You can look at almost anything we do as a skill, from speech to tying shoes, mountain climbing to trading stocks. Broad categories like these are full of microactions, too: pronouncing certain words, getting the lace loops the right size, etc.
Consciously or not, we learn the little bits through repetition, and develop the “skill” of… Whatever. That brain process is basically the same. The more you do something, the more skillful you become.
But it isn’t really that simple.
People learn at different rates or excel in certain fields. Some skills are relatively permanant, like walking or wiping your ass… Others are shakier, and you run the risk of “use it or lose it.” Our bodies and minds change with age, too, and that affects deftness in its own ways, for better and worse.
Skill, then, isn’t just the ability to do something or not. It’s a spectrum, and a changing one at that. We can get a little better (or a little worse) at all kinds of things over the course of our lives – or far shorter periods of time.
This idea of fluid skill lets us off the hook a little bit. Instead of lamenting a deteriorated ability or feeling embarrassed by novicehood, we can think of many skills as “present tense.”
If skill is fluid, you can only be where you are right now.
Work In Progress
Pretty much everything we do/are/know is in constant flux. Some things are stickier than others. We’re likely to remember our names and birthdates. The analogy of “like riding a bike” persists with good reason. Some things you learn and keep, other things require more maintenance.
From a skill perspective, we can see this as both the “freshness” of something in current practice, and the relative “rustiness” of something we haven’t done in a while. You don’t forget, necessarily, but it’s headed in that direction.
Most abilities are the product of repetition – not only the initial learning process, but current use too. If you haven’t done an action for a while, it’s no wonder it falls a bit behind.
In the case of instrument playing, any semi-avid practicer knows that abilities can wax and wane to match the work put in. You won’t up and forget how to play, but like those microactions mentioned above, the small things you focus on in the present will improve while other neglected microactions decline.
In the long run, it all stacks up in the direction of overall ability, but the small skills left unattended won’t be quite the same.
Don’t Freak Out
Yes, your current skill level is impermanant. You will gain and lose ground on whatever you’re into… Constantly… For as long as you pursue it.
This is okay.
It might seem like there’s a negative connotation to this idea – and there is, if we only concentrate on the “use it or lose it” portion. From that angle, it looks like decay, like if we aren’t constantly maintaining the things we’re already good at, we’ll go back to being beginners at, well, everything.
Again though, some “skills” are stickier than others. You’re probably not going to forget how to play a basic rock beat… But your singles might get sloppier if you stop working on them.
Something’s always going to have your attention, and where you put that attention, the related skills will develop. Since you can’t focus on all things all the time, skill level in some areas will ebb and flow… This is perfectly natural and nothing to worry about.
Most of this goes back to “the moment.” If skills are fluid, then we can only really measure them in the present tense, and respond accordingly.
To me, this concept is a reminder that we’re always changing – and to take most thoughts, experiences, actions, etc. as snapshots, not epitaphs. We exist in the now, as do our abilities across the spectrum. We can look for our personal “high water marks,” sure, but the only benefit there is inspiration to get back to the good ol’ days.
But really, were those old days so good? You likely know things now you didn’t know then. Some skills have developed while others have deteriorated – and that’s okay. You can only be as you are in this very moment, so embrace it!
It’s cliché, of course, but all of this is about “the journey.”
At some point in your playing career, speed might be the thing you chase, and in the time you spend working on it, you’ll get better.
In another period of life, it might be touch, or time, or vocabulary, or whatever…
You might devote entire portions of your life to learning songs for specific gigs or preparing for an audition. You’re building skills all the while… But once the audition is over or you’re no longer playing that gig, you don’t really need to hold on to all of that information at its highest level.
Instead, you move on to the next phase, retaining what you can and “losing” what you can’t. You might not be able to recall every accent of a piece you performed ten years ago, but the process of learning it stays with you. It’s all forward momentum built of uncountable “nows.”
In this way, skill fluidity is little more than than ongoing evolution of who you are as a player and as a person. You tackle the things in front of you, and carry some of those lessons with you on to the next thing. It’s never finished – and it’s certainly never perfect – but it is moving, and that’s all we can really hope for in the pursuit of any ability.
I don’t really know what the point of this whole thing is, other than an interesting concept to ponder and a potentially helpful way of looking at where we’re at, where we’ve been, and where we want to go.
Skill, like so many other things, is fluid… So instead of worrying about mastering everything, think about getting better at the task at hand, and know that bit by bit, you’ll take some it with you onto the next challenge, and the next…
And the next.