Practicing the Unknown

Once students establish an effective routine in practice, it is always fascinating to see what they do when they practicing.  Often we practice something for a long time only to feel that our progress doesn’t match our efforts.  In my opinion, this is a choice to feel this way.  It is a choice in how we practice.  I only say that because I often fell into the pitfall of associating the amount of time to the success of my practice.

I used to be so impressed by the stories of people who practiced eight hours a day.  I did this for many years thinking this was the trick to improving a lot.  Then I realized that I wasn’t improving as much as I would like during the eight hours, so I became convinced by teachers and mentors that correct repetition during the practice sessions was the key.  This did help me considerably.  Lately through teaching and my own practice, I have found the element that was missing from the first two approaches was the “unknown.”

When I practiced something that I was already comfortable with for any amount of time, my focus dipped.  I could go on autopilot and waste valuable time.  Then my eight hours really turned into a diversion – not a practice.

As a young student, it was stressed to me that I repeat something three times, five times or seven times in a row before speeding up the tempo or moving on to something else.  Neuroplasticians have proven that our brain does not benefit from this static repetition.  Mastery grows and our brains benefit from incremental practice.  Every time we do something, the stakes should get higher (or change).  The tempo should get a little faster.  We add another hand or part to the mix.  We change the key.  We force the issue into the unknown.

I can’t begin to count the times when I would dutifully put the metronome at the tempo recommended by my teacher and have it pound away all week as I repeated the assignment.  Not only was it boring, it wasn’t helping me very much because I could zone out.

The flaw with this type of practice is that it doesn’t encourage our connection and engagement with what we create.  This is very sad and frustrating.  I would even go one step further and say that we can’t possibly create when this is the method.

If we as music teachers get frustrated about sports, video games, dance and all the other activities competing with our time; we really only need to look in the mirror.  The thing that those activities have in common is that they emphasize incremental improvement.  Whereas we were often taught that the way to play music is to do the same thing over and over again.  When we play video games, we are excited for the next unknown challenge.  When we play sports we want to rise to new challenges and improve.  We get hooked on the unknown and the next adventure.

The culture of teaching music has become so repertoire driven, that teachers may confuse harder and/or “more fun” pieces as incremental progress.  Sadly, this only encourages students to perform moderately more difficult pieces in the same way they have played their previous pieces…  Good…  Average…  Poor…  All detached from the creative process of performing.  In sports they call it “going through the motions.”  It’s not fun to do no matter what activity we apply it.

Since I use the motto in my teaching studio of “four or more,” let’s start with that.  We play each assignment four or more times each day.  Here are ways you could use the metronome (or MIDI/play-along tracks) to practice the same piece for a week.  Let’s say the piece has a suggested tempo or end-of-week goal of 105.

Day 1 (Traditional):
First Repetition – Metronome at 60
Second Repetition – Metronome at 67
Third Repetition – Metronome at 74
Fourth Repetition – Metronome at 81
Day 2 (Traditional – Increase Tempo):
First Repetition – Metronome at 60
Second Repetition – Metronome at 70
Third Repetition – Metronome at 80
Fourth Repetition – Metronome at 90
Day 3 (Traditional – Build Tempo Threshold):
First Repetition – Metronome at 75
Second Repetition – Metronome at 85
Third Repetition – Metronome at 95
Fourth Repetition – Metronome at 105
Day 4 (Reverse Metronome):
First Repetition – Metronome at 60
Second Repetition – Metronome at 50
Third Repetition – Metronome at 40
Fourth Repetition – Metronome at 30
Day 5 (Slow, Slower, Fast, Faster):
First Repetition – Metronome at 50
Second Repetition – Metronome at 40
Third Repetition – Metronome at 90
Fourth Repetition – Metronome at 100
Day 6 (Extreme Tempos):
First Repetition – Metronome at 40
Second Repetition – Metronome at 30
Third Repetition – Metronome at 110
Fourth Repetition – Metronome at 120

Try this out and let me know how it goes.  Be slightly uncomfortable and engaged the whole time.  Embrace the unknown and see if it doesn’t help your connection to the music.