Playing Guitar - The Incubation Effect

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by Tim Gillespie

A friend of mine was telling me how his skiing improved over the summer. He has skied in a determined fashion for about three years now. Before that he skied every year but never got past the entry levels of the sport. His first serious year he took lessons and focused on what his teachers taught him. He is a very coachable guy.

The next year he signed up as a Mountain Host, for Keystone Ski Area, and he got to hang out with some extraordinary skiers all year. His job entailed teaching young kids and adults how to ski. We are talking basic level instruction here.

What caught my attention is how he was astonished to have improved over the Summer. It blew him away. The way he described it made me think back to when I experienced that. I used to get up super early and drink coffee at the base of the lifts and survey the runs a full half hour before they opened. I would spend 30 or more days skiing totally alone and working hard. Just me, my telemark skis and my Joni Mitchell tape.

In those days, it was usual to ski more than 50 days a year at different ski areas across the West. Add on an additional 25 days of cross country skiing and you begin to flush out the Winter nicely. Believe it or not, there is a parallel with playing guitar here.

Back in those days, improvement came quickly. If you struggle through bump runs for 10 consecutive days, you can't help but get better. Your body begins to figure out the short cuts and then works on the barriers. Before you know it you can ski bumps. The more times you do it, the better you get.

People figure things out by interacting with whatever they are trying to understand. No great secret here. But sometimes we seem to disconnect the cause and effect that helps learning and understanding to take place.

My friend was amazed that he improved over the Summer. But when I thought back about the last two Winters of skiing, I could easily see that he worked hard all Winter. He challenged himself and his improvement lasted through the entire ski season. But his body kept working with the information long into the Summer and through the entire off season. Then when he hit the slopes the following fall, WHAM, his body immediately delivered some impressive results. Everyone was surprised, including him.

You could see this reflected in the way he skied, you could hear it in the way he talked too. His conversations changed from basic entry level issues of frustration, to insightful, accurate observations he used to improve his understanding of skiing as well as his motions and body posture.

This is a very clear example of the effects of incubation. Once a person gets enough of the fundamentals in place and they combine it with enough repetitions of exercise, their body can't process all the information right away but it keeps working on it. Your body has to sort it out and this takes time.

In time the muscle groups begin to work as a team and establish a higher level of cooperation and precision. Muscle memory develops and the motions become somewhat ingrained. The knowledge of what is being exercised begins to exert control over the motions as understanding sets in. The person begins to become more coordinated at the endeavor, as time passes. A deeper coordination sets up. In skiing, there is the additional component of scaring the participant with cliffs and steep trails. Even this can be mitigated with repetition, providing the person lives through it.

Over time the person does sort out the additional information and they do learn to master it. The muscle groups may develop what I call "snap". Snap is the result of finely tuned muscles reacting precisely and very quickly using exact motions. Guitarists also experience snap with quick bursts of lead lines. But snap takes time to even show up. There is a heavy incubation time for this skill to mature.

Incubation can be the thing that transforms intense work into results. By definition it does not happen right away. It takes time for this to show up but when it does, it is a very powerful experience.

Once you grow accustomed to the results of incubation and you establish a schedule, you begin to expect the effects of incubation to yield more results. When it happens regularly, a serious cycle of increasing levels of abilities and then waiting, develops. A person that experiences this can improve so fast, he may be much better than people think he is, even though they are seeing some of the results first hand. Incubation is a huge effect and it is hidden.

I was taken back by how predictable this behavior is when someone really gets into their craft no matter what it is. I enjoyed hearing my friend continue to change the subject back to skiing throughout the walk. He couldn't help himself. He was addicted. He got me going too, this type of behavior is contagious. The next thing I knew we were discussing what ski areas we like best and upcoming trips.

People all learn the same way. Sure there are rare exceptions, but most people embrace learning in about the same way. This is one of the reasons teachers can be so effective. They have been through it themselves and can see how to proceed more easily than someone who is experiencing it for the first time.

When you study why one person excelled at something, you can almost always trace it back to an intense time when the subject was learned in fine detail. When that process is present, rewards are distributed for a long time. It is very true with guitar. If you set up intense learning situations, you will reap benefits for many years. It will keep coming. We all can have this same type of return if we immerse ourselves in music and serious exercise. It does not have to take many hours every day either. It take as little as an hour a day. But it has to happen every day and you can't just go through the motions.

There have been several times when I have been away from my instrument over the years. Sometimes month long trips make it very difficult to keep any practice schedule, let alone to carry your guitar with you. I actually know a guy who wrapped his prized Martin guitar in a dry bag and floated it down river to get it off a raft that was stuck on a rock! Really.

When I come back to the guitar, I very often notice a slight increase in my skill level. I continue to increase my level of ability because I continue to utilize a consistent practice schedule and experience the effects of incubation. Then even when I take time off, my body is still processing information.

When I come back, I am more able to apply this additional information. This information is not the kind that comes out of your mouth. It is often times, a physical understanding that takes place in your body. Your body institutes minute changes that refines your muscular response and your positioning. Remember as far as playing guitar goes, the guitar never learns, it is always the person that changes and adapts.

When a person feels the effects of incubation, they become connected. Their body has received feedback and they like it. The reward for hard work has been received and put in place. Now they just need to understand the cause and effect. What caused these changes to manifest? How can I do it again?

When you build your skills you take pride in it because it has meaning to you. Often times this type of experience goes unreported. How do you describe it to someone who has no idea of what you are talking about? They may think you are making the whole thing up or bragging.

Besides it becomes a secret weapon a person can use to make themselves better than everyone else. It can become a highly guarded secret. And if you are not in the inner circle of people they talk to, you never hear a word. They just build up some mystique.

In the past, some exercising has yielded benefits that could be measured right away. But when the beginner stages are past, it can become harder to see progress. The law of diminishing returns sets in and you have to work harder to make progress. And the effects of your hard work do not show up right away. They need to incubate.

So people get discouraged. But if they come back to their instrument the following day, there is almost always a pleasant experience awaiting. Why? Because hard work always pays off!

Ski season is coming to an end in the next few weeks. My friend had another good year and he is now better than ever. Next Fall I expect to hear how he has continued to improve over the Summer. For him, incubation is just getting ready to do it's work!