Monthly archives "July 2018"

TAO September 2018–The Practice of Practice

The Practice of Practice

Last month, we took an honest look at the faults in our practice habits and outlined a four-step process for improving them. These four steps, Analysis, Diagnosis, Correction, and Evaluation, help us to uncover bad habits, find a practice technique to solve the problem, apply it, and assess its effectiveness. Over time, using this process can help us to become more efficient rehearsal technicians. For some, this process will seem familiar, but for many, mastering these four steps represents quite a challenge. Let’s consider what learning a piece of music could be like if we had no bad habits. The following graphic will guide us through a series of interlinking steps that lead to polished performances.

REFERENCE RECORDING: The first step is to listen to a good performance of the new piece. Having heard the piece prior to practice makes us confident that we are learning the correct notes and rhythms. It clarifies the piece’s structure, and it accelerates the learning process. As our understanding of the piece matures, we might decide to diverge from the recording’s interpretation, but hearing the music before learning it is a great place to start.

NOTES: By breaking the learning process into small, easily accomplishable steps, you can take the stress out of learning music. Choose a short passage; learn the notes and learn their fingerings and pedaling before putting them together with the rhythm. Without the pressure of keeping time, we have the leisure to consider the most efficient fingering/pedaling. This is also the best time to confirm accidentals and to work out contrapuntal lines. Working in this way allows the brain the time it needs for complete, accurate processing.

RHYTHMS: Practice rhythm alone. With four limbs to coordinate, there is plenty of work to do. Again, working in small sections and at a careful tempo, tap the piece’s rhythms on a tabletop with your hands and on the floor with your feet like a percussionist. Master each staff before combining the hands, or the hands with the feet. Work for confident accuracy without pushing the tempo.

TECHNICAL INTEGRATION: Still working in small sections and at a slow tempo, combine your accurate, well-planned fingering/pedaling with your well-prepared rhythmic co-ordinations. Slow, careful work at this stage is preparation for exciting, confident performances later. Do not increase the tempo until you are able to play the excerpt accurately and without hesitation several times in a row. Use the metronome to push the tempo one click at a time.
Putting rhythm and notes together is a big task. Methodically applying a variety of techniques during this period keeps practice interesting. I recommend looking at some of the resources in last month’s column. Learning how to guide oneself efficiently through the integrative stage creates momentum that encourages more accomplishment.

SCORE STUDY: So far, the learning process has focused upon mastering the technical aspects of the piece; the goal being accurate notes and rhythms. During the note learning phase, it is also important to explore the score away from the console. Studying the score opens the musical imagination. It reveals the meaning of the piece. Score study is not passively staring at the pages of notes you are learning. It is an active search for clues as to the composer’s intention. What did the composer want to communicate? How is the piece organized? What is the “why” of the piece?

MUSICAL COHERENCE: Discovering answers to the questions raised in listening to the reference recording and in studying the score help make sense of the music. Fusing technical preparation with the meaning of the music is the second stage of integration. Expressivity is the focus. The primary question is, “How can I convey the music’s intent in my playing?” To bring the expressive content of the piece into physical gesture at the console is the happy task of the musician. Regardless of our innate talent or the quality of our training, we can always learn something from other experienced musicians. This is the purpose of a masterclass. Consider attending one!

RELIABLE REPRODUCTION: Being able to deliver an accurate musical performance is not the final goal, but it is an important resting point in a piece’s preparation. This is the time to perform maintenance on shaky passages. If you can, let the piece mature here while you gain more insight into its content and more freedom in playing it.

INTENTIONAL COMMUNICATION: The final factor in preparing a new piece of music is learning to communicate with an audience. A feedback loop exists between performer and audience. Each performer responds to the presence of listeners differently, so practicing with an audience is important. Enlist the help of a few friends.

DYNAMIC PERFORMANCE: By following the previous steps, you are ready to give a dynamic performance. Together, you and the audience are present with each other. You want to include who they are and what they bring with them into your performance. They are a part of the NOW of musical expression. Expect inspiration and let it guide you. It’s time––you are the channel––let the music flow through you!

