Easier Success

Singing In The Rain

April was both good & bad for rapid skill acquisition. On the one hand, I missed a great many days, and only tap danced for a little over 15 hours. On the other hand, the skill of rapid, complicated footwork came without too much difficulty! Becoming really good at tap dancing obviously takes a immense amount of time, as evidenced by the fact that there have only been a handful of tap dancing virtuosos over the past century, but in under 20 hours I learned all of the basic steps, and developed them to a functional (albeit not especially quick) speed.

In my learning I just followed the video lessons linked to in my introductory post, and while the music used and the teacher’s clothing weren’t in the traditional style (or even very nice at all), it didn’t hinder the learning process. Because of the fact of following the lessons, I would learn a new short routine each day or two, but not well enough to actually recall many days hence. This wasn’t an issue though, as the continuous learning helped me to become familiar with the individual steps and tie them together as instructed, rather than just knowing one routine. There was one simple routine that I practiced all through the month:

I also was fooling around and did a fun spin. Yay!

My greatest problem throughout April was my dance floor. I was using a very small (3′ 9″x18.5″) ancient scrap board through most of the month, which was constraining for movement, and didn’t produce the clearest sound. Close to the end of the month I did get a magnificent 4’x4′ sheet of 4-ply pine board, which felt wonderfully expansive, and was a great deal louder & clearer. If only I’d been able to acquire it earlier on, everything about tap dancing would have been even better! But no great loss.

All in all, I would call April a success. I’ve sort of met my ambiguous target performance level, and I think am much more comfortable and fluid with the skill than I had anticipated I would be at this point.

Shall We Dance?

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astair Tap Dancing

In April I get to be a bit more active! This month, and the following two, are going to be just as much exercise as skill acquisition. Tap dancing is something that I’ve found fascinating and beautiful for many years, with the genesis of my love for it largely inspired by videos like this.

Target Performance Level:

Be able to fluently do a few dozen different step combinations in rhythm and style.

That’s an semi-ambiguous performance level, but I’m okay with that. I’m going to be no Fred Astaire, but I should be at least a tiny bit formidable. Like a kitten?

Skill Breakdown:

Tap dancing, like most skills, can be broken down into three main parts:

  1. Rapid ankle and leg movement
  2. Balance
  3. Rhythm
  4. A bit of flair

Resources:

I bought a pair of Bloch Tap-Flex S0388M tap shoes. They’re very comfortable, and make a good tap sound. The heel is a little quiet, but that could just be the board I’m tapping on at present. I don’t have a proper tap dance floor, so I’m practicing on a sheet of plywood. I hear it’s the next best thing to a professional tap floor!

Tap dance instruction at the beginning is going to come from these YouTube videos, teaching the basic steps, rhythm, and the like. After going through all of that, I shall endeavor to find more to build upon, or perhaps learn one of Fred Astaire’s routines?

Conclusion:

Fancy Footwork is Fun. Or so I’m hoping. Tap dancing could be an enjoyable thing to do with other people, unlike other skills, like . . . penmanship. Perhaps that occasion may someday arrive. And when it does, I’ll be (somewhat) ready!

On the contrary, my writing is uncommonly slow!

The above was written in 8 minutes and 24 seconds

Who would’ve thought it could take so long to learn one’s alphabet? March is over, but the handwriting must remain. Somehow. After 20 hours of practice with the Palmer Method of Business Handwriting, I definitely made significant progress, but I’m not yet to the point where it is particularly quick or attractive. At all. I think it would take a total of 30–40 hours to get to the point where I can write quickly, and not have to try and think of how each letter is formed, while simultaneously having the letters consistent & nice. To improve my handwriting at this point I need to shift my focus from handwriting to just writing. My individual letters are reasonable, but words are not. I must simply write a large volume of words, to train my mind to write with quick & beautiful penmanship.

The first six hours or so were spent just making circles and groups of lines, which would at first appear a monumental waste of time and paper, but in doing so, I trained myself to write using my entire arm, instead of just the wrist. Because of this practice employed by the Palmer Method, I was able to easily practice for an hour at a time without tiring in the slightest.

At the beginning of the month it took me 3 minutes 19 seconds to write the upper & lower case alphabet, ten numerals, and “A specimen of my best writing before I began to practice muscular movement writing from the lessons in The Palmer Method of Business Writing.” After 21 hours of practice with Palmer, it took me 8 minutes and 24 seconds—about three times as long! But even just practicing the letters and that phrase a few times at the end, I could tell that I was speeding up each time. The biggest problem is, as I mentioned, that good handwriting takes a little longer to learn. After 20 hours of practice, I was still mostly doing drills, writing “mine”, “uses”, “sell”, and my lower-case alphabet. I had not yet gotten into writing much of your general words, and as writing actual words with a new script takes some mental effort, it slowed things down considerably. I do believe though that I could hit my original goal of 20 words per minute after another 20 hours (40 total) of focused practice.

