianistic “hubris” by performing in public concerts or taking on works such as Beethoven’s Opus 110 or Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 (my current preoccupation). I now try to draw confidence from the positive and supportive comments from colleagues, diploma adjudicators, mentors and friends.

Mindful practising

Mindfulness enables us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care. Too often I come across students (and others) who simply “type” their pieces, processing notes with little care or thought and revealing that their practising has been repetitive and mindless. Repetitive practise is important, for sure, but it should be both thoughtful and repetitive – and each repetition should be considered. Taking notice of what one is playing – each phrase, dynamic nuance, subtleties of touch, expression, articulation – will result in more efficient and rewarding practise, leading to vibrant and authoritative playing.

It also enables us to become more aware of our physical state when playing, to check that the wrists are supple and mobile, arms are soft, shoulders relaxed, and so forth, and to know to stop playing when the body becomes tight, sore or stressed.

On a broader level, mindfulness can make us more insightful as musicians, to connect better with our inner selves, be less self-critical, to see mistakes honestly and without fear and know how to understand and adjust them more easily, and to improve our playing and musicianship based on experience and intuition rather than self-criticsm: in essence, to better trust our musical self.

Dealing with anxiety

My main strategy for dealing with performance anxiety is knowing that the music has been practised deeply and is fully prepared, including at least three “practise” performances. In addition to this, I try to perform “in the moment”, to focus on the “now” of performing and to silence the destructive inner critic voice that wants remind one of all the slips and errors, and can stifle creativity and spontaneity in performance. After a performance, I try not to post-mortem it too closely, but to return to practising the day after with renewed interest and (hopefully) deeper insight, while looking forward to the next opportunity to perform the pieces.

Daily meditation sessions may not be for everyone (and this is not something I actively engage in) but increased awareness while engaged in music practise can help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication. While playing, banish the “mindless” thoughts that distract and fill the mind – “what shall I cook for dinner?”,  “did I remember to collect the dry-cleaning?” – and focus instead on observing and listening to yourself playing. Try to notice things that perhaps weren’t apparent before or which you previously took for granted, and bring meaning, value, love and life to every note and phrase you play.

(source http://www.gracebelgravia.com)