Have you ever found yourself at a fork in the road with your technique? A time when it feels like you’ve gone as far as you can go with your current approach, and that in order to go to the next level, you have to make a change of some kind?
Perhaps you’ve been playing well and advancing at auditions, but realized that in order be competitive in finals, you may have to make a significant adjustment to your embouchure.
Maybe an arm vibrato has served you well for many years, but has begun to feel limiting in the range of colors you can produce.
Or perhaps you suffered an injury, and in order to prevent re-injury, have decided to adopt a more biomechanically sound method of playing.
The problem, of course, is that our current ways of playing are well-learned, and deeply internalized. And like trying to train a kid to stop biting their nails, behavior change isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
There’s also the fact that while our current ways may not feel 100% comfortable, or be 100% reliable, to a certain extent they’re proven. In the sense that they’ve gotten us to where we are now. Because what happens if in trying to revamp our technique, we actually make things worse, and can’t figure out how to get back to where we started?
The Five-A model
These are the sorts of questions that a pair of British researchers wondered about as well. They observed that most of the research in motor learning focuses on learning new skills and doesn’t get into what elite performers should do to refine or modify skills that are already well-learned. But based on the relevant research findings that do exist, they put together a 5-stage model of change. Named the “Five-A Model,” it is a framework for understanding how best to refine skills in performers whose technique is already highly automatized.
Stage 1: Analysis
The first, and perhaps most important step in the process, is to ask whether a substantive change to technique is really necessary.
Is the inconsistency of our sound under pressure due to some funky bow arm technique? Or simply because we haven’t figured out how to deal more effectively with nerves? Maybe both?
Is our thumb injury due to the questionable mechanics of our playing? Or because we didn’t warm up properly? Or played way too much when we shouldn’t have?
Whether it’s a small tweak to our chinrest setup, or a total retooling of our technique, making changes like this is no small thing. It’s important to look at the pros and cons, and have a pretty clear idea what exactly it is that we’re striving to change before we start messing around with things all willy nilly.
Timing is another important factor. Let’s say you have an important competition coming up in a month. You may be chomping at the bit to make a change, but is now the best time to start tinkering under the hood?
Stage 2: Awareness
One of the great things about having done something for a long time is that we don’t have to think about the details. Complex skills can operate automatically, out of conscious awareness, at an extremely high level. You don’t have to think about what your thumb does when you shift to 5th position any more than you think about what your mouth is doing when you eat a quesadilla. You just do it.
But we can’t change something we don’t know is happening, so the first step is to make the unconscious process conscious again. For instance, if your thumb is part of the reason why your intonation is sketchy, you have to start paying attention to what your thumb is currently doing, slow things down perhaps, and start consciously controlling your thumb so that it does the correct thing when you shift.
Interestingly, the new way of doing things may not feel a whole lot different than the old way at first. So “contrasting” is a process that can help heighten our awareness of the differences between the old and new ways. Essentially this involves performing a skill the old, comfortable, “incorrect” way, and then doing it the new, less-comfortable, but more correct way, back-to-back. Old way, new way, old way, new way, and so on. Sort of like trying out new instruments. Played apart from each other, both might sound pretty similar, but played in the same sitting, back to back, their differences become much clearer.
Stage 3: Adjustment
If Stage 2 was about making the unconscious conscious, and developing some level of comfort with the new way of doing things, Stage 3 is about flipping things. In other words, internalizing the new way, and being able to execute with greater accuracy and consistency. To the point where the old way starts feeling awkward and the new way feels more comfortable.
Contrasting can help here too – except with a greater proportion of reps devoted to the new way, and fewer to the old way.
Stage 4: Re-automation
So by Stage 4, we’re feeling pretty good about the new way. But, wait! We’re not done yet!
This is kind of a precarious stage, because the new way is comfortable, but isn’t really “pressure-proofed” yet. Under pressure, we’re liable to default back to our old technique. Or, we might be tempted to think too much about specific technical elements instead of executing the whole movement in a holistic way.
For instance, I remember changing my entire setup one summer (going from a big chunky shoulder rest to no shoulder rest), which involved changing the mechanics of how I shifted and supported the violin with my hand and fingers. In the practice room, it was fine to pay a lot of attention to my thumb, or my hand shape, or elbow, or one single part of the skill, but if I did that in a performance, things would fall apart pretty quickly. To play at the highest level, my body had to act as one unit – my neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, and posture all working together in concert (ha!).
So how do we make our new technique more resistant to pressure?
Working on the rhythmicity of the skill seems to help. And cue words, like smooth, easy, fluid, light, oily, etc. can help us remember the overall feel of a complex movement, and facilitate a focus on the big picture, rather than getting sucked into the minutiae of the hundreds of little things our muscles have to do. Sort of like an impressionist painting. Where the important thing is to focus on the whole of the picture. Not get lost in the individual little dots.
Stage 5: Assurance
The last stage is about building confidence and trust in our new approach. Where we practice letting go of conscious control, and prove to ourselves that our new technique has been so deeply ingrained that it works on autopilot (or reveal that it doesn’t quite yet). Where we ensure that there is no temptation to regress to our old way, and everything works flawlessly not just in the practice room, but in performance-like situations as well.
This is where simulated performances, mock auditions, and low-stakes (but high-pressure) performances like studio class or playing for colleagues can give us a sense of whether we’re truly good to go, or if there is still more work to be done.
Clearly, this process is not a quick fix. But then again, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, as Beverly Sills once said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”