Make Practicing in 2021 a Little More Effective With These Top Tips From 2020

Einstein once said “Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Hope for tomorrow.”1

This quote seems particularly fitting as we look forward to a 2021 that we hope will look very different from the year we just said goodbye to.

I mean, sure, we learned a ton in 2020 – but a lot of it was stuff that went way beyond what most of us ever expected to have to learn. Like how to optimize our audio for music lessons. What a pulse oximeter is. Or how quickly the dirty dishes pile up when everyone in the house stays home all day every day.

I don’t think anyone has any idea what exactly 2021 will look like, but hopefully, there will be opportunities to rehearse with our quartet-mates in a cramped practice room, eat subpar cafeteria food in a noisy and overcrowded dining hall, and perform for live audiences amid the distracting rustling of program notes, crunching of candy wrappers, and ringing of cell phones hiding at the very bottom of purses and hard-to-reach coat pockets.

All things that we probably complained about in 2019, but would take back in a heartbeat in 2021.

Of course, I think we learned a lot of things in 2020 that are intriguing and potentially transformative as well. For instance, from the various guests who have shared their wisdom with us on the podcast.

It may still be difficult to find the motivation to practice consistently with any sort of urgency and intensity for a little while yet, but as we embark on whatever journey may be in store for us as 2021 unfolds, I thought I’d share some ideas and strategies that will hopefully make your daily practice a little more satisfying. And make for more engaged performances too, when it becomes possible to rejoin our friends and colleagues, and make music for live audiences once again.

A few highlights from 2020’s episodes

The episode runs nearly 80 minutes, so it’s longer than the typical episode. But I’d suggest listening to it in order, rather than skipping around. That said, if you must skip around, I suppose you might as well know where exactly to skip to, so I’ve included a few direct links down below. =)

Today’s episode will be a little different.

Once upon a time, I used to go back through all of the year’s blog posts, and put together a Top 10 list of the most intriguing, useful, or transformative things that we learned in the last year.

The last time I did this was five or six years ago, so I thought it might be fun to try something like this again.

I went back through all the conversations we had in 2020, and compiled excerpts from a handful of episodes. Excerpts which contain ideas and strategies that I hope will make your daily practice a little more satisfying. And also make for more engaged performances, when it becomes possible to perform for live audiences and make music once again with friends and colleagues.

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I thought we might start with an episode with physical therapist Howard Nelson and violinist Pamela Frank. With all the sitting we do nowadays, as we teach, take lessons, attend school, participate in workshops, and even catch up with friends and family via Zoom, it’s probably more important than ever to be mindful of something they’ve been speaking about to musicians and music students around the country in recent years.

Specifically, that staying in good playing shape and avoiding injury has as much to do with your daily habits away from the instrument as what you do with your instrument in the practice room.

Here’s Pamela and Howard taking about some ways to make sure that the time we spend hunched over our laptops, or how we sit, sleep, eat, drink, wash our hear and brush our teeth isn’t secretly setting us up for injury in the practice room:

Howard: If you’re using a laptop that’s too low, you can get one of these laptop supports that elevates the screen. And so you’re not looking down and then you have your separate keyboard, a separate mouse so that you could work with that with the monitor being at a higher place. The alternative is if you don’t have arm supports to get your chair to go underneath the desk, that means you need to have space underneath your desk. So you can rest most of your forearm on the desk, hopefully with your head and shoulders being a good good place also.

Pam: See, this is why this makes so much sense to me. This is not voodoo. This is just common sense that takes an intelligent person to know how… I mean, one of your big themes is make your environment adapt to you and not the other way around. And there’s so many little things that we can adjust and modify, that help our body being in a safer, more neutral place ze don’t even think about, like the arm supports.

Noa: Could you guys actually describe some of the things that like, for instance, specifically that you were doing that you didn’t realize you were doing that were causing problems, whether it’s in line at the grocery store or chopping vegetables,

Pam: I don’t chop vegetables. But yes, plenty of things. I mean, certainly on the instrument, my left arm was pinned to my body, there was no space here, and my head was permanently turned left facing my fingers. So my head was you know, my neck was twisted. And then my scroll was really pointing to the floor. So those and as a result, my head was being pushed forward also forward and to the left and the left arm pinned into the body.

Howard: Your head was tilted left too

Pam: right, tilted left, turned left and forward.

Howard: Right. Just to describe what that did to the muscles in your… so when her arm is pulled into her body, the rhomboids are the muscles that pull the blade towards your spine. That muscle was so overused and dominant that when I first tested her and said, Okay, let me see you reach your arm up and forward, her shoulder blade did not move up and forward with her arm, it actually move backwards. So that’s just a great, great example of how your body adapts to what you do with it. So she kept by doing a bring your shoulder blades together and pulling your arm into her body when she played. That muscle was working over time. She had to learn to let go of that muscle so that it could follow the arm up and that allowed her to get some pain free arm or motion. Unfortunately, I don’t have video of that because that would have been so great to see that scapula moving the wrong direction.

Pam: But also walking I mean, without the violin obviously. When I was on my right leg, I would dip left. My torso would dip left, which is of course, what I do when I play the violin. So it’s replicating the same problem, the same problematic position. So I had to relearn how to walk. Actually, I had to train my glute muscles to prevent myself from dipping left on every step, which is a lot of mental work and physical work. Then sleeping, sleeping was another thing where I used to sleep in severe fetal position, which is, of course, doing the same thing. I’m the left arm is pinned in my, my head is forward and to the left. And so Howard had me find a neutral spine by putting a pillow under my left arm, a pillow between my legs and a body pillow in front, so that the spine retained its natural curves and that made a big difference because that’s eight hours of your day. So walking, sitting, I used to sit on the front of my chair, which would arch my back and push my head forward. So I learned how to sit, using my feet, the back of the chair also for feedback, with the feet planted firmly on the ground, which they had never been before either. Even the music stand, you know, it used to be very low music stand because I thought it promoted more communication, which is total nonsense because if you’re paying attention, you’re communicating, so I had to learn how to play with a stand at eye level, and then just communicate more with radar and not rely on seeing the people around me so much. She was eating and drinking, even just bringing the plate to me instead of like, you know, he always says if you have a sprained neck, you want to keep it stable, right? So I used to move my head towards the plate, instead of bringing the plate towards your head. Same thing with a glass. And then of course, just basic talking. I mean, I’m a probably an over expressive talker. And so I i gesture a lot and I had to learn how to just talk with my mouth and not with my head and washing my hair used to wash my hair with my head instead of me and Howard would say, well “Couldn’t you move your hands could use your hands to wash your hair or brush your hair with your hands instead of your head?3 And so everything became an arm exercise actually, because I was using my head instead of my arms for a lot of activities, brushing teeth, putting on chapstick.

