How to Practice

OK. I know. This is an impossibly large topic to cover in one blog post. But as it relates to My Process, there are some cornerstone elements to good practicing I can cover in a normal length blog post. Practicing is where 99% of the effort and progress happens. Lessons are short. Rehearsals are infrequent. Performances are even more infrequent. Practicing happens every day. Those lessons, rehearsals, and performances are where we put the pieces of our work together. If good practice hasn’t happened, there simply aren’t going to be enough pieces to put something meaningful together.

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Two weeks ago I talked about how to begin practicing a new work. I believe those first few practice sessions are the most difficult. Once you have some momentum it’s a lot easier to be productive in the practice room. Today I’m going to cover some of my cornerstones of good practice.

The biggest challenge I have with students is shifting their practice goals. Most students think the more hours they spend in the practice room the better they will be. This isn’t always the case. Successful musicians have “Goal Oriented” practice sessions instead of “Total Amount of Time” practice sessions. Focusing on a goal rather than the clock will help you accomplish that goal as quickly as possible. That could be 10 minutes or that could be 4 months. The point isn’t how long it takes, the point is to accomplish that goal. When I am staring at the clock, I find myself distracted and tasks generally take longer. Obviously we all have lives and schedules so ignoring the time isn’t really an option. However that doesn’t mean we have to know what time it is throughout the session. Simply set an alarm clock when you have to be done, and spend that time practicing goals rather than an hour and a half. If you don’t accomplish your goal, you can at least know you were as productive as you possibly could be in the time you had.

When deciding on these goals it is important to understand that some goals will take what I call “Calendar Time” and others will take what I call “Hour Time”. Let me give you some examples to explain what I mean. Your snare drum roll isn’t going to go from Morse code to silky smooth in a day. No matter how many hours you practice. That takes calendar time. Trusting a new technique or feeling really solid memorizing Bach, will take days and days. Thus, they improve over calendar time. Smaller tasks such as learning a small orchestra part or memorizing 32 bars of music can be done in a shorter amount of time. Thus hour time. Understanding the difference between the two will help in establishing realistic goals and keep you from pulling your hair out.

When we get ahead of ourselves and expect success quicker than it most likely will come, we tend to skip over important parts of the process. Skills like learning the snare drum roll take days of practicing isolated exercises so you trust the new technique. If those days are rushed through, your body will not trust the new technique and thus make small mistakes. Which will then have to be corrected (or even worse not corrected) later. The same is true for memorizing a big marimba piece. If the early days of memorization are not at a careful and deliberate pace, the notes will not be truly cemented in your brain. Thus more memory slips and lower confidence in what you are playing.

How many of you have prepared something for a lesson that you thought was ready and then walked in and laid an egg? Who has said “it was fine in the practice room, I just don’t understand why I can’t play it here?” I know I have! Some of that has to do with nerves (which is an entirely different blog post!) but a lot of that has to do with preparation. Often we tend to practice things over and over again until we get them right. When we do this we are practicing warming up with lots of mistakes, and then around the 7th or 8th time we get it right. Well in the real world you don’t get 7 or 8 times through before it really counts. I don’t know who originally said it but I love the quote “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” This is a HUGE difference in philosophy and vitally important in how we practice.

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Let’s use the analogy of a marathon to help us understand the pacing of learning a piece. The last post was focusing on those early days in say mile 0 – 2. The researching, the early preparation. Miles 3 – 5 are really an extension of that. You are problem solving. When drilling sections begin to ask yourself if you are happy with your accuracy. Are you happy with your phrasing? Are you happy with your sticking? Will that sticking work at a faster tempo? Are you happy with your sense of style? If not, slow the tempo down and be VERY deliberate about fixing those issues. If need be, practice in slow motion. This slow motion practice can be out of any sort of tempo and can be to simply walk through whatever issues you are trying to solve. DON’T move on until you have fixed the issue. Too many students think that simple repetition will fix problems. This is a lazy attitude. It is much more difficult to really be analytical and tackle the issues but far more efficient. If you realize a sticking probably won’t work when ultimately up to tempo. Stop and walk through options in slow motion. Solve the issue and then find a tempo you can comfortably execute the new sticking.

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Once most issues have been solved, find a tempo at which you can comfortably execute all of your decisions. This is now your working tempo. The goal should be to establish trust and confidence in our decisions. Not moving up in tempo. It can take a LONG time to get to this point and it can take even longer until you are truly ready to move up in tempo. No matter how slow or how fast, this is our starting point. We are at mile 7 or 8 at this point. That’s roughly a third of the way through the entire process! And we have not made any increases in tempo yet. Let that sink in. Roughly a third of the learning process is solving problems and memorization. Most students are not disciplined enough to spend that amount of time on practicing at that slow of a tempo. Because our brains are wired to want success immediately, we all have a tendency to speed up and see what we can do before we are really ready. It’s a natural desire, but one we must fight against.

