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Musical Evolution Part 1 - The Theory

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Charles Darwin's scientific theory of evolution might not be something which is on your mind when you step into the rehearsal room or get your instrument ready for a practice session. After all, we cannot really wait several million years to see improvements in our musical ability on whatever is our specialist area. However, from my own experience in the practice room, there is an amazingly powerful idea which you can actually apply to everything you do musically and start to see positive results in a very short space of time. The theory is this:




I am going to introduce this idea to you in part one, and then in part two I will give you a specific example of how to put the idea into practice.

Be a Flying Squirrel

To sum up the evolution of the flying squirrel is quite easy, apologies for the crudeness but hopefully you will get the picture. The tree squirrel existed first and some squirrels migrated to other locations where they became more at danger from predators when finding food on the ground. Sometimes a squirrel decided to try and leap to another tree to find food rather than walking. They probably kept falling to start but over time, the squirrels who could leap further survived longer and their genes were passed on. Over a very long time, the tree squirrel evolved and adapted until it became a flying squirrel. It can't actually fly like a bird but developed the ability and body to allow it to glide.

First it recognised a need, then it perfected the ability to jump further, then it attempted something impossible, something out of reach. It didn't just learn how to do something better, it managed to do something which was previously impossible. Your everyday grey squirrel in the local park can't do it because it never had the need for it.

What is it You Need?

Lets start thinking about ourselves now and how we can apply this theory to our musical life. What are your greatest weaknesses or challenges as a musician? If you could have one wish that would change one area of your musical ability for the better what would it be? What is something you want to be able to do but as of yet still find impossible? The first step to successfully using this theory is to decide what it is you need to do. It might be you are a brass player and cannot play higher than a certain note. You might be a guitarist but cannot sweep pick. You might play the drums but cannot use the double kick pedal at fast speeds. You might play the flute and cannot circular breath. You could cope without this ability but have a desire to be able to do it.

What it is you want to do will go hand in hand with your own ability level. For the professional players of any instrument, there might be some extended techniques which you have not used much. For a beginner, just holding the instrument correctly might feel impossible to start with, especially if you are playing the French horn. This theory can be applied to anything and is as much for teachers as it is for students. Always remember, anything that has been achieved by anyone, can be achieved by you. What seems impossible to you right now was once impossible for someone else who has overcome it, just like the flying squirrel.

Sensible Approach

We have to have a sensible approach. What it is we want must be something that makes sense and follows a natural line of progression. The easiest way to think of this is to relate it to speed. You might be able to do something at a slow speed but not at a fast speed. So what you want is something that you need, but currently feels impossible to you. Working towards it is a natural thing to want to do.

Humans learn to walk before running and this progression is really important to keep in mind. There has even been studies done which suggest that babies who skip the crawling stage could have learning difficulties later in life. This is a profound argument and very interesting when you think about it.

If you are a pianist, it is no use thinking you want to be able to play Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella” from the Grandes Etudes de Paganini if you have never mastered Beethoven's “Für Elise” or other similarly easy repertoire. At the same time, don't let that stop you dreaming, just accept that there is a line of progression which has to be taken. You have to master the basic steps first, before attempting the impossible and a lot of musicians get stuck because they are not following a natural path to success. They are accidentally or even purposefully skipping important pieces of the puzzle and expecting to reach the same levels of those who have spent hours putting all the pieces together.

Master the Basic Steps

This whole idea isn't just true for musicians. It could be used in all walks of life from academic studies to sports. Mastering the basic steps of any technique requires patience and repetition. I like to think of what I call 'the good / bad balance'. While rehearsing, if you do something good or accurately then it goes on the good side of the scale. If you do something poorly, wrongly or untidily then it goes on the bad side of the scale. Over time, you want the good side to outweigh the bad side. What is so powerful about this idea is that the more the scale starts to tip in one direction, the heavier each individual addition to the scale becomes. Once you start getting better at doing something good, it becomes easier and the odds of doing it that way all the time increase. Unfortunately, the same can be said if the scale is tipping into the bad. You must practice good habits. Don't accidentally practice bad habits because the scale doesn't know right from wrong, it just fills up with whatever you give it. If you give it bad practice then you get better at doing that.

In order to master the basic steps of anything you must have already mastered the basic steps which lead to that, and when you start going that deeply into your skills you can easily get overwhelmed and just think that you might as well go right back to the start and start again. But that is why there are many less outstanding musicians than average or poor ones. All you can do is start today with the right mindset.

You might not care about being the best in the world and I often hear students say this sort of thing. Maybe you just want to play for fun but I can guarantee, when you struggle with something, it is not fun, so the sooner you can apply this theory, no matter your goals or ability as a musician, the sooner you will have more fun with it.

Attempt the Impossible

A great way to improve quickly in any area, is to have a go at making it harder to start with. If you are rehearsing in a way that is above the level required then it will feel easier when you come back to the thing you actually need to do. Even though we must master the basic steps, at some point we have to make a move out of our comfort zone. With the right thinking (that anything is possible) and the ongoing practice of the basics then we are creating our own musical evolution which is guaranteed to succeed.

If what you are trying to do is the right thing, and you are doing it in the right way and regularly trying to push to the next level then it is only a matter of time before you will notice the breakthrough. If you do not notice the breakthrough then maybe you need to adapt your practice and thinking strategy a bit. We all get flashes of inspiration and ideas from time to time and when you are thinking positively about your musical journey you will get gut feelings about whether something is going to help or not. Trust that instinct. Keep attempting what it is you want to do and believe that with time and the correct practice of the basics, it will happen. Just adapt the exercise to suit what it is you want.

Part two will soon be posted where I am going to demonstrate an example of how I put this evolutionary musical theory into practice. It is something which works for me every time so as with anything else, experiment, give it a try, adapt it to suit your needs and I am sure success will arrive quickly.

Good Luck!

Mark Glover


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1 Comment

Mar 29, 2021

A provocative article in BBW a couple of years ago entitled "Talent is useless" referenced the book "The Talent Code" which I bought and read. Learning is a repetitive process. The book makes the case that learning is building myelin pathways in the brain through focused practice and repetition. Your three point plan fits that model perfectly: 1) MASTER THE BASIC STEPS


3) REPEAT Here's an excellent 5 minute summary:

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