A natural rate of learning?

This week’s blog post is influenced by my study of economics. To understand how economics is relevant, I need to provide a bit of context.


In the field of economics, national economies are thought to have ‘natural rates of growth.’ A natural rate of growth refers to the average speed at which an economy grows over a long period of time when all of its resources (workers, technology, and natural resources) are used to their full potential. The natural rate of growth of the United States, for example, is generally reckoned to be 2.5%. Over time, the total output of goods and services of the United States grows at an annual rate of 2.5%. In reality, economic growth fluctuates wildly from year, growing 3.4% in 2005, 2.7% in 2006, 1.8% in 2007, and actually declining during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 before growing again after 2009. Only when averaged over a long period of time does the economy grow at 2.5%.

What happens when the economy grows above its natural rate for many years? People expect the good times to continue, they buy more than they can afford, they take on debt to pay for this increased consumption, inflation picks up, and either the Federal Reserve Bank has to raise interest rates (in an attempt to curb inflation) which causes the economy to slow down, or it does nothing and a financial crisis eventually occurs. The financial crisis is usually triggered by a bank failure or a geopolitical event, but the underlying conditions of the crisis are too much debt and not enough money in the economy to pay for everything.

Practicing clarinet follows a similar pattern. If I practice for six hours today (maybe it’s possible if I am well-rested, but I almost never try), then I am taking on a debt that will hamper my playing tomorrow or soon after. Perhaps the lips can endure a six-hour assault one day, but the embouchure will surely be weaker the next day. Too many days of overpracticing can cause many of the basic elements of technique to fall apart. When the lips are too weary to make a firm and supple seal around the mouthpiece, when the fingers are sore, and when the support muscles are tired, it becomes much more difficult to commence notes, to play in tune and to execute a difficult passage cleanly. Rest for a few days, and these skills magically return.

The lesson is that you cannot push your muscles to learn faster than they are capable of learning. Listen to your body. Learn to identify the point at which you are no longer practicing effectively and are merely taking on debt. If one day you wake up and you are playing significantly worse than the day before, it is probably because you have taken on too much debt.  Take long breaks if necessary. If the muscles are tired, consider doing mental practice instead. If you have already done a few hours of effective practice and are beginning to feel tired, stop practicing. Always leave yourself fresh for the next practice. Practicing too little will mean that you fail to reach your potential, but practicing too much will cause you to perform below the level you have reached. Try to learn closer to your natural rate, rather than fluctuating wildly and having certain days in which you seem to go backward.



The idea of a natural rate of learning is not so farfetched. In Flow, psychologist Mihaly Cikszentmihalyi explains that consciousness is limited. A person can pay attention to only so many stimuli at any one particular moment. To demonstrate this, he explains how a human can listen to three people speaking in his/her mother tongue at the same time and remember the words of all of them. But, this activity so uses up the listener’s consciousness that he cannot remember any physical details about the speakers themselves or the environment he was in. If consciousness is limited, then it is quite possible that the amount of learning that can be done in a particular time could also be limited.

A recent article in the New York Times also explains that ‘the processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited.’ The author writes that the mind needs breaks from focused activity in order to be creative. The article describes how the human brain has two processing modes, a focusing mode and a daydreaming mode. We continually learn while our minds are in either mode, but we learn different things from each mode. It is often when you are away from your instrument that you come up with a great idea about how to play a phrase or a solution to a difficult passage. Deprive yourself of the time to daydream and be whimsical and you might miss out on an opportunity to learn something you can’t learn from actively concentrating.