Saturday, September 15, 2012

Practice – The Inner Dialogue

This week's blog post is by Simpson College's Instructor of Clarinet, Ms. Kariann Voigts

Practice – The Inner Dialogue


For your academic classes you study, do homework, write papers, and take tests.  Instructors give you the assignments, perhaps with a rubric or at least a set of expectations, and you complete the task.  In some instances feedback will be given in the form of comments, a grade, or, at the very least, credit for doing it.  You have tangible evidence of how someone else perceives your efforts.  Then you go on to the next academic task in the syllabus.

For your applied lessons your task is much simpler, yet more complex at the same time…practice.  As a college student your instructors will guide your musical learning process and tell you how to approach specific problems.  However, the sooner you start to develop your own critical ear, the more confident you will be to analyze your own skills and guide your own learning.  Because your time with your professor is a small percentage of your total musical preparation, you are primarily responsible to teach yourself on a daily basis!  Below I have outlined some ‘inner dialogue’ that can guide you in your practice sessions to maximize your potential and create opportunities for successful performances.

Is what I am doing in my practice session efficient and effective?
If you find yourself practicing the same material day after day and it is not improving, your answer to this question is no.  I often refer to a practice tool box.  You should have a variety of ‘tools’ to use.  If one isn’t working, you can pull out another.  What are different tools?  Repetition, slow-motion, changing the rhythms, changing the groupings, isolating intervals, long tones, scales, arpeggios, finger patterns, counting out loud, etc.  Your list should be endless.  Consider every suggestion from your instructor an opportunity to add to your tool box.  Don’t just do it in the lesson and forget about it.  Remember it and use it again in similar circumstances.

Smart Repetition
Be careful of going on auto-pilot when using the repetition tool.  Always have something specific in mind when simply repeating a passage.  Listening for certain musical elements keeps you mentally engaged in the process.  Consider each repetition a fact-finding mission without a blanket positive/negative assessment.  “That stunk!”  doesn’t tell you which tool to find and use.  “There was an extra note in that passage so I need to work out that interval” guides your next repetition and leads to progress.

Did you play it more times correctly than incorrectly?
If your answer to this question is not a resounding yes, you still have work to do.  It is all about proportion.  In order to improve our consistency we need to have played a passage more often accurately than not.  Say you play a passage ten times and finally get it perfect on the last two iterations.  Your accuracy rate is 20%.  The muscle memory still has 80% inaccurate repetitions taking hold.  Brain research discusses neural pathways for any physical or mental task.  The more times we do a certain task the same way, the stronger that neural path becomes.  If we play with errors (or a bad embouchure, finger/hand position, vowel formation, etc.) more than one neural path is forged and it is as if you come to a fork in the road.  We need to eliminate the fork in the road, so to speak, so that the accurate neural pathway is the only one available.  In many instances, practicing at an appropriate learning tempo can help the process.  I often tell my students in the beginning phases of a piece, play only as fast as you can play accurately.  No matter how slow you play, the neural pathway is becoming stronger and the possibility for errors diminishes.

Patterns to perfection
All musicians rely on fundamental techniques and practice time spent on those basics is an investment in your future as a performer.  With every interval pattern you master through extensive rhythmic, tempo, and articulation manipulation, you diminish the time necessary to learn the ‘notes’ of a new piece.  Performing the right notes becomes the least of your worries and you transcend what is on the page to truly make the music come alive.  The best of what we do is not on the page.

Is my performance captivating?
And we finally get to the most elusive, subjective part of our profession – musicianship.  This is a big, broad concept that is so hard to define in words, yet you know it when you hear it.  Much of what we do as musicians is objective.  Notes, rhythms, articulation, and diction are all concepts that have a clear delineation of right and wrong.  The most important element of what we do as musicians goes beyond the marks on the page.  Composers and editors guide us with their dynamic, tempo, and other musically symbolic suggestions but the vitality of any performance cannot be dictated with details.  The nuances needed to captivate an audience require the performer to play every note with intention.  There should be meaning inside every note.  Your mastery of your voice or instrument gives you the opportunity to reach deeper into the music.  It is a life long process and I encourage you to make the investment, your practice time, worthwhile.

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