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Miles 9 through about 17 are the methodical advancement of tempo towards our ultimate tempo. Let’s say you are at quarter = 45. I want to be so solid and confident in my playing that even before I speed the metronome up to 50, I already know I can do it. This not only helps my accuracy but really helps my confidence in my playing. As I’ve said before success is a learned behavior and having small successes along the way like this build toward even bigger success. As you progress from 50 to 55 and 55 to 60 you should do mini inventories of all those decisions you made early on to make sure they still are working. Perhaps some phrasing needs to change now that you know the piece better? Perhaps the sticking you thought would work, isn’t working and you need to change it? By having this methodical approach, you will be shocked at how much faster this part of the “marathon” goes. Because you did so much good work early on, you will be able to progress much quicker. You will also have fewer mistakes to fix and muscle memory to unlearn. It’s around this point I hear lots of students say “Oh!! Now I get it.”

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Miles 18 through 23 are when we start switching from practice mode to performance mode. This is the switch from just drilling sections to focusing on performing sections once. Like I said earlier, you don’t get 5 or 6 warm up runs before your performance. You get one shot. When problem solving and working up to tempo you are drilling sections for consistency. Now the job is to be consistent the first time. This shift in focus is really for your brain more so than your hands. I tell students to practice performing once……, a lot. Meaning give yourself one shot at something (without stopping) and when you are done analyze how it went. Then repeat and see if you can improve. This is also a great time to start recording yourself. This sort of pressure will mimic the pressure of performing.

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Miles 24 through 26 are for fine tuning and playing for people. You know the piece at this point and you are really close to being ready for your performance. Now you just need to get really comfortable playing in front of people and incorporating small bits of advice your colleagues can give you. Whenever I am at this point I always feel so glad I spent all those hours problem solving early on. I have a ton of confidence because I have solidified those decisions over the last 20 or so “miles”. Now is not when I want to be discovering new issues. We are far too late in the game for that. So much work goes into the beginning so that at this point I am just focusing on execution and musical goals.

This learning process is not easy and it can be made even more complicated if you have multiple works to learn at the same time and different performance dates for all of them. That’s our topic for next time! Thanks for the comments and shares on Facebook!

WJ

 

 

How to go About Choosing and Learning a New Piece

In my last blog post I previewed what I call my “process”. This is the method I have developed to plan, learn, practice, balance, and schedule my time to prepare pieces. In today’s post I will discuss the first part of that which is choosing a piece (when you have that ability) and how the first few days of practicing are approached. Essentially, the beginning of the journey!

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The reason I feel this part of the process is so important is because I am a huge believer in putting yourself in a position to succeed. NEVER put yourself in a position to fail before you even begin. Sure we will all have failures in our career. It’s a part of being a musician. What I am encouraging is to avoid situations where failing is almost certain from the beginning. I have learned very valuable lessons from my failures. The only lesson I have learned from my failures in which I was never in a position to succeed from the start; was to avoid that scenario at all costs. Don’t misunderstand that I am not encouraging ambition. Ambition is great! Being unrealistic is not. Sometimes putting off learning a piece for a month or two is smarter than adding one more piece of music to your plate. It’s a lot easier to say yes to everything. Learning when to say no is very important!

Deciding to prepare a piece that you do not have the technical ability to play yet or the proper amount of time to adequately prepare may seem like an ambitious thing to do. To reach well beyond your grasp to try to improve yourself. I see over-reaching slightly differently psychologically. In sports this can be called fake hustle. Fake hustle is when you know you are going to fail but you pretend to work really hard so at least it gives the impression you gave it your all. It’s like diving for a loose ball going out of bounds when it is already 6 feet away from you. The ball is going out of bounds no matter how hard you throw yourself at it. Some people may admire you for diving for the ball, just like they might admire you for trying to play a piece well outside your current ability. I see this as psychologically damaging because deep down inside, you know you have no chance and your performance wasn’t good. It’s easier to dive for the ball when it is out of reach than to do the speed and strength training to get faster so the ball IS in reach next time. It’s easier to play Variations on Lost Love by Maslanka and miss 20 % of the notes and not play the rhythms accurately than it is to do the 200 hours of Stevens exercises in front of a mirror that will give you the control needed to really nail it!

The reason I bring this up is that I believe success and winning is a learned behavior. It also breeds and builds confidence. Having lots of small successes along the way gets you in the habit of succeeding. Even if the success is small, the next time a slightly bigger challenge appears, you can rely on your experience of succeeding and confidently attack the next challenge.

This is all important to consider when choosing a piece. We don’t always have control over what we are working on or preparing. What that does mean is that the decisions we can make, need to be good ones. If our ensemble and chamber music commitments are overwhelming, maybe this isn’t a good time to tackle a 20 minute difficult solo work. If you have a big recital coming up, maybe say no to that really nice composer who wants you to play one of their works on their recital. The two biggest factors I consider when deciding to commit to a work are:

  1. The time needed to perform the work correctly and at a high level and do I have that time in my schedule.
  2. Is the potential work a reasonable stretch to my ability or unreasonable?

Again, ambition is a good thing. Choosing a solo that is a stretch to your current ability can motivate and challenge you to improve your playing. Understanding the difference between a stretch and well out of range is another.

