The Beginning of the End


Two-thirds of the way through the month, and no introductory post yet. This is indicative of how things have been progressing, and has led to a decision: this month’s skill shall be my last. While the last three skills would be interesting to try, I’ve not nearly enough motivation left (and I could likely contrive several other excuses as well). Instead, I shall just end with September’s skill (and likely stretch it out to 20 hours, rather than ending at the end of the month), and save speed reading, storytelling, and drawing for some other time.

For the month of September (and onward), I have undertaken to attempt to gain the skill of piano sight reading. I have basic knowledge already—the names of notes, and which notes correspond to which keys—but I certainly lack any semblance of speed.

Target Performance Level

I wish to be able to play any simple, basic-level sheet music with rapidity, fluidity, and ease.

Skill Breakdown

As with any and all skills, the fastest way to progress is to be always pushing the limits, and always attempting what is just beyond your grasp. As speed is the key factor in reading music, my focus must be almost entirely on playing as absolutely speedily as I can. As speed is the first challenge to break through, I can ignore tempo and rhythm, and just plow through sheet music as fast as possible. If I can play notes much faster than is required, I can then slow down a bit and focus on proper rhythm, without being distracted by figuring out which key I must press next.


I shall post a review of my progress once I have practiced for 20 hours. At some point after that, I will write a review of the entire year’s learning, and what insights I have gained on rapid skill acquisition, and the pitfalls to avoid for any who follow in my tracks.

A Tale of Sight Singing And Neglect

Going Down

18 days into the month, and I haven’t written an introductory post yet. This sad story of neglect carries into my skill acquisition as well, as I’ve only practiced 3 hours at this point. I shan’t let this hold me back though, and am still going to write an introductory post, and hopefully get at least 10 hours of practice in this month.

Target Performance Level:

Be able to effectively sing the correct notes to a song I’ve never heard before a capella, by simply following sheet music.

Skill Breakdown:

Like any musical skill, sight singing is done by producing the correct notes with the correct rhythm. Since it’s singing, you ought also to produce the correct words.

Rhythm is basic enough (although can still be a challenge), so the greatest difficulty lies in singing the right notes. The most confusing part of music is that everything is not in the same key. This adds a layer of difficulty to following music for most instruments, but especially so for singing. How are you supposed to tell if a given interval is a half-step or a whole-step? Major or minor? At first I was going to memorize where all the half steps were for each key signature, but then realized it would be much easier and likely more effective to just make note of where the tonic was, and from there easily see where the third and fifth lie. With the little bit of practice I’ve done so far, this seems to be working out quite well.

I have a book of lots of old popular songs from the 1920s era such as would be sung by college glee clubs. I am unfamiliar with most of the songs, which makes them prime candidates for my exercise. Before singing each song I play the scale of the key the song is in, to acquaint my ear. I then give myself the starting note, and work through it, using helping notes from the piano as little as possible. As I progress I should see less and less assistance being needed.

My only wish for this month is that I was a Tenor, as these songs often go quite high.

Est-ce que vous êtes Américain?


I shall go to France!


For now though, I shall be content with the greatest rapid skill acquisition experiment of the year: learning a language in 20 hours! This would be daunting, if it weren’t so easy. People say that learning a language is difficult, especially for adults, but the truth of the matter is that adults can learn languages faster than children. Traditional methods of rote memorization and vocabulary lists are unengaging, and as such unmemorable. Modern tools and methods can aid in learning a language much more quickly, and teach words and phrases that are actually useful. Through the month of July, I am making use of two different methods:


Duolingo is a fairly new business (only two years old as of June), but they apparently have more users than the total number of people learning a language in the US Public School system. They work based on two main principles: two-way written language translation, and audio transcription. In this way you quickly learn proper pronunciation, while also being able to read in that language. Duolingo also has a neat feature where more advanced students can translate Wikipedia pages into other languages for practice.


The Pimsleur method was developed by Paul Pimsleur in the 1960s, and teaches through the use of 30-minute audio lessons. This method keeps the mind engaged by prompting the listener to speak the translation of an English phrase, as opposed to simply repeating after the teacher as some other methods do. Pimsleur also employs graduated-interval recall, which is supposed to help get the language into your long-term memory quickly & efficiently, by bringing it up just prior to the point where you would forget it. Besides these learning techniques, the Pimsleur method focuses on core vocabulary that will actually be useful to you, instead of learning the French equivalent to words like “elephant”, and “acrophobia”.

Between the two of these, I should have the basics of French writing, grammar, and conversation down pat. The only real challenge I face this month is practicing a full 20 hours, as I have fallen far short of that goal during the last few months’ skills.

A quest to discover why we walk about on our feet

Marines doing gymnastics

In June, I am learning gymnastics. More specifically, handstands, cartwheels, and possibly other things if rapid skill acquisition and time permit. These skills will certainly prove useful when I’m inevitably desperate enough to join a circus.

Throughout my childhood, I never really endeavored to do either, except a handful of odd times. When I was probably about seven years old, I did try doing a handstand by walking up a wall, and having my feet on the ground, but I never got to the part where you actually balance, and was left simply doing the part where all the blood goes to your head.

