July 2013

The Art of Conscious Repetition

July 16, 2013 21:26

The saying goes, "Practice makes perfect." I forget which of my colleagues told me a great twist on this classic phrase: "Practice makes permanent."

Or, here's another common saying in the music world: "Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong."

What do all these sayings mean when you take them to your practice room? It means, as one of my students put it, that you're looking for precision.

Let's say you play a passage five times. Let's say that you're only doing it because your teacher told you to, and that you're spacing out, thinking about checking your phone for texts and what you're going to have for dinner that night. Chances are, four of those five times are sloppy. And finally, the fifth time is solid. You breathe a sigh of relief, put your fiddle down, and pick up your phone.

The next day, you go to your lesson, and you blow the passage. Your teacher says,"Why didn't you practice that spot?" "But I did!" you protest. "I played it five times every day, just like you told me. I practiced really hard!"

Yes, you did practice, but you didn't practice effectively. Do the math. If you practiced every day for seven days, you played the passage correctly 7 times and incorrectly 28 times. What do you think your brain and fingers remembered out of that experience? What's happened is that your practice has made your mistakes permanently. You play how you practice, so if you practice sloppy, that's how your playing will be, too.

Effective practicing isn't about the number of repetitions or the number of hours you put in. It's about quality, focused repetitions. There isn't a shortcut. Rather, the shortcut is to do it right, and to do it right over and over again until you can't do it wrong.

So, how to put this into practice? Pick a passage you're struggling with. Create one very specific goal. Say this goal out loud. "My goal is to play the D Major scale with whole bows and to get completely to the frog and the tip so that I really use the whole bow."

Now, find a way to monitor your goal. For something like this bow division, a mirror might be helpful. Other ways to monitor your playing are to ask a practice buddy to watch you and stop you if you don't achieve your goal, or to video yourself and watch it back.

Next, try to achieve your goal three times in a row. Here's the catch: If you do it two times in a row, and are doing really well on the third time but don't quite get all the way to the frog on the last bow? You start over again from one. As my student said, the goal is precision. Not approximation. Not pretty good. But right.

Your goal can be anything. It can be standing up tall with a flat violin. It can be having a beautiful, ringing sound on each note. It can be playing a phrase with a joyful character. It can be remembering the right bowing. It can be just playing one shift accurately. Or using vibrato on every note. Saving enough bow for all the notes in a slur. For playing from memory. ANYTHING.

That's where your creative self comes in. Your creative self is the one with the vision of the music you want to produce, with the image of the sound you're striving for in your mind's ear. Your creative self articulates your goals, and then your conscious repetitions kick in.

My friend Scott Anderson, a wonderful musician who used to be the principal clarinetist in the Honolulu Symphony, gave me some advice when I was applying for my master's degree and was struggling to stay focused. He said, "Discipline is remembering what you want."

Remember how much you love your instrument and how well you want to play. And start practicing the art of conscious repetition. I'd love to hear ways of how others make repetition effective in their practicing.

5 replies

A Healthy Foundation

July 11, 2013 19:49

Syllabification: (foun┬Ěda┬Ětion)
Pronunciation: /foun'daSH?n/noun
*(often foundations) the lowest load-bearing part of a building, typically below ground level.
*a body or ground on which other parts rest or are overlaid
*an underlying basis or principle for something

Creating a healthy foundation is one of the most important and crucial aspects of learning to play the violin. In the first years of violin teaching, my goal is to build fundamental musical skills as my students learn how to listen to music critically and to discern what makes a good sound and to build fundamental technical skills, which means that I focus a lot on how to hold the instrument and bow.

Playing the violin doesn't involve motions that are inherently natural or easy for the human body. It's not symmetrical at all, which means that we have to do different things with the right and left sides of our bodies. It takes years to feel completely natural with the violin, and that's why a student's first lesson with me, regardless of their level of playing, will almost always include some changes to their basic setup. Even as students grow and develop, I'm always keeping an eye on those basic technique things, seeking to refine their skills to an ever-higher playing level and finding easier and more efficient ways for them to play.

Without a healthy foundation for their playing, a student will inevitably run into problems. It might be immediately, if they are struggling to make a sound or reach a certain note on the violin. Sometimes it will take years for it to catch up to them, but it does. Even a mostly healthy foundation with just a few cracks can be cause for a visit back to basic technique. The simplest problem a student will run into as they advance is that they'll hit a piece they can't play with their current setup. A student may not be able to play in all parts of the bow because of their bowhold, or they'll struggle to play fast enough with their fingers because of an incorrect angle in their left hand.

If a student plays and practices for years with an inefficient setup, they can develop tendonitis, repetitive strain syndrome, or carpal tunnel syndrome. Too much strain and tension on the wrong muscles can cause these injuries, which are physically and emotionally painful and and can require hours of physical therapy to recover from.

The positive benefits of having a healthy playing foundation are many! They include but are not limited to: feeling physically free when playing, not having to worry about how to create a certain sound, having a natural, ringing, and free sound, and being able to solely focus on the creative process of bringing their music to life.

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