After these three months, it is beginning to appear to me that 20 of practice on most skills is not enough to be truly proficient, or to have an actually impressive skill level (although this may be different for things like unicycling & handstands). Instead it appears to be just enough skill to enable one to continue in that skill without frustration, and to enjoy it a bit.

I would say that The Palmer Method of Business Writing is definitely an excellent handwriting method, both for legibility, speed, and physical ease. With that said, I completely understand why handwriting is typically taught over years of school, instead of one month.

The Tools of the Trade

Calendar

Learning skills is all about practice. And missing out on practice sets you back, especially with only a month for each skill. In order to ensure that I practice regularly, I hung up a calendar, and mark off each day that I practice. This keeps me more aware of missed days, and helps to keep me going.

When I’m practicing, I also have to record the amount of time I practice. I could do this with a kitchen timer and a notebook, or something, but it’s much easier using the Timesheet app for Android. With it, I can see total amount practiced for each skill, statistics, and graphs!

Timesheet

Handwriting is coming along pretty decently, but I was gone for a week, which put me way behind on practice. Thankfully, there’s room to catch up before the end of the month. That’s the only update you’ll get for now—no pictures of my handwriting for you!

The Palmer Method of Business Handwriting

Palmer

March’s skill is perhaps the most useful. Something I’m definitely in need of. I’ll be learning to write based on the Palmer Method, which specializes in combining legibility, rapidity, ease, and endurance. The Palmer Method was developed and taught by Austen Palmer in late 19th century into the early 20th, and published in a short textbook pamphlet (which I just so happened to have gotten at an antique book store a number of years back!). The handwriting method differs from the majority of handwriting, especially today, in that you don’t move your wrist at all while writing, but instead move your entire arm. This allows you to write for longer without tiring, and ensures a higher level of fluidity.

A couple of years ago I had spent an hour or so starting to learn this, and found that ballpoint pens really don’t work well at all, since they have little friction against the paper. Pencils work, but not superbly. A good fountain pen is marvelous. As such, in an effort to not expend large quantities of cash on skill acquisition, I went and purchased a pair of disposable Pilot® fountain pens. The only other item I need is paper (and a desk or table, of course), and that’s plentiful. For highest quality writing I could probably buy fancy paper, but for now I’m just going to use ordinary printer paper.

Target Performance Level:

My goal is to be able to write at 30 20 words per minute, and to have my handwriting look quite similar to the sample letters shown in the textbook:

Letters

Here is how my handwriting looks at present, as a comparison both for now, and when I have completed the 20 hours:

Handwriting Before

The capital letters on the first two lines line look so especially irregular primarily because of the height I was trying to make them, which is close to double the size I generally write.

After completing this I was shocked how almost-decent my writing actually looks—typically it is much worse. I guess it’s true, fountain pens really do show  an improvement in handwriting over ballpoint pens.

Just when it was getting fun…

Sailboat

Ukulele seems to be a bit of a repeat of piano (albeit a less fun . Right as I got to the last hour or two, it finally started getting more fun, and my ability seemed significantly higher than ever before. My ability to smoothly & quickly switch between chords is hugely improved over where I was when I began, and even where I was at my last post. Different rhythms, strumming patterns, and picking methods have allowed much more fun & interesting playing as well! All told, I’ve played for 20½ hours.

During the last six hours of playing, I went beyond just playing the seven pieces I had chosen to learn, and tried my hand at playing along with recordings of various songs. I’ve got the keys of C, G, and F covered fairly well, and can play the 4-chord pop song progression (I, V, vi, IV) in all three. I can play all of the songs I’d chosen, but memorization is weak at best, and none are performance-worthy.

To demonstrate my progress (to some degree), I recorded JJ Heller’s Boat Song:

Getting to the point where ukulele is kind of fun to play was excellent. But with that said, I’m ready to move on to a new month, and a new skill.

Can’t Help Falling In Love

Elvis with an ukulele

Despite your first thought, the title of this post is not describing my feelings toward the ukulele. Yes, it’s kind of fun, and it’s fairly easy to learn & play, but I don’t find it nearly as enjoyable as piano was. I rarely have an urge to play it, which has caused me to fall behind a little in my playing, with only ten hours of practice in so far. It’s definitely fun if I’m in the right mood though, and I have gotten one song fairly well memorized!

Here is my meager performance of the song with the same title as this blog post’s title:

I still have ten days left in the month, and ten hours left of practice. I’ll have to step up my game. Hopefully I’ll soon hit the point where everything becomes easier, more fluid, and more enjoyable, as happened with piano near the end of last month. To make my playing more interesting, I believe I’ll also have to add some variety—learning some picking methods, perhaps. Working on being able to do a traditional, brisk ukulele strumming rhythm would also be good for some of my songs.

Ukulele Time!

Martin Ukulele
In February I’m going to learn to play the ukulele. At the end of 2012 I purchased an antique Martin Ukulele made somewhere around 1930. It’s small, but it has great tone and volume. In the time since then I’ve dabbled a little bit, but nothing very substantial. I know many of the basic chords, but can’t switch between most of them very quickly or smoothly.

