There are higher levels of thinking to any skill. Practicing a skill is really the process of teaching your brain to think at higher levels of abstraction.
A beginner chess player only thinks in terms of individual moves and positions. Move the king here, the rook there, the knight over there. But when you watch a grand master play the game, the individual moves barely register. Instead, the grand master thinks in terms of higher-level patterns – the English opening, the Sicilian, a castling. A chess players must project the game into the future in their mind, and intuit the moves and plays that will lead them closer to a win. In this task, being able to imagine the future of the game in terms of moves and patterns, rather than individual moves, is a powerful advantage. Veteran players can see patterns and project them out several plays into the future, and that practiced skill helps them see more from the game than what meets the eye.
When I improvise on the piano, what happens in my head is similar – I’m imagining the way the melody and underlying voices will move forward before I play then. I hear them in my head, and in real-time, pick the combination that sounds the best to actually play. It would be mind-bending to try to do this by analyzing the music theory behind notes and harmonies at the level of individual notes. Instead, I imagine the progression of music in terms of patterns: licks, scales, arpeggios, repeated themes, chord progressions. Each pianist has their own mental library of patterns and musical idioms to pick from, and this is what gives each player their unique “style”.
This applies in other creative tasks, too.
- Writing can feel like lexicographical improvisation. I hear in my head the many ways my sentence or paragraph could go, and I pick among them the ones that sound the best. Speaking is the same way, but with an extra temporal aspect of when to pause, when to slow down, and when to speed up.
- Athletes in competitive team sports also think in terms of plays and runs, not just movements. They learn these plays during their practice not only to communicate during the game, but to practice breaking down and understanding a game better.
- Driving a car is also a combination of higher-level actions like lane changes, turns, taking the on-ramp, and U-turns. When at the wheel, you aren’t conscious of when exactly you’re pressing down on the gas pedal and how much you’re turning the wheel. Instead, you’re performing the basic “plays” of driving.
I call these higher-level chunks of skill “strides”. An expert improvisational pianist isn’t thinking much faster than an amateur, but they can hear the music they might play in longer strides in their mind. A chess grandmaster isn’t only thinking much faster than a beginner player, they’re thinking ahead in the game in longer strides. When I practice, I try to see the longer strides of the thing I’m practicing.
Practice helps your brain see and think in terms of longer strides of motion. This is why practice makes perfect.
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