Noa: I think we’re all hopeful that the latest vaccine developments mean that we’ll be able to connect with one another in person, make music together, and perform for live audiences once again in 2021. When this happens, and the intensity and urgency of your practicing suddenly goes up a few notches, it might be particularly useful to keep in mind Pamela’s awesome description of what efficient and effective practice looks like:

Howard: One of our themes of our talk is, you get what you train for. And that’s what I say in physical therapy. Your body adapts to what you do with it all day long. The way you use it for eating and drinking is the way you’re going to use it. For other things. Pam has the same philosophy with playing. Do you want to discuss?

Pam: Well, I mean, I always just say the way you have practiced is the way you’re going to play. So if you’ve practiced safe, safely or mechanically, that’s the way you’re going to get on stage. I mean, you’re not suddenly an artist, artistry has to be trained. And so it’s important to practice the way you want to sound all the time and not you know, I overhear people saying, Oh, I need to practice. today. I’m going to practice for intonation and tomorrow. I’m going to practice for phrasing. And this is just ludicrous to me because great playing is playing on all those things at once, the simultaneity of everything. And so, if you practice with commitment and 1,000% expression, then the only difference on stage is that they’re going to be people with whom to share it that expression. And it’s also different physiologically, if you’re engaged or if you’re half engaged, or God forbid, if you’re totally passive and watching TV or thinking about other things. My father used to say you can actually unlearn things if you’re not paying attention. So to not only pay 1,000% attention, but to play in your practice room with full adrenaline with full intention with full communication because that’s also training. It’s not just training your mind and your and your soul. It’s training your body so that you’re not caught unaware, when you get on stage when suddenly there’s nerves and an audience and adrenaline. If you haven’t trained what it feels like to play with all of that, you’re going to actually get nervous. And that’s going to cause more tension. And then it’s a vicious cycle.

So I advocate both things. One thing is what you mentioned, which is that, what are just the mechanical problems in this passage, and to be completely objective about it and not judgmental, which is Howard’s specialty, which is why I think you’re a great physical therapist is that it never becomes personal or emotional. It’s just mechanics. And so if you can identify, like a scientist in your practice room, where’s the problem? And not what is the area of the problem, but in what measure is the problem as specifically as possible and in what beat and then, okay, it’s beat three, now is the problem in the right hand or in the left hand? Again, totally objective, you know? And is it an intonation problem? Well, thank god there’s only 50 you have a 50 chance of being sharp or flat so you can already anticipate what your problems are. Just intellectually, you can… you know what the Bible says, Know thyself, you can you can guess your tendency ahead of time. And then, or is it a problem with as you said, not getting the right angle of the stick or the bow. I mean, there, there’s a finite number of factors in both hands, what a problem is. So the first thing is just to identify it, and then to say, Okay, well, how am I going to fix it, you know, rationally and then to give yourself fewer chances in which to fix it.

That is a big part of my philosophy, because I believe in practicing much less, I believe in thinking more and practicing less, thinking more means something doesn’t go right. You play it once you stop, you analyze, you say, Well, what was it and the next time you play, it’s going to be a correction. If you repeat the problem, you’re just in graining the problem. If you don’t need to confirm that it was terrible you need to already … every time you play should be an improvement of something, consciously and specifically. Then, if you haven’t fixed it by three chances, you’re not paying attention. You’re not thinking enough, that kind of practicing is much more effective, it’s much less time consuming. It doesn’t lead to repetitive stress injury. And but it’s much more tiring. It’s much more tiring on the brain. So you have to do it for shorter amounts of time. But yes, I think a lot of it is just analyzing what a problem is.

And then the flip side is then playing that same passage with 1,000% expression to see what happens to your body and to your mind and to your soul. Also, the other thing that is really important is to restrict the amount of time that you have because that will force you to prioritize. If you have all day you think everything is equally important, which we know is not the case, I would say cut your practice time in half, and then cut it in half again, and give yourself a very short laundry list three things to fix. If you can really fix three things instead of semi fixed 10 things it will be better for your planning. It’ll be better for your confidence. The trick is to be honest when you practice and please do not practice what already goes well. So if the problem is in measure 39, don’t even practice measure 38 or 40, even if it feels good for the ego, because the sooner you can just attack your demons, the better off you’ll be. And then the the other big thing about thinking more and playing less is score study. I mean, if you can learn a piece with your eyes and make all the decisions before your hands get involved, you’ll be a better player and a better musician and you’ll also save your save your body. So, to answer your question in a very long winded way, part of it is totally objective analytical way of being way of thinking of, of identifying problems in a non judgmental way. And then when you play, play for real.

The other thing is I think that generalizing criticism is a total cop out. It’s an avoidance technique. You know, when I say to the students, so what’s the matter? And she says, it’s out of tune, I say, Well, where is it out of tune, and she points to the whole page? Well, that’s not useful. It’s demoralizing. And there’s no way to go about that, you know, you can just throw up your hands and say, I suck. And, but there’s no magic pill, the trick is just to say, okay, probably not all of it is out of town. So if you could just localize to the small, find the smallest common denominator, the smallest cell of what a problem is, then you start to realize that the other 99% of that page was actually okay. So that kind of scrutiny I think really helps. And then really what what are the mechanics of it? It’s not you it’s not your soul. It’s out of tune. It’s sharp or flat or that the bow, you know, the sound wasn’t right. Okay, so look at what all the properties of the bow are, is it the flatness of the hair? Is it the location on the stick? Is it the location on the instrument? Is it the sounding point? Is it How many fingers are engaged in the right hand? I mean, there’s a finite number of variables with the bow and the left hand. And so if you can just just analyze, just analyze and say, Oh, well, I guess maybe the problem really was only in one beat. It’ll make you feel better about yourself and about the rest of it.

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Noa: And while we’re on the subject of efficient and effective practice, this might be a good year to rethink your assumptions around slow practice. As in, slow practice is an essential and invaluable tool, but the traditional method of learning a difficult passage by starting slow with a metronome and gradually working it up to tempo may actually be hindering your progress, creating bad motor habits, and slowing down the learning process.

And what’s the alternative?

Here’s trombonist Jason Sulliman, who draws from his training in kinesiology to explain why practicing a tricky passage at-tempo, from the very beginning, might actually be the more effective approach:

Jason: So in my studies of kinesiology, I came across a fair amount of research regarding speed-accuracy trade off. And that’s something that’s usually a good starting point, especially with musicians, because we all understand the concept that if, if you were to go faster, you’re probably going to be less accurate.