Once you have your piece, now it’s time for that first day in the practice room. Boy that can be the toughest day of them all for me. You have no experience yet, all the work is ahead of you. It’s really important to be patient at this point of the process as progress and success will be slow at this point. Don’t rush through important milestones, just to pretend to be making progress.

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In my experience I have found many students practice by simply repeating things over and over hoping they get better. They also increase the tempo as soon as any small amount of success is reached thinking it is time to move on. This will seem to work and give you what I have started calling an approximate version of the piece. It’s ok, not bad, but not really good either. It’s approximate. The next time you hear someone play a piece outside of their ability you will hear what I am talking about. The problem with this approach is you will end up making lots of very small mistakes initially that will become habits. They will need to be corrected later on as the work gets closer to tempo and you are expecting a more polished product. The next problem students encounter is that they generally don’t know how to solves these issues this late in the process. In the long run this actually takes MORE time than if those issues were spotted initially. Remember we want to work smart and hard; not just hard.

This approach also tends to separate learning the piece technically and learning the work musically. Separating these two parts of the process is a common practice of beginner players but should be abandoned as quickly as possible. The quicker you can learn works technically and musically at the same time, the more success you will have. However, this can make for very slow progress in those first few days of practice.

Here are some guidelines and thoughts to help you through those first few days with a piece.

  1. Will this work need to be memorized, partially memorized, or read completely? This is important in the long term because if you know a work will need to be memorized, it is easier to start with the goal of memorization from the beginning.
  2. Next is looking at what resources I can use to help aid my preparation. Those can be scores, recordings, different editions, or other arrangements or transcriptions. These can be valuable tools as questions arise.
  3. Where should I start when learning the piece? Beginning, middle, end? If the beginning is very straight forward but the end is difficult, skip to the end. Read through the piece and give your best guess to where is going to be the most challenging.
  4. Focus on solving sticking problems that will come up at faster tempos. A sticking that could work fine under tempo may pose a serious issues at tempo. Start to develop a “radar” for sticking issues early on to avoid practicing troublesome stickings.
  5. Even though your learning process is focused understandably on small sections, keep the larger work in mind musically as you make musical decisions.
  6. Find a tempo you can play the work (or sections) at consistently. No matter how slow, make sure your accuracy is high (90-95%). My rule of thumb is don’t increase the tempo until you already know before attempting, that you can play it at the next tempo.
  7. Think less about learning and memorizing early on and more about solving problems. The more problems you solve early on, the easier the learning or memorizing will go.

The next post will focus on how to practice and what to work on at different parts of the process. Obviously “how to practice” could be a doctoral thesis. Don’t worry, I will keep it a reasonable length. But there are some key points I want to touch on, especially on how to be more efficient and how to pace yourself properly so you are ready for the performance. As always, leave comments if you want me to cover something specific and thanks for reading!

WJ

My Process

Happy New Year! (Yes I am aware tomorrow is March) Wow was 2015 a busy year and the start of 2016 hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down either. I have been MIA for a few months as I have had no time to get to the blog. However, my time feverishly practicing has inspired this next series of posts. I have had a lot on my plate since December and it has left me very thankful for what I call my “process”. What I mean by process is my: planning, learning, practicing, balancing, and scheduling my time to prepare pieces. A lot of that comes from experience and knowing what works well for me. I am a planner and I know if I can see a plan in place, then I can trust that plan when it may seem in the moment that there is no way I am going to be ready for the performance. For those who are not planners this may seem like overkill, but for those that are, I hope it helps. I tell my students all the time to “trust the process” and I hope these posts can help you establish your own process.

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At a certain point the number of available hours in a day simply isn’t going to increase and working “harder” simply isn’t possible. Even if you do sacrifice other things in life such as sleep, exercise, your social life, or family; eventually that will catch up with you and your productivity will fall. This is when you need to start working smarter. You are already working hard, now make sure you are working smart and hard. Having a plan will help you be the most efficient you can during those available hours in the practice room.

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I will explain my philosophy by using a common analogy. If I equate learning a piece (or multiple pieces) to building a brick wall, I have to start by laying the first brick. Even if the wall will ultimately be 50 feet tall and hundreds of feet long, it starts with one brick. If you stare at the location of your wall and only think about ow hard it’s going to be to build, it can be hard to start. If you stare Bach’s G minor Fugue on the first day of learning it only thinking about the end, you can quickly become overwhelmed. This is an often over-used analogy but I think it is very appropriate. Building a wall, no matter how big, starts with one brick and a plan. Learning the hardest piece you have ever learned starts with the first note and a plan.

Over the next few weeks I am hoping to outline my process into 4 different categories:

  1. How I go about choosing and learning a piece.
  2. How I go about practicing that piece.
  3. How I balance preparing multiple works at the same time.
  4. How to build a timeline so your progress and improvement will peak at the performance.

I’m sure many of you can relate to the challenges presented above. My hope is to tackle many of them in the upcoming posts. If there is anything specific you would like me to cover, leave a comment here or on my Facebook page.

WJ