Speedreading compared to guitar mastery

Learning to master a tool is a very generic task. There are certain similarities between mastering a guitar, speedreading, calligraphy, or blind typing. Yet we need to make the entire journey each time for every new tool. The process is physical, mental, and somehow spiritual.

Repetition is the mother of learning

One of my students recently asked if I use the same technique every time I speedread. I definitely do not do that! It took me a decade to speedread properly. And during that time I did not progress to the next technique before mastering the previous one.

Was that boring and limiting? Sure, it is. You cannot apply the same reading technique to all the text you see. So basically, I had to limit my reading for several months to the same style of content most suitable for a certain reading technique. Once that became automatic and effortless I moved on.

Learning is actually quite boring. We can supplement repetition with creativity and visualization, but we cannot substitute it. If you want to learn a physical skill, you need a lot of repetitive practice.

Aren’t we teaching accelerated learning?

Is it possible to accelerate learning of the accelerated learning techniques? Well, we already do that. Speeding up the process is not making the process magically fast. Using the right mnemonics, we can speed up theory. And learning each step of the process separately before learning the entire process facilitates motoric skills.

However, there is no substitute for some level of repetition. It’s like speedreading. We can read x3 faster by reading correctly. Maybe x10 faster if we have a deep background in the subject covered by the text. Yet we do not read x100 faster. I do not think it is even feasible.

The goal in most cases is acquiring a certain skill. First, we do not even succeed. Next, we succeed with a huge effort. Then we need to analyze the way we succeeded to improve details.  It is very slow. Next, we continue doing the procedure without thinking about it. It gets faster, but we lose some accuracy. So we practice elements of the task and the entire task until we get the perfect result: fast, accurate, beautiful. Then we practice some more until it becomes truly repeatable. The process can be performed faster, but not eliminated.

Can we compare speedreading with guitar training?

My premise says that we can. When learning to play guitar, we do not learn to play all kinds of music at once. Initially, we simply learn to hold the guitar properly. If we do not hold the guitar properly, all strings will vibrate or get muffed and there will be no proper barre chords. And each time we learn a new kind of music, like rhythm guitar, the way we hold our hands will change.

Why do some students expect to use the same motions for all kinds of texts? The basics are the same, but the emphasis changes. Consider guitars. Blues guitar requires slow and emotional vibrato. Jazz requires complex chord progressions. Metal shredding requires very fast strumming with a pick. Spanish guitar requires complex fingerstyle strumming. All kinds of music are demanding, only in different ways.  If you learn say chicken picking country music technique, how does that relate to other stuff you need to master?

We need to master a lot of different tricks, and it takes often a month to master one trick. Then we move on. We learn something new and integrate the stuff we already know as a part of the routine. So the more we know, the longer the basic routine becomes.

Rhythm really matters

When doing a repetitive activity, an accurate and beautiful rhythm really matters. It goes without saying that rhythm matters in music. But why does it matter in speedreading? Why do we train even subvocalization suppression via a rhythmic count of quarters?

I know that it works. This does not mean I know why it works. There are several theories. Some theories talk about synchronous brainwaves covering the entire brain. Other theories discuss breathing synchronized with motion. And yet there are more diverse theories too numerous to mention.

Unfortunately, the texts we read do not want to be entirely rhythmic. There are longer and shorter paragraphs, easier and more complex ideas, possibly dialogues or formulas. I claim that some mess actually helps. Music can also be messy (if it is not dancing music). We get all sorts of interesting syncopations.

So we basically keep a rhythm unless we need to break it, and then we enjoy breaking it as it makes the entire process more exciting.

Do not copy masters

It is very tempting to copy masters. Masters are cool. They produce beautiful results with zero effort. Why? Because they mastered all the necessary skills, and then learned to look cool and minimize energy.

Do you really think my eyes saccade when I read? Usually, my eyes are fixed and I run the text with PageDown button or a mouse wheel. When I buy a new mouse for speedreading I check its wheel before everything else. Can you copy my style? You will need serious eye span, eidetic memory, a visual dictionary in multiple fields, and more. It will probably take you five years until you are ready: I know it took me ten years.

In the same way, no regular guitar player can copy a serious guitar master. A guitar master can reproduce minor variations of vibrato, crazy strumming patterns, unreal playing speed and accuracy – and all of those seemingly without any effort, dancing, or singing in the process. I assume it takes ten years of intense practice to be that good. Do not even try this at home. Simplify and enjoy.

Gliding and stopping

I let my eyes glide across the text, occasionally stopping. Like playing an arpeggio on guitar, the finger slides down stopping on each string long enough to activate it. And then the master takes a short pause, just enough for us to understand that something changed or to enjoy a really cool sound.

Do I know how long the pause is? It can be about a quarter in my inner rhythm, the rhythm that nobody else sees. The tempo can go from slow adagio to fast allegro, although andante is more common.  Usually my eyes “walk” through the text. If the text is complex, they “crawl” and if it is less important they “fly”. Typically the eyes are fixated and the mouse wheel works, or I saccade three points top to bottom and press page-down. Is that a 4/4 time signature in speedreading? Does it really matter? What is the right answer?

Do not think about it, feel it

A guitar player may be very intelligent and think a lot between music pieces or between sessions, but in the session, he feels the music. He does not think about specific technical detail unless he wants to practice that specific detail. And once the practice makes the detail perfect, it is simply a part of the composition with a certain feel.

If a guitar player would think about each and every note all the time, he will not be able to play. For some reason, many of our students try to think and double-check themselves while reading. This does not work. Take a break, think, and then go back to practice.

The effective processes are unconscious. If we need to think about something we will not do it effectively. Clearly, learning to do something the right way unconsciously is a long process, and some of the stages require constant feedback and should be performed very slowly. So what? The technique is practiced separately from the actual performance.

Spiritual aspect

There is a certain zen-like quality in true mastery, doing something relatively simple as well as humanly possible. The mastery transcends the tools of the trade and the master himself, becoming its own domain. All masters understand this but usually fail to explain the feeling in words. It is a spiritual practice mostly. Like any spiritual practice, it can be deeply emotional, possibly extremely rewarding, but extremely nuanced.

Japanese take most of their crafts to this level of spirituality. Can you explain the difference in culinary perfection between a master and a trainee? The trainee may perform the technique perfectly, yet it will not excite, will not have “a soul”, for the lack of better definition.

Generally, I am not a religious person, but when I practice my art I get goosebumps. When I hear a guitar master play (I not a good guitar player), I also get goosebumps. The issue is not music and not the instrument, but the mastery of the performer, the spiritual aspect of it.

When I read quickly I cannot judge the text – I do it before or after reading. I simply learn everything in the text and some emotional mindset of the author. This is an acquired skillset that at some point transcended me as a person.

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