You’re going to make more errors. And, that is exactly what the research has kind of shown. Fitts & Posner, they put together this landmark study, it was like in the fifties where they basically had like two spaces. And then they had like an electric, like stylus, and test subjects would go back and forth between the two distances, essentially, just trying to go as fast as possible.

And when they went really fast, they started making more and more errors, less accuracy. And then they started doing math and figuring out okay, the size of the targets versus the distance apart that the targets are. That really is what matters. It doesn’t matter how small or big the targets are. It’s how small or big they are.

Combined with how far apart they are. But from that everybody seems to, to have hung their hat on the entire, general blanket idea of, you know, go slower to like learn things. Cause you’ll be more accurate and you won’t make as many errors and we don’t want to make errors in the learning process.

That’s another bone of contention. I have for different reasons, but I think that kind of became the scientific grounding behind like slow things down and. You’ll be more accurate and then you slowly pick up the tempo and you’ll be okay. But when I started digging into the research, I started realizing that there, there kind of were some massive holes behind the way those studies were set up and how specifically they were examining that paradigm.

And, and one of the things that I bring up consistently with musicians in particular is, you know, when those studies were being done, you were often given, like, go as fast as possible. Or go as accurately as possible. You were never told that you were going to have to do it at 144 beats a minute, because that’s what Wagner wrote that didn’t come into the equation.

There was never a goal in mind that you were going to have to get to, and then your accuracy was going to be determined and at that constraint of time. And I think that that’s one of the ways that it’s kind of a game changer. If your goal needs to be accuracy at a faster tempo. Then I think that that changes the way that you need to kind of develop along the way.

So I kind of had these ideas, these doubts, if you will, from the concept of slowing it down, to be more accurate and having that be a good method for learning, I kind of had those doubts when I was studying motor learning, motor control. When I started getting over to the neuroscience side, I started getting exposed to different neurological experiments and the way that they study with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

And there, I started finding some studies on something called the neurodynamics of automated behavior. And that blew my mind because what that was examining was as neurological pathways are formed, when we learn how to do something. Over time and over repetition, eventually the brain biologically just starts streamlining those pathways to essentially make them shorter and shorter.

Now you could argue is it kind of a chicken or an egg, is it that we make decisions that make those path line path pathway streamline? Or is it that those pathways just get streamlined in the process and therefore things get better and better law of accommodation kind of a thing, but no matter how you slice it, People studying this kind of stuff.

We’re finding that in early stages, neurological pathways and synaptic connections could be seen through slower and more cumbersome regions brain, but as things got automated, that completely washed away. And then you had these really fast, really streamlined, neurological synaptic connections through very quick and very short pathways that went through completely different regions of the brain.

And most of them were not conscious regions of the brain and tying that into my own experience. I thought, well, that kind of makes sense. When you start learning something, everything’s very conscious. You’re thinking about every decision you’re experiencing everything, you’re perceiving everything. And then as you get more and more, you know, autonomous with it or mastered with it.

There are things you just kind of don’t think about. I mean like the violin player that knows a really tricky pattern and has completely forgotten what the notes are. It’s just turned into this thing that they do. And if you think about it, neurologically those conscious regions of the brain are just no longer part of the activation.

They’re just kind of pruned out. And so I thought, well, if everything needs to have this, you know, dramatic paradigm shift to consolidation at some point, wouldn’t it make sense to just start in a way. That put the pathways kind of in that zone to begin with. And so that really kind of led me to this concept of saying, well, how would you do that?

You would have to constrain time, you’d have to constraint the distance in between events and maybe you do a small number of events and then you add more and more events. but time becomes the great constraint. And so that totally changed the way that I practice. Because as a child, I learned slow the metronome down.

I mean, the number of pieces that I would play at half tempo. Just to make sure every note was right. And then I would slowly, you know, kick up the metronome and, and also I think psychologically there’s. Not to dive into too many tangents at once. But, from a psychological standpoint, there’s kind of this explore versus this exploit paradigm of how we make decisions and how we do things.

You could argue that people that stay so long in one track exploiting a certain resource or a certain methodology, those might be more of your OCD minded people. And then people that bop around from method to method, to method, they get bored quickly with this and that we could call maybe those more of an ADD mindset in terms of the way that they practice. I am very much over on the OCD side. I’m like way over there. So from a psychological standpoint, it would be very gratifying. I get little hits of dopamine and it would be great for me to just slow down the metronome, play it well, kick up the metronome one notch play at well.

I’m getting all these victories and I’m totally fine with the pedantic nature of that, that method. So for someone like me, I think it was even more profoundly important to kind of stumble onto this neurodynamic concept of practice. And there might be some other people that are on the other side of the  fence, that say.

Yeah, I guess that makes sense. But it’s not as big of a deal for them because they kind of, you know, bop around and maybe they play things at tempo more quickly anyway, but that’s just kind of a little bit of background behind how I kind of stumbled onto it, how I applied it to my own practicing and kind of how I use it in my teaching.

I think the most accurate scientific subject it encapsulates it is neurodynamics, which is kind of a little, I don’t know if it’s own industry, or if it’s its own field yet, but it’s in the cognitive science realm and I think motor learning motor control was kind of my gateway drug into that, that area.

But I do think that there are motor concerns when you think about it kinematically and you think about the ways that like the muscles in your body have to coordinate when you move and violin and trombone are both very physical instruments, there’s a fair amount of movement that’s involved. So when you think about how every one of those muscles works in concert with every other muscle, if you do it a half tempo and you do it, a full tempo, the recipe probably changes.

Between how much of this muscle is a part of the equation versus how much of that muscle is a part of the equation. So I do think that there are some kinematic concerns as well, you know, and as a wind player, there are breathing concerns. When you slow things down, there are embouchure concerns. Every time you take a breath, you’re going to shift things around to make it more accommodating for psychologically what you know is coming down the, you know, down the pipe. And so I think for wind players, it also makes a big difference. So, you know, all these different. Kinds of domains. I’ll just kind of led into this whole. Yeah. This really makes a lot of sense. Like neurologically makes sense. Kinematically it makes sense.

Physiologically. It makes sense. Psychologically it makes sense. And so, you know, the older I get and the longer I go down this path, the more I wished I stumbled onto that stuff earlier in my training and development, you know, I was in my thirties, you know, when I found all that stuff out. And I remember thinking, man, if I knew this in middle school, I would have, I would have been a really awesome middle-school trombonist, but I probably would have, you know, climb the ranks or, you know, gotten better and better, more quickly in my practicing and probably would have stumbled onto some of those, those great equalizing roadblocks, that, you know, If there’s something in your playing, that’s like a limit for you in some way, like a technical or a mechanical limit, brass player, sometimes it can be embouchure whatever, the way that your face is making sound, you kind of want to stumble on that. I think it’s easier to stumble on that when you’re like 16, 17 years old. And then you can say, okay, let’s fix this now. Cause if you stumble on that later, it can, it can be a harder habit to kind of change or replace.

