Have you heard of ‘Four Stages Of Competence’? It’s a learning model that describes the steps you go through to become good at a skill. It’s something that we like to teach our clients as early as possible in their music learning journey. FSC is a great tool for understanding how to learn skills as quickly as possible. Learning music takes time, but we want to help our clients to use that time efficiently.

What’s important to remember is that these levels apply to very small skills. It won’t help you to rate skills like ‘playing the guitar’. What’s more helpful is understanding what skills are required to ‘play the guitar’ and to move those skills up through the stages.

The four stages are:

Unconscious Incompetence

Where you don’t know what you don’t know.

You may be unaware of a bad habit you have on your instrument or in your voice. There may be something that you’re not doing that could help your playing or singing a lot.

Conscious Incompetence

You become aware of a skill that you don’t have.

You might unable to play a piece of music smoothly, or not get the sound you want out of your instrument. You may stumble across the reason why by youself.

Most often you reach this stage by having a good mentor diagnose a problem. They’ll then prescribe an exercise or a physical habit for you to carry out to fix it.

Conscious Competence

You can perform a particular skill.

After working on the skill for a while, you can do it. Although you still have to think about it. That verbal part of your brain is still running the show when you’re using the skill.

Unconscious Competence

You’ve practised the skill enough that you no longer have to think about it. The skill has become completely automatic.

If you have a look at the Wikipedia definition for Automaticity. You’ll see the line “(Automaticity) … is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.”

That means that there’s only one way to get something into this stage, and that’s via repetition.

Four Levels of Competence

We All Are On All Of The Levels

All of us have skills spread across all the stages. I’m very confident that there are things about guitar playing that I don’t know. When I find out about them and start to practice those skills they’re going to be very useful to me.

So don’t think that you’re on one level or another. There are things that you can do automatically already, and things that you don’t know about.

Applying the Four Levels to Music Learning

As we’ve all got limited amounts of time, we want to keep the number of repetitions we have to do as low as possible.

The best way to keep the number of repetitions down is to focus on one small skill at a time when you practice.

Here’s how I visualise the whole process:

I think of the levels as a series of shelves. The ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ level being the floor. This floor is littered with things I can’t really see clearly because of all of the mess.

Once I discover a skill on the floor that I didn’t know I needed. I’ll move it up to the next shelf (Conscious Incompetence). It’s a matter of “Hey, I can’t do that thing! Let’s put it up here so that I can start to work on it”.

I select that one small skill, devise a way to improve it and include it in my daily practice. I’ll do that one thing that I need to work on with a metronome. I’ll usually play at around 30—40 BPM for at least 5 minutes without stopping.

Once I start working on it, it’s going to eventually get moved up to the ‘Conscious Competence’ shelf. I’ll be able to do the skill, but I’ll still have to be concentrating to carry it out. At this point, I really focus on relaxing while repeating the skill. This takes my mind away from conciously carrying out the skill and helps push the skill towards being automatic.

Once it’s there, it’s not too many more repetitions until it makes its way up to the ‘Unconcious Competence’ shelf. I won’t need to think about it anymore. It may need occasional fine-tuning, but it’s probably going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Now that I’ve got the free headspace, I can start again with another skill.

The important part of this process is that the skills that you’re moving up the shelves should be very small. You should move only one skill at a time. Also, you should practice the skill very, very slowly. I can’t stress that enough.

On guitar, for example, I’ll focus on one very small thing. Making sure that I place my fingers exactly up against the fret wire (but never on top) is a good skill. I’ll practise this skill until I just start to place my fingers there automatically.

Spinning too many plates

Trying to move a bunch of skills up through the levels is slow and ineffective. You’ll get there eventually, but it’s definitely the slowest route possible. It’s a bit like learning plate spinning and starting off with 8 plates at once.

Why slow practice?

The brain doesn’t care what speed you carry out a motion, it learns it just the same regardless of speed. So why slow? So that you can learn the skill perfectly.

There’s no point in making an imperfect skill automatic. That’s the very definition of a bad habit. The other reason for going slowly is that it gives you an opportunity to practice being completely relaxed.

There’s much research on how much more effective learning is when you’re relaxed. You’ll also find that if you practise your new skill slowly and perfectly that it will become automatic quite quickly.

The Tricky Part

The big trick, of course, is finding out what you don’t know. The slow way is to keep guessing by yourself. You’ll probably get there in the end. It certainly won’t be easy or the best use of your time. The faster method is to find someone who’s been where you’re headed and can help you avoid the pitfalls along the way.

A good mentor can spot the skills you’re missing quickly, help you work on them in the right order and get you playing the music you want to player sooner.

Andrew Farnham is the director of IMA Music Mentoring where he leads the Guitar Lessons team.

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