Richard Middleton
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"Practice Approaches (Part 2)"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, April 1999.

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 tension.

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 at first.

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.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).