Welcome to the official blog of the Highstrung String Quartet!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Philosophy of Practice

[Editors note: It has been mentioned that some students are quite encouraged by our ramblings herein. So along with the fun and pictures, this post and it’s follow-up posts are designed to show the “work-your-tail-off” side of music. It’s not always about concerts , cookies, friends or even talent. It’s about hard work. This is the first of three posts regarding effective practice. Hopefully, you will find some helpful truths for your own practice. –David]

Trapped between the subtle nuances of effective pedagogy, most teachers struggle to distinguish between persistence and redundancy. In English, that means, “Every teacher feels like they say the same things over and over again; but he or she is not sure if it helps or hurts.” Perhaps this maxim will aid: The fundamentals are oft forgotten in the clouds of “advanced” technique. Meaning, students everywhere, myself included, forget the basics. Therefore, the basics must be repeated often. This is not good news to my students who stand on the business end of my Basics Campaign. Truth be told, I don’t hear complaints from my students (they have all been raised much better than that). However, I am a student myself. I know what it’s like to hear a teacher say the same thing over and over again. But I do not teach for that passing moment of annoyance. I teach for the moment when the student suddenly grasps the concept. Good teachers know what that looks like. Good students know what that feels like. Both should be seeking it.

In honor of this, I have written a top ten list of the basics to aid all you musicians who are not in my studio and to make all of the students in my studio sigh and grumble. These ten truths, if taken to heart, will dramatically improve your practice and encourage you in your pursuit of fine music.

But before we get to that list of practical advice, I’d like to give four philosophies of practice. These ideas are more abstract, but if you incorporate them into your thinking about practice, your practice will be much more successful. And if you incorporate them into your thinking about life, well, you might find living to be more successful as well. These four philosophies are:

a. Getting started is the hardest part about practice

b. “Get it right.”

c. Accomplishment breeds accomplishment, failure breeds failure.

d. Your instrument wants to play well.

Getting started is the hardest part about practice

This one-liner has been a mantra in our home as long as I can remember. It’s been a truth passed down from teacher to beginner for quite some time. Getting your instrument out of the case and your music on the stand is the greatest challenge to anyone’s will power. If you can push yourself past that point, The rest will be intuitive (providing you have established proper practice habits). By way of practical advice: don’t wait until you “feel like practicing”. If you’re waiting for it, that moment never comes.

Understand what it means to “Get it right.”

In a subjective craft like music, it is essential to know what it means to “get it right”. (Some would argue that using objective language for subjective activities is not only philosophically inconsistent but also confusing. This question is outside the scope of this post, so for the sake of argument, we will assume that “getting it right” is a worthy goal). The problem with “getting it right” is that every students wants to, but few students know what it is. Most students will assume that “getting it right” means playing something until your teacher says it’s good. Or, in private practice settings, “getting it right” means fulfilling a practice assignment (the logic is something like: my teacher told me to play this section twenty-five times, I played it 25 times, therefore I “got it right”). That’s a best case scenario. More commonly, a student will approach his or her instrument with a vague assumptive notion of what their music should sound like or feel like and they try to replicate that experience in their playing. It almost never works.

There is a better way: educated, intentional, thoughtful, goals.

Goals: You must have a goal every time you pick up your instrument. You have to aim for something, anything. Many times, when my students have finished a piece, I will ask, “What do you think?” They look at me blankly (probably because I’m “suppose” to tell them what I think, not the other way around), but invariably, they don’t have any thoughts on their performance –except to point out the wrong notes or rhythms. Meaning, the only thing the students know about their playing is what they get wrong. How terribly discouraging. To avoid this discouragement, set a goal before you start every time. It’s not enough to have a goal for your practice. You must have a goal for your playing for every stroke of your bow.

Thoughtful: But goals by themselves are empty. You must have a certain type of goal, namely thoughtful goals. Thinking in cause and effect terms will do more for your practice than any other tool (mental or otherwise). When you do A then B happens. When B happens, C happens et cetera ad infinitum. For instance, when you start with your bow on the string you get a much better response than when you start from above the string –every time. The students who see the connection struggle much less with starting notes (especially fast-paced passages). To set a thoughtful goal means to look at your music and think analytically –finding patterns, similarities and differences. Armed with that knowledge, your practice will be more proactive and far more interesting.

Intentional: Every student practices. Not every student practices on purpose. Most students find a “good practice” to be a wonderful surprise that happens occasionally. They don’t know what causes it, they don’t know what, if anything, they had to do with it. But out of the clear blue sky came a productive practice. This is Reactionary Practice, not Intentional Practice. Intentional practice is to plan your practice in such a way that guarantees progress. Gone are the days of staring at your music books wondering where to begin. Intentional Practice is walking into the practice room with a list of needs to be accomplished and a clear game plan to accomplish it. It’s practicing on purpose.

Educated: You can’t teach yourself forever. Let me acknowledge my interest in this point: I’m a teacher. I make my living from teaching. But I would gladly teach free of charge, I just can’t afford it. So my students and my student’s parents pay me so that I don’t have to work someplace else. I’m a teacher, not for the money, but because I believe a student under my tutelage will flourish. He or she will be immeasurably better off than those students who try to teach themselves. A good teacher can save you hours of work. A good teacher can show you the way to where you want to be because they’ve been there before and they regularly guide students there.