Now that I’ve mastered the art of walking on two feet (really truly, I almost never fall down, and you can scarcely see me toddle), and can balance on one wheel, I’ve decided it’s time to figure out how to stand upside down. First step: YouTube. Second step: lots of practice.

The process for learning how to do a cartwheel is quite similar, although how you actually go about doing a cartwheel is a little bit different than I had expected. I remembered from a little research a few years back that you point your one foot in the direction you’re going to cartwheel, but I thought you tried to bend over more sideways, and not forward. In reality you bend over forward, not sideways.

If I manage to master the both of these before the month is out, I may attempt to learn walkovers, although honestly, I very likely may not have sufficient flexibility & strength for that.

The greatest challenge this month is going to be endurance. Gymnastics are quite trying on the muscles, especially with no prior experience. I’m not anticipating that I’ll be able to do even 30 minutes on any day, which will really cut down on my total practice time, compounded by the fact that I won’t have the ability to do extra for catch-up. Because of this, I’m going to have to be extra-vigilant to not miss practice. I may be able to break practice up into multiple sessions during the day, which could help me to get closer to 20 hours this month, although hopefully I’ll be able to do much more in much less time.

Look Ma, no hands!


For the month of May I am take up the art of one-wheeled transportation. Several years back I learned to ride on a unicycle borrowed from a friend, developing the ability to not fall off too often when traveling in a straight line (but not much more). In the spring/summer of 2013 I bought a unicycle of my own, and rode it a little, although not progressing much past my prior ability.

Currently, I can successfully mount a unicycle without the assistance of a stationary object at least half the time. I can go almost indefinitely in a straight line without falling, and can make gradual turns. I can go quite fast or quite slow. In essence, I have all of the basics down, save for sharp turns, which is the first additional skill I shall work on. But this is unicycle we’re talking about! I need to be able to go backward!

Target Performance Level:

The most important thing at this point is to be able to do a tight U-turn—a three or four foot circle would be ideal. In addition, I would like to have the capability to unicycle in reverse, and of course I need to get my unicycle mounting ability up to at least a 95% success rate. In the off chance that I manage to get all of those under my belt before the month is out, I shall attempt to juggle while unicycling. That’s all that I have planned—no bagpipes for me!

The greatest challenge I face this month is that of getting in anywhere near 20 hours of practice. I missed several days at the beginning of the month, as I was out of State, which is bad enough. Add to this the fact that unicycle gives no rest, and you see the predicament. In order to balance, you have to be continually exerting a force on both pedals, giving neither leg any rest for the duration, and there is no coasting, like on a bicycle. Yes, it is possible to continue the activity mostly non-stop for 40+ minutes, but it is rather tiring.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the circus.

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


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?


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!

The Palmer Method of Business Handwriting


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:


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.

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: 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 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!


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 Beginning of the Beginning

Piano KeysIn January I’m going to be learning to play piano by ear. This is a skill I’ve wanted for a while now. Ever since listening to Richard Diamond on old time radio when I was 15, I suppose. The style I would like to play in is similar to that which Diamond did, so a bit of a 1940s jazz & show tune style. I’m coming into this skill with very little in the way of existing ability. When I was about 16 I took piano lessons from a friend, but this was all sight-reading and technique. I’ve dabbled on-and-off ever since then, but have never really done much by ear, because I wasn’t good enough for it to be enjoyable. Hopefully the next 20 hours will change that.

Target Performance Level:

Be able to play any song I know, fairly smoothly, by ear, with both hands, on the fifth twentieth try.

I think this is a reasonable goal, and one I’ll be very satisfied to achieve. Now that I know how well I want to be able to play, I have to discern what makes up the skill.

Skill Breakdown:

From what I can tell, there are three main parts to being able to play piano by ear:

  1. Play the melody
  2. Identify the accompanying chords
  3. Make those chords sound nice

The first step, playing the melody, is definitely the easiest. From my little bit of playing, I know I can figure out most melodies  after a few tries. The goal here is to be able to play it with very minimal mistakes the first time through.

The second step is much harder for me, likely because I have had no practice. I got a tip from a friend that identifying the chords is easiest by just playing the bass note, and then filling in the rest of the chord once I’ve got that figured out. Sounds good!

Making the chords sound lovely is the final step, and the one that will take me from being able to play a song, to being able to play a song that people will enjoy listening to.


I’ve got a piano, so there’s that. And I just got it tuned, too, so that will definitely help!

A friend recommended that I’ll learn a lot of great jazz technique if I work my way through The Jazz Piano Book, by Mark Levine, so I’ll be doing that this month.

If I run out of songs to play, I can always listen to some of the great jazz standards, found on this Wikipedia page, and work on them.

Another useful thing that I came across, is a list of chord progressions for different types of music. This could end up being quite useful:

  • I IV V   (Folk & Western)
  • I V7 VI7 (Blues)
  • I VI7 II7 V7 (’30s & ’40s jazz)
  • i iv V7 (Minor Blues)
  • I vi IV V (1950s & ’60s Soft Rock)
  • I vi ii V (’50s ballad)
  • I V vi IV (4-Chord Pop Music)


With all of the pieces in place, the only thing left to do is practice! I’ll be giving updates on progress every week or so, whenever something noteworthy occurs, after reaching 20 hours of practice, and at the end of each month. Check back often for the latest!