Noa: So, I mean, essentially we’re talking about the fact that when we play something slow, we might be utilizing motor movements that aren’t actually viable at tempo. So we are in essence, creating bad habits that are functional at a certain tempo, but are no longer functional or effective at a different tempo that is actually our goal or target tempo, which then requires extra time to kind of unlearn and then adopt new motor behaviors that are actually more effective at that tempo. I did hear a violin teacher once say that when you do slow things down, make sure that you’re still playing it the way you would a tempo, but sometimes it’s hard to know if we’ve never played at a tempo.

And so you talked about constraints and making sure we don’t sacrifice accuracy, but also don’t sacrifice speed. So, maybe this would be a good time to get into the nuts and bolts of like, well, how do you do this? Like, how do you play at-tempo without making a mess of everything like I did when I was a kid and just completely undisciplined sloppiness all around, but at-tempo?

Jason: Right. Well, and there are absolutely aspects that are going to be really hard to do in this way. And I think you’re absolutely right. It is a matter of scaling, like when you play it slow and then you try to just scale that up to tempo. It’s not a perfect scale. Like it, doesn’t just, it’s not like you have like a miniature model of a building that you made out of like popsicle sticks and Legos.

And then it looks just like, the big building that, you know, like the real building, there’s not a little tiny bathroom in there with running water. Like it doesn’t work the same way. It may look like, like a shell of an example, but it doesn’t… like that isn’t exactly what scales up. It just kind of looks like it.

And I think you’re right. Constraint is the big deal. You know, we’re talking about constraining time, not just accuracy. So a lot of the ways that I tend to approach learning a new piece of music, and it’s very important to kind of throw this caveat in there. I’m not talking about everything we practice.

There are absolutely things that you have to slow down to sort out, anytime that you’re trying to replace a physical habit, you have to slow it down. It has to be very slow and very methodical. And it is supposed to be very conscious. Like you have to be very aware of every decision you’re making, because if you start cutting, phoning it in to autopilot, you are going to default to those old habits that you’re trying to replace.

So in the process of learning repertoire or learning fast passages or learning things that are very technically demanding, the best thing that I have done or have found is, something called chaining. And that’s where you take a very small bit of information, a very small bit of physical, you know, stuff that you have to do and you master it.

And then you take another very small bit. And then when you have these two done, you can then put them together. So you now have a bigger bit that is scaled up. But it’s just, it’s very, very, you know, it’s at the tempo that it needs to be. So if it’s, I often use examples of like 16th note passages. So let’s say you have, just a slew of 16th notes.

Well, take the first two 16th notes and just play them boo-dee, boo-dee, boo-dee, you know, and just over and over until it becomes a very comfortable, very meaningful thing. And then add the next one, add the next one, add the next one. Until, and you know, once you have three, then you go to four, then you go to five.

And there’s different ways that you can chain. You can start at the end of a passage, or you know, adding notes before it, you can start in the middle, adding notes, either side, you know, you can learn the first beat and then put in a beat of rest and then learn the second beat and put in a beat of rest and then learn the third beat and put in a beat of rest or you’re going.

okay. One e and a two, two e and a three, three e and a four, four e and a one. So you’re doing it at tempo, but you’re giving you’re accommodating, the need for time in between to kind of reset and regroup before you kind of attack the next one. But eventually you can start removing that extra time.

What you’re doing is you’re keeping the context of time in place with the part that you’re playing. You’re just allowing yourself a chance to kind of reset, you know, The physical example of that, I think would be interval training. Like if you want to run a four minute mile, you have to do four laps around the track, basically at 60 seconds each, right?

One minute each. So if you wanna run a four minute mile, you’ve got to get good at getting that 60 second pace down. So you might do an interval workout where you do eight laps each in their own individual time. And you put like a minute in between, you might run a 60 second lap and then put a minute of rest and then run a 60 second lap and put in a minute of rest.

You might do six or seven or eight of those to develop a physical feel, you know, as well as physical conditioning. For what it feels like to run at that speed. And then you you try, you try to put them together and there are fatigue issues. I know. So it’s not a perfect example, but, but I think in some ways it’s the same concept of kind of giving yourself that little extra space. So I find that that’s, that’s kind of a more effective way to do it. And one of the things that I love about teaching is that some of my students, I mean, I, I think that the generation younger than us, whether it’s a micro-generation of like the students we’re teaching or, you know, people five, six, eight years younger than us, or it’s actually a legitimate, like full generation younger than us, I think they are and are going to be far more creative than us.

They’re hopefully going to take what we’ve learned and kind of build off of it. So I’m actually excited over that the next 15, 20, 30 years of my teaching to see what the kids come up with in terms of ways that they can apply this information to be even more efficient and more effective. You know, I, I fully, volunteer that, that they’re going to come up with better ways than we have.

I’m going to be inspired by that. So I think the chaining is the short answer, but the long answer is. We’ll see, you know, I think it’s all still rather emerging for, especially for performing artists to adopt these kinds of ideas in a very mainstream way. So I’m interested to see kind of where it goes.

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Noa: One of the big adjustments we had to make in 2020 was what lessons looked like. Suddenly, we were having to learn all about Zoom, USB mics, echo cancellation settings, and all sorts of things we had never thought much about before.

I think we all learned really quickly that there’s no replacing an in-person lesson, but online lessons do have one potential advantage. They are super easy to record.

And why is that so important?

Well, timpanist Jason Haaheim began recording - and transcribing - his lessons and coachings when he began getting serious about the orchestral audition process. And it’s something he requires his students do as well.

But why exactly is this such a game-changer? What actually changes that makes it worth all of the time and energy that is needed to transcribe one’s lesson? Here’s what he had to say:

Jason: I’m going to describe this two ways from my standpoint of when I was a student, and what I felt like was happening. And now I’m going to describe it from the standpoint of me teaching students who are doing this and both what I recognized In their improvement and sort of their trajectory change. And then also what they report back to me is like, what’s what’s working about this? So again, from like, almost the most basic perspective of brutal economics of this, this is not something that all students are doing yet, far from it, depending on the level folks are at this kind of working practice, I think has percolated pretty widely. But then the further down the chain, you go, you know, when I encounter college freshmen, for instance, a lot of the time this is very, very new to them. And it just hasn’t occurred to them yet that this is a thing. And so one of the things I try to say to kind of get them on board with this idea, and also encourage them to continue doing this to the rest of their education is just to say, look, you pay X dollars per year for tuition at whatever school you’re at, multiply that by four, that is what you’re going to pay for your undergraduate education. Cool. Your undergraduate education is going to include only 120 hours of lesson time like that. That’s it. That’s that’s the standard everywhere. It’s usually like 15 lesson hours per semester, two semesters a year, boom, you get to 120 hours. And that’s it. And after that, like that, that is what you are going to be able to get from your teacher.

