The secrets of self-taught, high-performing musicians

Daddy Cool’s Ross Wilson learnt to sing harmonies in a choir, aged 10. AAP/ Joe Castro

We rightly marvel at the skills of a talented musician, especially witnessing them perform live. But how does someone become so skilled?

Obviously hours and hours of dedicated practice is a necessity, and many musicians received appropriate guidance from teachers at a young age.

But perhaps most interesting are the stories of those musicians that did not receive such formal teaching – those “self-taught” musicians that we often read about.

Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Prince – three of the all-time greats – all claim to be self-taught guitarists. Even John Lennon and Paul McCartney were largely self-taught musicians. More recently, Californian R&B sensation Banks confesses to have learnt to play the piano by writing songs with the toy keyboard that was a gift from her mum when she was 14. These are only a few of many examples.

Jimi Hendrix performing at The Fillmore East, 1969. AAP

Interestingly, a 2013 study by Peter MacIntyre and Gillian Potter of guitarists and pianists linked informal practice (self-teaching) with heightened motivation to play music, ranging from formal recitals to informal jam sessions.

Furthermore, those that learnt their skills via informal practice were more inclined to write and create music. Indeed, more guitarists than pianists came from informal practice backgrounds.

The question must be asked then: how is it possible that someone can attain such a level of expertise without any teacher providing the necessary instructions and guidance?

Research over the past few decades has demonstrated the advantages of learning a skill implicitly: that is, to learn a skill without conscious awareness of the underlying processes of what is being learnt.

John Frusciante – guitarist for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – had taught himself how to play a number of songs by The Germs by the age of 10, but states that he didn’t really know what he was doing! Indeed, the inability to verbally describe the step-by-step processes is a characteristic of an implicitly acquired skill.

Ross Wilson, front man of legendary Aussie rock group Daddy Cool, who was inducted into the The Age Music Victoria Hall of Fame last Wednesday described his early musical days as:

My mum asked me to join a choir when I was 10. I found myself learning how to sing harmonies without even knowing what was happening.

Wilson was evidently learning to sing harmonies in an implicit manner.

US singer-songwriter Banks performs on the Auditorium Stravinski stage at the 48th Montreux Jazz Festival, July 2014. EPA/Jean-Christophe Bott

Importantly, the advantages of acquiring a skill implicitly (as opposed to explicitly) are clear. Research shows that complex motor skills acquired implicitly are more durable under pressure (performing in front of an audience for example) as the likelihood of consciously controlling movements is reduced.

Pressure often causes people to think about the step-by-step processes of what they are doing and this often leads to slips in performance. But if the skill was learnt without any knowledge of the step-by-step processes, the performer’s automatic mechanisms take over.

Similar themes are also evident in other domains such as sport. American professional golfer Bubba Watson claims to have never had a golf lesson in his life and yet he won the sport’s most prized possession, the US Masters, for the second time earlier this year. According to Bubba:

As a kid, you don’t think of the mechanics and I have to get my grip this way or be stronger or weaker. You just think, ‘I did this and it went that way.’ So that’s how I did it, by practising feel. So now my shots are all feel.

American golfer Bubba Watson plays out of the bunker on the 12th during the 2nd round of the Australian PGA Championships at Coolum on the Sunshine Coast, 2011. AAP/Dave Hunt

Bubba’s comment draws parallels with self-taught musicians such as Banks:

Sometimes my chord progressions are a little bit different, or don’t really make sense. I mean, I even hold my fingers differently than you’re supposed to. But it makes the music 100% based on emotion and intuition and not at all about maths.

So what does this mean for teachers and instructors? It would be crude of me to say that they’re unnecessary, as it is obvious that formal coaching can expedite the learning process. However, these examples of self-taught experts demonstrate the value of learning a skill (seemingly) implicitly.

As MacIntyre and Potter state in their study of guitarists and pianists: “Less restrictive environments that allow individuals to persue their interests and provide personal choice tend to enhance creativity”.

Accordingly, it seems that the role of the instructor should not be to overload the learner with unnecessary information (even if it is with good intentions), but rather to encourage the implicit acquisition of skills.

No doubt the great teachers and coaches are already doing this, even if they are not consciously aware of it.