David Allen, the productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done has a maxim that goes something like this: “The more something is on your mind, the less is getting done about it.”
I guess that’s why practicing music has been on my mind so much lately. More “thinking about” than “doing.”
A hectic work schedule, a lot of 97-degree-high-humidity summer days, and the lack of something specific to prepare for right now have combined to throw me off routine. The piano has been getting token practice the last few weeks; the violin, almost none at all. Yet practice is like any other discipline, like brushing your teeth or putting away your clean laundry: you can make up excuses but – in reality – you just have to do it.
The good news is that while in Baltimore, I learned some things to make practice much more efficient.
First, if you are tired or mentally checked out, you are probably better off not to practice – or at least, not practice anything complex. For the violin, it’s probably one of those good times to watch where your bow is engaging the string and hear the different tones you get at different pressure points and with more and less hair, bowspeed, arm weight, etc.
Second, make sure you are not trying to do too much at once. Sometimes, in my enthusiasm for a new piece, I keep playing it all the way through, over and over, rather than breaking it down and perfecting smaller sections. In the end, I just keep perfecting my ability to sight-read, rather than my ability to play. Professionals approach pieces differently. They might listen to a recording, to get a sense of what the piece is and what their part sounds like. Then they’ll work on the rhythm, perhaps walking around or dancing a little to get the feel of the rhythm into their bones. Then, they attack the notes. And, as the notes become secure (and memorized), the music itself emerges, with judgments of interpretation, nuance and tone. Only then are they playing all the way through.
A side-effect of slowing down and working on smaller segments is that you can focus on technique; chances are your difficulty is arising because the technique you are trying to use is flawed in some way. Or, as Peter keeps reminding me at my piano lesson, no one ever learned piano technique playing hands together!
One other professional tip: when working on a difficult run, start at the end of the phrase, playing only three notes. Play those notes repeatedly, until you can play them flawlessly 10 times in a row. Then pick up the three notes that come just before the three notes you’ve learned. Now you’re playing six notes over and over, until you can play those flawlessly. Then pick up three more notes, and so on to the beginning of the phrase. By the time you’ve done this, you probably have the troublesome phrase memorized, and have “locked in” on the correct way it should go.
There is a side benefit of this technique for orchestra players. At tempo, it is not unusual to get tense and lose your place in a long run of very fast notes if you are trying to read them off the page. Perfecting the end first means that even if you do get lost in the middle of a very black set of measures, you will soon come to the place you know well, and regain your balance.
And that’s exactly what I plan to do … as soon as I fix a lemonade, lay out on the chaise, and finish that novel!