When people start thinking about it that way, they’re like, oh, wow, okay, that’s actually it. You know, it’s easy to think when you’re 18 years old, like, Oh, this is gonna stretch on forever. And I have all this infinite time. And in fact, like, God, it goes by so quickly, and you get to the end of it, and then you’re like, oh, but wait, what about and this thing, and God, maybe we talked about this, but I kind of forgot to write it down or whatever. So I’m like, at a minimum place, like you’re paying so much per hour for that lesson time, like extract that value. Make, sure that you get as much out of it as you can. And so how you do that, that’s now the specific thing that like, what does that look like? I’m gonna describe that and them I’m going to describe what it felt like for me and then what I kind of witnessed now in my students.

To begin with, it is recording the whole thing with at least audio. And having a higher quality audio method to do this is really helpful. For me I found that like the zoom recorders, something like the h4, h4 n, those have mics that are surprisingly good at recording timpani. Timpani is notoriously difficult to record in any capacity. And so I kind of found after the fact these were able to reproduce with reasonable fidelity, what was actually happening in the playing, so that I could hear a lot of those details. recording with an iPhone is certainly better than nothing. Recording with an entire like 10 grand mic setup and a mixing board as maybe a little overkill and you know, you’re gonna waste a lot of time in the setup. So somewhere in between one of these, like handheld digital recorders is great. I think if you can do video, even better. A lot of my students set up the video so that it’s looking at the drums and it can see them responding and doing all the stuff that I’m telling them to do. And then it can also, catch when I’m going into demonstrate something myself, I think that can be really, really helpful. I think there’s probably a sort of curve with this where like, a lot of teachers will be comfortable with audio recording, and then a subset of them will be comfortable with video too. Again, you know, making predictions is always difficult. But it does seem to me that like, we are headed toward a place where recording lessons will become pretty standard practice, at least audio and probably video too. And so, a starting point is just getting that happening, right having the gear. And sometimes I encounter pushback from students is like, Oh, well, you know, it’s like, these recorders are really expensive. And it’s like, it’s like, I don’t want to spend another three or $350 on this. And I’m like, yeah, you know, I get it like you’re a student. You don’t have a ton of money. But like, let’s think about priorities here, right? Like you’re dropping 15 or 20 or 40 or 60 grand on school this year, and you have a way that you could, you know, extract 500% more value from that. And you’re just like leaving it literally on the table, like it’s not being turned on, you’re not going to buy the device, like, you know, we pay money for our instruments, we buy new strings, we do all of this stuff, because it’s obviously something we have to do. It’s part of our craft. And I would argue this is no different. So, you know, for any of my students, the purchase of one of these devices that is enabling this is just a non negotiable thing.

And so, from that point, then, for anyone who wants to reference this out after the fact, I kind of wrote out this process flow in this blog post I have called “No one gets there on their own.” I basically say step one is the capturing, right? You just have to record it. You have to have the device, you have to record it.

It’s worth noting that the law on this varies state by state. So categorically, I believe everybody needs to ask the permission of their teachers. And like I said before, the teacher should then consent and say, yes, this is okay. It turns out that, oddly enough, there are states which have this law called single party consent, which essentially means that you can record what’s going on around you. And that’s legal to do. And actually, New York State is one of those states. And if anyone listening to this is better versed in this law than I am, please feel free to write in and, and correct my understanding of this. But nevertheless, from an ethical perspective, you really need to get permission. And also note that there are some states where if you just turn on the recorder in the middle of this, and your teacher finds out later and they did not give their consent, that’s actually illegal, potentially what you’re doing. So make sure you get permission, turn the thing on. Boom.

The step beyond that, then is the lesson is over. And what do you do from there? Or I guess maybe I should say step 1.5. In between is, does this and should it change the way you do a lesson and kind of alluding to earlier, I think Yes, it does. So once I started recording my lessons, I stopped trying to take notes during the lesson. This might sound counterintuitive to people. It’s not it’s not a hard and fast rule. I mean, if there was something really critical, I wanted to like, go back and mark in my part or something, or, you know, I would put like a little asterisk or maybe have a little post it note, but it was it was just a reminder for later that I’m going to spend more time digging into this later. Because again, the idea was, during that incredibly valuable lesson time, which is, you know, it’s probably helpful to put a number on this right, like, I mean, a lot of people’s lesson rates that I know in New York City is like $150 an hour for a lesson. There are parts of the country where that probably sounds insanely high, but this is the going rate in New York. But that’s for like private individual lessons. If you work out the same rate for what you’re effectively paying in an institution because of all the overhead and everything else in classes and if you know that that hourly lesson rate quickly becomes 250, 300, 500. In some places, it’s as high as like 6 or $700 an hour. And so again, my thinking is like, I want every cent of that to count. And so during that lesson, I need to be as fully engaged and responsive as possible. And that’s tough to do when you’re sitting there constantly like scribbling something down and then missing the next thing they’re saying, or, you know, you put down the instrument in your writing, and they’re like, No, no, no, do it again, I told you to do it, like, whatever it is, right? And so, the step 1.5 is like, don’t so much worry about writing, you’re going to be able to do that later. Focus on being fully present, engaged, responsive, adaptive, and like truly listening as much as possible to everything they’re saying. Because at the end of the day, part of this is just about efficiency. Given 120 lesson hours and undergrad, how much are you gonna be able to learn? How far are you gonna be able to go? What kind of trajectory Are you gonna be able to set. So that step two for me was go back and listen to the whole thing.