So “getting it right” means having goals and achieving them –no matter how small. But it’s not just any goal, it’s educated, intentional, thoughtful, goals.

Accomplishment breeds accomplishment.

The difference between encouraged students and discouraged students is the difference between accomplishment and failure. Most of my students have transferred to my studio from another teacher. There are two kinds of transfer students: eager students and discouraged students. Eager students have experienced success in their playing. Discouraged students have experienced failure.

Nobody enjoys being bad at things. This is why people who are good at math love math and people who are good at writing love writing. Typically, you won’t find someone who hates math doing math just for kicks. Nor will you see someone who hates writing penning a poem for the fun of it. Therefore, if we want to stay motivated, we must continually experience success in one way or another.

This is not to say there is nothing to be gained from struggle. But we have to guard ourselves from unachievable goals –especially in the practice room. A student who thinks they can learn an entire piece in one practice session is on a course for failure. A student who plans to learn the recapitulation is a student on a course for successes. Both of these will be a challenging, but one tunnel has a light at the end. The more we see that light, the more we will practice. In this way, the goals are the same, but the portions are different. A failing goal is one big goal. A succeeding goal is five small goals. Both lead to the same result, but one produces accomplishment, the other produces discouragement. Five tiny accomplishments is far greater than one major failure. If you’re not experiencing at least one victory per practice, your goals are too lofty. Aim smaller.

Your instrument wants to play well.

When you look at the great musicians of today, it’s difficult to distinguish between the musician and the instrument — as if the two entities have melted together. The Instrument is as much a part of the musicians as the musician is part of the instrument. The two are a couple so in love with each other that you can hardly tell them apart.

When you look at the lousy musicians of today, the musician and instrument look like a blind-date with a one-way ticket to breakdown. There’s no connection. No comfort. No joy. Just awkward, clumsy, frustrated interaction between two halves that don’t seem to belong to each other.

The difference between the successful relationship and the failed relationship is the musician’s expectation of his or her instrument. If you assume that your instrument is the barrier between you and musical success, you will never play well. If you view practice as a battle between yourself and your instrument, your practice will be a warzone rather than a courtship.

Consider this: Our instruments were conceptualized, designed, crafted and sold in order to make great music. Our instruments want to play great music. Our job as musicians is discern what needs to happen to make our particular instrument do what it was created to do. To begin a relationship with your instrument, you must understand that you and your instrument are on the same team.

In order for that relationship to work, you both will need to make adjustments. If your down bows always crunch, you may need to adjust your bow weight or bow speed. If your instrument sit comfortably, the chin rest or shoulder rest may need to be adjusted or replaced. This process can be frustrating, but any relationship can survive if the members of that relationship will always remember that they are in it together. Your instrument is not your enemy; it’s your friend. And a very dear friend indeed.


So there you have it. Four philosophies of practice. There are more, but these will get you thinking and, hopefully, practicing with new vision. In the next post, we’ll look at ten practical approaches.


lady greenleaf said...

Thanks a lot, now I want cookies.

Bisceglia Family said...

Great post David! I'm of a philosophical turn myself, now and again, so I very much enjoyed it. I would have commented earlier, but I had to wait to read it until I had time to think about it.

All I can say is that what you said is so true! I think I may ask my student read it as an assignment. I liked your analogies about relationships with the instrument. I pity the person that thinks their instrument is the barrier between them and musical success!
~ Janna

David (viola) said...

Lady G: We'll have cookies at the concert on Sunday.

Janna: Thanks for your feedback. I'm not sure that students will find this information as interesting as teachers, but I'm flattered all the same.

I've found that those who consider their instrument a barrier aren't thinking at all. They're reacting. What happens is, in their mind, they expect to do something and have it happen (i.e. they imagined something that doesn't seem to work in reality), then they get frustrated because it worked just find in their head. This frustration leads to resentment and thus a broken relationship between musician and instrument.

But here's the key, that process happens subconsciously. When teaching this kind of student, I don't explain what's happening psychologically because no one wants to hear an exposition of their subconscious. Rather, I discuss the realities of the instrument (posture, gravity, weight, bow speed, etc.). This leads the student toward realistic, cause-and-effect thinking about their instrument and their playing.

Tip: if a thought process is impeding a student, try changing the subject.

Bisceglia Family said...

I meant to comment long ago...and then decided to share this excellent article with my violin teacher first. We both really enjoyed it. Your point of getting started being the hardest part of practicing is so true. It illustrates my practice maybe three years ago. I would just sit there staring at the stand, and then get my violin out, and ten minutes later realize I hadn't tuned...Thankfully, that has changed (I just love practicing now). The part setting achievable goals jumped out at me, too. I am a perfectionist by nature, and used to get really discouraged about my playing; my "practice tunnels" didn't have light at the end! Gradually I learned how to set effective goals, and end practices feeling successful.

My teacher said there was a lot she'd thought about and some new ideas. She especially liked the part about our instruments wanting to play good music, a perspective she uses to encourage students.

I'm (hoping for and) looking forward to the next post!
~the Fourth Rose (also known as Kathrina)

Tatia said...

that`s a great and sensible post about teaching
I should stop more often by, it`s very refreshing !

maybe two of my teachers this year should learn some tips from you :-)