This month, I will expand on last month's column ("Practice Approaches" Part 1
) and explore practice methods in greater depth.
When practicing, the frustration or success we experience often has more
to do with how we practice than the inherent difficulty of the music or
skill we're trying to learn.
It's useful to imagine that our mind and
body are partners in music-making, each with its own strengths and weaknesses,
its own wisdom to contribute. The mind often takes control, misunderstanding
the needs of the body, placing unreasonable demands and expectations on
it, becoming angry when the body doesn't produce the desired result. This
makes it harder for the body to relax and perform well.
The most common example of this is attempting to play too fast. As I
said last month, it's very important to play slowly when you're learning
a new skill. It allows your body to truly learn what's being asked of
it, leading to accuracy and control, and minimizing mistakes and frustration.
I want to address this principle more deeply, because I see so many students
who get caught in this mind-body split. Often the mind is impatient to
play "real" music and wants to play at full speed immediately,
rushing the body to perform what it has yet to learn. The mind is often
so certain it "knows what's best" that it ignores what's actually
happening: frequent mistakes, frequent stopping and starting over, increasing
If you let these become the things you are practicing, then eventually
they become the things you learn, instead of the actual music. But such
mistakes are often entirely avoidable, if you don't first make the mistake
of playing too fast. They are signs that it's time to slow down. While
the mind wants quick results, the body wants and needs to play very slowly
How slowly? Slowly enough to enable the body to play the music correctly.
If you're flubbing notes, slow down. If you can't get from one chord to
another cleanly in time, slow down. If your tempo is uneven, slow down.
Slow it down again, and again, until your body can actually do the task,
until you can't help but play it correctly.
Once you find that pace and
have some success, don't immediately speed up again, or you'll be right
back where you started, playing too fast and making unnecessary mistakes.
Be patient. Hang out at that extremely slow tempo for a while so the body
can really master this new task and get comfortable with it. Only when
the body is ready should you (gradually) attempt to play faster. If you
encounter difficulties, slow it back down again.
The mind doesn't like to do things this way. It thinks that playing very
slowly is somehow a sign that we are untalented, that we "can't do
it." But, as in learning to drive or ski, even if the mind "understands"
the task, the body is the one that has to do it, which involves learning
on a kinesthetic level, not just a mental level.
Break longer or more difficult tasks into smaller, easier ones, and "loop"
them. "Looping" is playing a small section of music over and
over again like a broken record, starting each new repetition on the heels
of the last, right on the beat. To keep a steady tempo with your loop,
make sure it's a good musical length (one bar, two beats, etc.), and make
sure you don't cut the end short when you begin the next repetition —
give each beat or section its full value.
Looping helps break the all-too-common habit of stopping for every mistake.
If you make a mistake, let it go and keep playing, correcting your mistake
on the next repetition of the loop. Certainly, if your body is confused
and needs to stop and figure out what it's supposed to do, stop and give
it the time it needs. But once that's done, keep going no matter what.
If you make a mistake, keep going and see if you can avoid that mistake
the next time. It's good to learn to keep playing despite the occasional
mistake. (However, if you make numerous mistakes, it means you're playing
too fast — slow it down.)
Maintaining your concentration continuously as you loop also draws you
deeper into the music, leading to a more relaxed, meditative state in
which it can sometimes feel as though the music is playing you. This calm,
attentive state indicates a balance between mind and body, each doing
what it does best, working smoothly together. As this balance occurs more
and more in your practice, you find it beginning to occur when you're
on stage, as well. Enjoy!
Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of