But that’s not all, the really important thing I started doing for myself was to generate a written transcript, sort of like a court reporter. And I would listen back from the beginning, and kind of generate this moment by moment accounting of like, what was going on what we were talking about. And one of the really important things about this is it creates a searchable record. That, for me, was just invaluable for the future. Pro tip for anyone that’s going to do this, I found it was really effective to use software like audacity for this process, because you’ve got all these abilities to you know, put in timestamps and like little markers, and you can jump between spots. And if, you know you get to minute 40 of the lesson, and your teacher says hey, yeah, so remember at the beginning when we talked about this, okay, do this, this and this now, and during the lesson you were like, oh, wait, what? But now later, you can jump back to that point be like, Oh, yeah, that is what we were talking about. Okay, going through that. Writing the transcript. This takes time, obviously, right? Like for a given lesson hour, I would sometimes spend two, three, even four hours in this transcription process, which seems onerous to people. And this is kind of one of the other areas of pushback I encounter where they’re just like, yeah, we’ll put that’s gonna cut into my practice time. And I say, No, absolutely not. If that is the way you’re thinking about this, I think you’re managing your time poorly or inefficiently. Because the way I was doing this was essentially structuring my schedule and my life and everything so that I would go basically push my practice hours to the biochemical maximum, which I know you’ve written about, Noa, and I know like a lot of other people have studied this. across many, many fields, there is this growing recognition that like four to five hours of intense focus concentration is about as much as we can realistically expect in any given day. And that after that we require sleep and rest and rejuvenation to both, you know, at a neurological level, we’re getting rid of this beta amyloid protein that that builds up and kind of inhibits our cognitive capacity. We are replenishing our stores of myelin, we’re all of these things are happening just at a cellular level that enables us to learn more effectively. So yeah, my priority was maximize that time. But still, that’s only 28 or 30 or 35 hours a week. You’ve got a lot of other time that you can and should be using to reinforce and support and augment all of your in the practice room efforts. And so for me, this transcription time was key in that part of the supporting time. And just like my previous analogy about canoeing, if you’re not doing that, then these other practice hours you’re putting in are potentially ineffective or taking you off course, or something. And so it’s, it’s just really, really essential to make time for that.

* * *

Noa: At some point in the coming months, hopefully, we’ll have to opportunity to leave the comfort of the practice room or our living room Zoom performance setup, and start transitioning back to performing for live audiences.

On one hand, this will be thrilling. But it will probably also be a tiny bit terrifying as well.

And one of the factors that can contribute to that backstage or on-stage stress is memory.

Pianist Stephen Hough has written quite a bit about the pressure to perform for memory over the years, and if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how important memorization is, really, I think you’d enjoy giving his episode a listen. Here’s an excerpt of the very beginning of our conversation where I ask Stephen how he would respond if a student or fellow musician came up to him and asked “Is memorizing music all that important?”

Stephen: Well, I’d say yes and no. Because I think it’s a very complicated question. I think there’s no doubt for me that it’s a skill that you need to learn as when you’re young, along with learning your instrument. I don’t think just reading from the score until you can sort of play it. And then ah that piece is done. What’s the next one is quite what we’re talking about when we’re talking about learning music to a deep way, just as as in learning a role for a play, you know, you need to get absolutely inside the character. And I think, for us as musicians, part of that process is memorizing, it’s being able to put the music aside and inhabit that music. I think the question comes is, is memorizing, in a concert situation, always what we need to keep doing? I think we need to learn the skill. But do we need to display that skill every time we play in concert? And I think in recent years, it’s become less required to do that. I think it started probably in the post-war period with very complicated contemporary scores. Boulez Sonata, Stockhausen Klavierstücke for pianists anyway, do we really need to memorize 30 pages of the most absolutely complex, atonal, all over the keyboard, thousand different times signatures, mean, what is that really proving? Is it proving that you’re a great musician? Is it giving something to the performance?

And I think almost all of us would say, Well, no. You know, some people have that skill, just as some people are left handed and some people are right handed. I don’t think there’s any qualitative difference between the two. I think that began to break down this idea that we always have to play from memory because for pianists really for 100 years from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century, it was simply impossible to have a career if you played from the score you had to play from memory, it was absolutely a requirement, and pretty much everything you did. And so now it’s breaking down a bit. Some artists actually do play entirely from iPads, which, of course has changed the question again, because visually, an iPad is not such a distraction if you’re in an audience at a concert hall. You don’t even see the iPad so that’s changed. We don’t have to have a page turner up there anymore.

But I was thinking about especially if I’d even since you mentioned us talking about this and I think there are certain pieces certain repertoire were playing from memory is still part of the theatrical experience of hearing the performance. I think if you’re playing the Berg, to change it to your own area, the Berg Violin Concerto, I think from the score is a very different thing than the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto from the score not only because so many people play it and learn it and everything else but I think there’s just something visually about the theater of it. And and concerts to me are theater, in which I think it’s more important to play from from memory than it is from the score. I was watching just the other night Horowitz playing from Carnegie Hall, the F sharp minor Polonaise. It’s a wonderful performance. I think it’s from the mid 1960s. And I was imagining him with an iPad inside the piano, whether it would be a different experience, and I have to admit it would.

Now whether this is is a bad thing, whether we’re entering here into the whole business of what it is to be a star, to be famous, to be thought better than other people, and all of the hierarchical stuff that maybe we’re also beginning to unpack and say, Is this what being a musician is about? But nevertheless, in 1968, with Horovitz, on that stage of Carnegie Hall, I can’t imagine him either with a score and page turner, or with an iPad. So the answer is a very long answer to your question. Yes and no.

* * *

Noa: Of course, there will be lots of times when playing from memory is both desirable and necessary. So are there any specific strategies or techniques we can use to make our memory more bulletproof? Absolutely. Here’s violist Molly Gebrian, who draws on her background in neuroscience to describe some of the keys to becoming a better memorizer:

Molly: So for different types of memory, we tend to think that memory is one unitary thing because that’s how we sort of experience it. But there’s many different types of memory. So you’ve probably heard of long term memory, short term memory, right? Long term memory is like my memory of my childhood, short term memory is you tell me your phone number, I have no way to write it down and I’d have to say it over and over again before I can write it down. There’s also something called working memory. And so that is something you’re holding in memory, but you’re also manipulating in some way.

So if I tell you my phone number and say you have to remember this, but you can’t write it down, but you also have to add up the digits of my phone number while you’re trying to remember it and tell me what they add up to. That’s using your working memory and working memory has really limited capacity and it’s very taxing on the brain and it breaks down under pressure. And so when we’re performing from memory, we definitely do not want to be using working memory. We want to be using long term memory because long term memory is essentially unlimited. It’s very robust and stable. It doesn’t really react to pressure, definitely not the same way as um, as working memory. So there’s other types of memory, but that’s sort of the most important thing to understand for our purposes today. And then in terms of how we memorize things, we tend to think like you read something, you repeat it over and over in your brain and then like this magic happens and somehow it’s, it’s, it’s stored in memory and it’s this black box.

But actually scientists that study memory have broken it into three stages. So the first stage is called encoding. So how do you get the stuff into your brain in the first place? Second stage is called consolidation. So basically, how does something go from short term memory? Like something you just learned into long term memory. So it’s more sort of stable and durable over time. And then the final part is retrieval. So getting it back out again when you need it. And if any one of these stages (encoding, consolidation or retrieval), isn’t done well, then you’ll have difficulty coming up with the material when you want it. And so when you’re memorizing music or anything else for that matter, you want to make sure that you’re addressing all three stages of the memorization process. And we can talk today about like different strategies for each stage.