TAO August 2018–Musician, Heal Thyself

Doctors have a tough, often thankless, job, and their work is seldom complete. Although they are at the top of a vast, complex system made up of health care providers, support personnel, business services, and insurance companies, doctors are its servants. Despite its complexity, there is a simple process that drives the entire medical system. It’s centered on the way doctors think––their skill in diagnosing and devising treatment plans. We organists can learn something from them.
Soon the fall flurry will present us with new people to meet and new music to make. For many of us, this time of year brings up a lingering concern––will I have enough time to do everything that I need to do? Most of us are decidedly not excited about practice. It’s what we must do, and it seems that there is never enough time to do it well. You may even be “sick” of practicing. “Practice malaise” often leads to real discouragement and disappointing performances. These are signs of an unhealthy disease that needs a cure. If only a doctor could write a prescription for a practice pill!
In a way, musicians have it harder than doctors. Physicians don’t really have to heal themselves; but, since our locus of control is centered within our own bodies, we must learn to manage ourselves from the inside. It’s a challenge unique to the performing arts. For insight into how musicians can heal themselves, let’s look at the four-part analytical process doctors use in their healing practice. First, they collect a list of symptoms that describe the problem. Next, by analyzing the symptoms, they get to the root of the problem and make their diagnosis. Last, they develop a treatment plan and schedule a follow up appointment to make sure their plan worked. If it didn’t, they will revise their plan based upon the new information. The medical system’s process of Analyze, Diagnose, Medicate, Evaluate is essential to the practice of medicine. Oh, my gosh, doctors practice, too!
Applied to musicianship, these simple steps hold great promise for improving our practice time and, as a result, our performances. There are five chief causes for lack of progress in learning music and for unreliable performances. Let’s look at their root problems. They are:
1. Magical Thinking
Symptoms: Using the same practice technique for all problems, relying on a rigid routine that does not respond to the needs of individual passages or to the need to make changes in the learning process from session to session.
2. Track Star
Symptoms: Racing ahead while ignoring places in the piece that need work, practicing the strong areas and ignoring the weak ones, resisting the need to stop and fix a problem, playing a piece too fast too soon.
3. Big Appetite
Symptoms: Working on several large sections at the same time, being satisfied with early progress, moving on to new material without first mastering earlier material.
4. Timed Out
Symptoms: Allowing time limits to rush the learning process, the mind is distracted by outside concerns, resisting taking time to make a diagnosis and plan a remedy, leading to “surfacy” practice.
5. Cloud Painting
Symptoms: Sitting down to play without reflecting on what the day’s tasks are, the wandering mind floats in and out of listening to what is being played, playing on auto-pilot, playing the same passage over and over without correction“until I get it.”
Do you recognize any of these tendencies in yourself? Admitting your practice faults may be a bitter pill to swallow, but getting better results from your practice depends upon your own self-honesty and a willingness to make a change in your practice habits. Learning and implementing new strategies that target ineffective practice patterns is the key to improving the quality of your performance.
The hardest part of this process is diagnosing exactly what the problem is. Knowing what the problem is will lead to the most reliable solution. The real challenge is to find a specific solution for a specific problem. If you are having trouble getting a clear picture for yourself, ask a colleague to watch you play. After all, if physicians aren’t expected to heal themselves, why should we? As far as I am concerned, the best way to learn this model of self-analysis and intervention is to participate in the process with someone else who is exploring it, too. A professional consultation is one of the best ways to expand our knowledge base and one of the most efficient uses of our limited time.
So, what is the first step in healing your ailing rehearsal habits? A practice doctor would tell us to take a closer look at the nature of the problem you are facing, make a diagnosis, and choose the best treatment for the problem. A lack of effective practice strategies can be one of our biggest problems. While doctors have a large list of drugs to choose from, we often have few, if any, effective methodologies with which to approach the challenges that we encounter in our rehearsals. Essentially, we must learn to match the best remedy with the problem at hand (or foot). The larger our pool of remedies, the more likely that we will be able to find just the right solution. Expanding our repertory of practice strategies involves research, consultation, and good old, hands-on trial and error.
Several authors have taken the time to share their creative practice ideas. You will find one of the best overall approaches to the music learning process in The Musician’s Way. Gerald Klickstein’s thoughtful writing carefully layers mountains of material into a meaningful whole. While a straight read-through will deepen your understanding of the entire music making process, you can easily dip into any section to find remedies for your presenting symptoms. The same can be said for Philip Johnson’s The Practice Revolution. Johnson wrote his book for music teachers, but his insights are useful to anyone looking for new approaches to old problems.
A search for web-based resources will reveal the usual mixed bag of resources. I have found some good starting places, but I think the best approach is to use what you find here to stimulate your own creativity. After all, YOU are the best source for solving your own practice problems! I found some interesting material at these locations:
1. (“A Better Way to Practice”)
3. (“12 Tips on How to Practice”)
4. “14 Sites That Help You Practice Music More Effectively”

Engaging in a search for best solutions is the only way to add to your repertory of effective treatment remedies. Ultimately, experience is your best guide, but trial and error is the cost. Search for potential solutions, experiment with them, determine their effectiveness, so to make them your own. Incorporating a new practice technique into your skill set is worth its weight in gold. Better practice leads to better performance; better performance leads to the best payoff an artist can hope for––a job well done. Musician, only you can heal yourself. To your good health for the season ahead!