Target Performance Level:

This is a little harder to define that it was for piano by ear. Learning the “Four Chord Song”, like Josh Kaufman did, would be cool, but perhaps a bit of a low goal. Josh did his performance at the World Domination Summit after only ten hours of practice, and I’m going for 20-30 hours this month. So instead I think I’ll make it a goal to memorize (and perfect?) seven songs:

  • Somewhere Over The Rainbow by Judy Garland (rather obligatory, if I’m learning ukulele)
  • What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
  • La Vie En Rose (In French!) by Edith Piaf
  • Boat Song by JJ Heller
  • Can’t Help Falling In Love by Elvis Presley
  • Moon River by Audrey Hepburn
  • If by Bread

This will give me about three hours per song. Which should be fine, since most are fairly simple, except for La Vie En Rose (not to mention that it’s in French. But the lyrics will be memorized outside of the 20 hours).

Skill Breakdown:

General ukulele has three main facets:

  1. Knowing the chords
  2. Switching chords smoothly
  3. Rhythm/strumming/picking

I have the first part down fairly well already,  but I will have to learn a few more chords for all of those songs, depending on what keys I play them in. The other two will come as I learn the songs.

Resources:

UkuTabs.com has a ton of chord sheets from hundreds of different artists, and I’ve managed to find nearly half of what I need there. Google will help with the rest.

My favorite source for learning chords is Ukulele-Chords.com. They have every kind of chord imaginable, from an A to an G#7sus4. The best part is that they tell you where each finger should go, and even have multiple chord fingering structures!

Conclusion:

I’m already three days into the month, with 2 hours and 25 minutes of practice down. It’s a much simpler skill than piano, but so far, it still looks like it’s going to be pretty fun.

The world is my oyster! But it’s a hard nut to crack

Success, Baby!
Yesterday I finished up practicing with exactly 20 hours! At around 18½-19 hours, I felt as if my skills had gone up to Level 2! Which is awesome, but also really makes me want to keep playing. Instead of learning 12 skills in 12 months, maybe I should learn them in 12 years… I had planned from the beginning to continue playing piano by ear throughout the year, as I learn my other skills, because it’s something I’d really like to do well. It will likely be a little harder to keep up though, because it won’t be as high of a priority.

So, progress! In the ~6⅓ hours since my last update, I’ve played ‘Throw Another Log On The Fire’ a good many more times, making it sound much smoother & nicer. My primary area of focus was working on ‘A Dreamers Holiday’, as sung by Richard Diamond (again, of course). The recording is really very poor, and working out the accompaniment is very trying. I’ve made some small progress, but nothing substantial. Another couple of hours would get it mostly figured out though, I think. For some reason, getting the melody figured out took a painfully long time. I’m sure the recording had something to do with it, and the fact that I didn’t know the song very well at first. But now I’ve got that down pat!

My one main grief is that I mostly wasted the first seven hours, in not working directly toward my goal. If I had followed the correct path from the beginning, I may have made around 50% more progress. Or for a similar result, I can review where I’m at after seven more hours of practice, which I’ll likely do. At that point I’ll also try and get to a place where I can make a good recording of the songs I’ve learned. And in addition, I shall test to see if I’ve attained my end goal of being able to play a song reasonably well, after 20 tries!

I have doubts that I really hit my target performance level, but I am very satisfied with the progress I’ve made, enjoy the activity, and will certainly continue to play more in the future!

I’m Sitting High On A Hill Top

Dale Hill

It’s been nearly two weeks since the last update, and I just missed five days of practice in a row, because of travel, and no readily accessible piano. But! But! But! I have made excellent progress since the last post! I’ve practiced another 6¼ hours, for a total of 13 hours and 37 minutes. I’ve now past the two-thirds mark!

This practice has been very focused on direct, noticeable progress. Some of the time has been spent just playing little bits of melodies that I know, but the largest portion of the practice time was spent working on the song ‘Throw Another Log On The Fire’, sung by Richard Diamond (Dick Powell). The recording I have is rather poor, so I couldn’t really decipher the chords by listening along, and instead had to just try different things until it sounded about right. It’s not quite perfect, and I’m playing it fairly simply, but it sounds pretty good!

By learning skills through working on one song at a time (starting with the melody, followed by discerning the accompanying chords, and then making it all sound nice), instead of just generally doing things, I make real, noticeable progress, I enjoy playing piano more, and learn a song that I can play whenever I want! I’ve now developed the skill to the point that it’s really kind of fun to do!

Playing piano by ear is really a combination of many skill sets, each of which is fairly daunting on its own: ear training, relative pitch, piano technique, rhythm, and likely a couple of others. Because of the complexity of it, you’d expect progress to be slow. And yes, progress is somewhat slow, but it’s really not too bad at all. I’m really very pleased with the progress I’ve made so far, and am looking forward to where I’ll be on the 31st.

Coming up next I’m going to learn a new song or two, which will likely take me to the 20-hour mark, at which time I’ll give a full review of the month’s skill, with everything I’ve learned.

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