But it’s important to understand like you can encode great, you can consolidate, great, but if you’re not doing a good job at practicing retrieval, it can look like the information isn’t in your brain. But it actually is.

Noa: Molly goes on to describe specific strategies for the encoding and retrieval stages as well, but also takes a moment to describe the biggest mistake we make with regards to memory, and relatedly, when exactly in the process of learning a new pieces we should begin to memorize:

Molly: I think the biggest mistake people make with memorization is they just don’t practice doing it enough and so then the retrieval process is not automatic, which means you’re relying on working memory for the retrieval process when you’re on stage, which is is not going to work.

One of the questions I saw before we started was a question about when in the process should you start memorizing. There’s a study that was done by a Jane Ginsborg is her name in 2002 on singers looking at exactly this question, when should you start memorizing? And there’s so much interesting data from that study, but the upshot is that you should start memorizing or playing from memory as soon as possible. Like from the very first practice session on a piece that you know that you’re going to have to perform from memory. And the reason is when you start performing or playing stuff from memory, from the get-go, you give your brain more opportunities to correct its mistakes. And so when I’ve tried this like, okay, I know I’m going to memorize this thing, you know, let’s try out this research.

Usually it’s just like one bar. Can I play one bar from memory today? That’s, you know, maybe the only bar I’ve practiced today, can I play that from memory? So it’s not big swaths of the piece, it’s just like little bits. But the sooner in the process you do it, the more opportunity your brain has to correct whatever mistakes you’re making. And when you correct mistakes, it actually helps solidify it in your brain. We like to avoid mistakes, but mistakes are useful. And if you’re not sure you’re doing it right, play it from memory and record yourself. And then listen back to the recording with your music. Anything you didn’t do right, you know, make a mark and then fix it at a subsequent practice session.

* * *

Noa: When we finally do get on stage, it can be pretty natural to respond to nerves by getting tight, stiff, and have difficulty letting go. Fortunately, this is something you can prepare for now, as part of your daily practice. To make sure you’re not a ball of tension before, during, and after performances. Not just because that sets you up for injury, but because it’s not much fun to perform that way either, and we play better when things feel more fluid and effortless too.

Here’s guitarist David Leisner, who in the course of struggling with focal dystonia, discovered a new approach to playing his instrument. You’ll hear him get into some of the details of why maximizing the effortlessness of our playing is not just healthier, but more effective too - from both a technical and musical perspective.

Noa: Is it fair to say that that the priority is more on effortless playing and fluidity of motion with accuracy. Not that accuracy doesn’t matter, but maybe accuracy, secondarily, as opposed to it being centered around accuracy first.

David: Yes, it’s, it’s really a matter of timing of priority of timing. Accuracy, of course, ultimately is extremely important, but in the beginning when you’re learning something, accuracy is not important at all.

You don’t need to worry about accuracy. You need to go through the motions of doing whatever it is you’re trying to do in the correct way, whatever that goal is that you’re working on. And then accuracy becomes part of the refinement process. So as you, as your motions get smaller, as you get closer and closer to them, normal movement, then you can think about accuracy.

But if you think about accuracy too soon in the process, then that tension will creep back in.

Noa: I mean, that makes perfect sense. When you say it like that, I feel like maybe what I would have worried about, and maybe some others too, is introducing bad habits and to playing if accuracy doesn’t come first, but what’s actually happening.

It sounds like if there’s too much of a focus on accuracy is that you’re actually reinforcing bad habits. Because you’re too focused on it. That’s such a weird…

David: Yes ! Yes! Exactly.

That’s exactly it. And that’s the crux of the problem with so many players. There’s so focused on accuracy, not, let’s put it this way.

They’re focused on not making a mistake. And if you know, psychologically that’s, that’s a big deal. If all you’re thinking about is not making a mistake, you’re going to be a very boring player. You’re not going to play with musicality and passion and soul and emotion. You know, you’re, if you’re just thinking about not making a mistake, you’re going to be a very careful player and you may be note perfect and that’s fabulous, but the soul is drained out of it. So you want to find a way of being accurate that’s not at the expense of all the good stuff and all the good stuff happens when you allow it to happen, which happens when you allow your body to be free and its motions.

* * *

Noa: And how exactly can you find this way to approach your instrument with more ease and effortlessness?

Most musicians are probably familiar with Alexander Technique, and perhaps even with Feldenkrais. But the concept of body mapping is still pretty new to many musicians, as it hasn’t been around for quite as long. Though its popularity has been growing as more and more musicians become aware of it.

What is it exactly, and how can it help you play and perform more effortlessly? Here’s violinist Jennifer Johnson:

Jennifer: Well initially, Barbara’s (Conable) intention was that it would be used alongside the Alexander Technique. In fact, her first book she wrote about it, it’s called How To Learn The Alexander Technique. And it is basically her body mapping book.

Barbara credits Bill (Conable) with really discovering it, that one day he was watching a violinist play really tight bow arm and she’d had some AT work with him already, but he realized that she just didn’t know where the joint was that she was trying to bend from.

And he asked her, and sure enough she pointed about half an inch too high above where the actual joint is. So he gets the arm model out and he shows her how easily it moves there. She finds it on herself and bingo, she had a really free bow arm. It’s not always that quick and simple, but that’s when the light bulb moment happened. And he took that idea home and they worked on it. And she really took it and ran with it and developed it from there with her writing. And then developing the course, and then establishing the organization, which we now train other people for.

A simple way of putting it is that we applied anatomy. We get very specific about where the bones meet, what shape they’re in, how they’re designed to move, and we also have cataloged over the years the misconceptions that are really common in each instrument’s pedagogy, not because necessarily that anybody’s ever said anything to them that’s been misleading. Sometimes it is that, but oftentimes it’s just you’re vulnerable in certain ways, in different ways with different instruments. Whatever physical demands are made on the body for that particular instrument you’re bound as an experienced teacher now, I can go looking for a pattern that that instrument tends to bring out in people.

It has in recent years kind of taken on a little bit of a life of it’s own where we have a lot of success teaching people just through this applied anatomy approach, and an understanding of the patterns and what particular piece of information about the body is going to be most important to help somebody undo those tensions and move more freely. And quite often, especially with younger people who haven’t been doing it for decades in a really limiting way, quite often you can see and within one hour see kind of miraculous things change. And they go away going, “Wow, I had no idea I can move that way and it could feel that easy. Or that I could sound that way because suddenly I’m not fighting myself and my body.”

Noa: This might sound like a super obvious question, but how is it that our having a misunderstanding of where the joints are, how does that actually affect our playing or how does it … Is it muscle-related or more joint-related? How is it all …

Jennifer: That is a great question. If you go to neuroscience you see … And I’m going to describe this in very layman terms, but the maps that are on the cortex of the brain dictate our functioning. And we have a vision map dictates how we see. So our movement map also is up there. And let’s just use an example. If children, as I was back a generation ago, when in grade one everybody was told to sit up very straight. That kind of arching of the lower back that happens when people think that they need to sit up or sit with good posture, that’s a cultural myth really because it’s really hard on a spine and it tightens the muscles of the lower back in order to make that happen.

Jennifer: And if people feel that that is the right way to sit, because they were told that from a very young age, they’re going to take that into their orchestra playing, let’s say, as an example. And the longer somebody holds themself that way, the more the map starts to actually alter neuronally, the brain kind of says, well look, if you really want to sit this way, well I’m just going to rearrange some neurons up here, and so that this kind of starts to feel right to you.

The map is now a little bit askew. It’s not really representing the true design of the body, which if I was to just go down that road a little further, when we teach people to sit well, one of the main things we emphasize is that there is a back half of a spine and the front half of the spine. The front half of the spine is where the nice cushiony pillows that we call discs live between every vertebrae. But there are no cushions in the back half of the spine. It has a different function. It is not meant to bear our weight in the way that it ends up doing if we’re trying to do that, “sitting up straight” or “sitting with good posture.” The map will start to alter a little bit to reflect our misconception that this is the good and right way to sit.

One neuroscientist described it as if you’ve got a toboggan at the top of a snowy hill … This resonates well with me as a Canadian. And you’ve got two pathways going down the hill, and one of them has been traveled many, many, many times by other tobogganists. It’s deeper and your toboggan is going to want to veer over into that path. And maybe the one over here that’s only been gone down by one toboggan is not as deep. It’s going to be harder to convince your toboggan to want to … Your sled to go down that path.

And he says it’s a little bit like that, that once neurons start firing down a certain pathway, it becomes grooved, figuratively speaking. And so that’s the way that the neurons are going to want to continue going down. And in real layman’s terms, that’s called a habit, a movement habit. That’s what we would term a mis-mapping. And then by showing people the truth about the body and asking them to take that into an experiential kinesthetic experience, and start being very diligent about moving that way and sitting that way in orchestra rehearsal, then gradually we start to return the map to something that’s more reflective of the actual physical bony structure design of the body.

Noa: So it’s about moving in the most biomechanically efficient way to maximize.

Jennifer: Yeah. We say moving according to the true design of the body, rather than according to popular misconceptions.

Even though my history is coming from fairly severe injury and that’s the driving force behind my helping people, there’s loads of other musicians out there who are just a little frustrated by feeling limited and maybe haven’t realized yet that a lot of the limitation they’re feeling is coming from the fact that they are moving against their design in small ways. Maybe ways that aren’t extreme enough to feel injured, but that it’s certainly limiting them. And they wonder why they can’t do something as freely as other people. Why isn’t my staccato as free? I’ll use that as an example because that was my … That was a huge moment for me when I remapped my bow hand thumb. Barbara talks about when there’s a lot of tension in a thumb, the three bones, it is comprised of three bones in the thumb. And the bottom bone comes down and meets the wrist bones, but when a thumb is not moving freely, generally it starts to get pulled into the hand a little bit.

Jennifer: The muscle on the palm gets over-tightened and the thumb starts to look as if it’s just sprouting off where the webbing of skin is there. And people frequently use it with only really movement from the upper two joints instead of what Barbara dubbed the “three jointed thumb.” So when I started remapping my thumb and I realized how incredibly long and graceful a digit it was … I used to think of my thumbs as being kind of ugly and stubby and short. And it turns out, wow, it’s actually doubly long from what I thought it was. And I picked up the bow and started really thinking about that sensation of softness and that muscle. And bringing the thumb onto the stick from the base joint and swinging it from there. It was nearly instantaneous. I had a spiccato that was so easy and I loved it and it sounded great.

Jennifer: And this is … I was in my mid-thirties with that revelation. So I had been playing for well over two decades with a really tight spiccato, which I had always hated. It just hated it. Playing anything in the quartet even as a professional it’s like, oh God, here I go again. Feeling like I’m just bad at spiccato, I’ll never be good at it. Turns out my thumb was tight. And I was thinking of it as being short and as soon as I realized where the origin of the movement could come from, within about a month that muscle, which had just been this enormous … I’m sure you’ve seen students of yours with this. That muscle is just hard as a rock. And it’s like this big. It’s just way too overdeveloped. And that’s what mine looked and felt like. And within about a month that muscle had turned into what it is now. It’s just soft and malleable, and the thumb was moving from the right place.

Jennifer: So that’s a classic example of a mis-mapping that I had never had pain in my thumbs. And in my vibrato on the left side also really improved when I remapped my left thumb. That was one of the quicker mis-mappings I had. That really was about a month, and it was very, very exciting that it had that much of an impact on my playing.

Noa: These were just excerpts of longer interviews of course, but hopefully you were able to extract some actionable takeaways from these clips. If you heard something that piqued your interest, and you’d like to explore it in more depth, you can find the complete interviews, transcripts, and episode notes at

Shortcuts to specific points in the episode

2:10: Physical therapist Howard Nelson with tips on ergonomic computer setup, and violinist Pamela Frank with the most valuable 7-minute description on how to practice effectively and efficiently that I think I’ve ever heard.

14:58: Trombonist Jason Sulliman explains why, from a kinesiology/motor learning/neuroscience perspective, it’s often more effective to learn tricky passages at-tempo from Day 1, than working it up with a metronome from slow to fast. He also explains how to do this without everything devolving into a sloppy undisciplined mess.

30:13: Timpanist Jason Haaheim on why recording – and transcribing – your lessons can lead to more rapid practice gains during the week, and more productive lessons as well.

50:24: Pianist Stephen Hough answers the question “Is memorizing music really all that important?”

55:13: Violist Molly Gebrian draws on her neuroscience background to explain how we can become better memorizers.

1:01:31: Guitarist David Leisner explains why being too fixated on accuracy can paradoxically lead to less accurate playing. And what we should focus on instead.

1:08:41: Violinist and Body Mapping educator Jennifer Johnson explains what Body Mapping is, and illustrates some of the benefits of learning how to work with your body, by better understanding how it was designed to move.

Links to the full interviews mentioned in this episode


  1. But in case he didn’t, here’s the obligatory quote-on-the-internet disclaimer.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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