The Point of Practicing Is To…?

How would you complete the following sentence?

The point of practicing is to…

…to get better? …to play better in tune? …to improve the quality of your sound? …to find a more compelling and effective way of shaping a phrase?

I stumbled across an interesting YouTube video a while ago (which for the life of me I can no longer find, lost amidst a digital haystack of sneezing pandas, nyan cats, and gagnam style).

Anyhow, it was a clip of a respected guitarist talking about practicing, in which he suggested that the whole point of practicing is to make things easier.

Intriguing, no?

But what might this actually entail?

Easier, as in automatic

On one hand, we are pretty good at asking ourselves questions that help guide our playing towards the ideal we have in our head. Questions like: Was that in tune? Was the sound too crunchy? Did we have a clear attack? Was our vibrato too wobbly?

All good and necessary questions. And through deliberate practice, super slow practice, and repetition, we are able to execute even the trickiest passages more or less on autopilot.

Easier, as in requiring less physical effort

But once we get the passage sounding like we want, might we too quick to call it a day and leave well enough alone? Just because we can nail a passage five or ten times in a row doesn’t mean we wouldn’t benefit from asking ourselves a higher-level question. As in, how can I make nailing this passage physically easier and more effortless?

Do I have to lift my fingers off the string that high? Do I have to press down as hard? Do I have to scrunch up my shoulders to my ears? Do I have to press into my instrument quite so much? Do I have to blow as hard? Where am I more tense than necessary?

The problem with precision

Indeed, when we encounter something difficult that requires a high level of precision and fine motor control, our tendency is to tighten up and attempt to exert more control over the physical movements required for successful execution.

Unfortunately, doing so makes our movements more rigid and interrupts their coordination and automaticity, negatively affecting not just our technical accuracy and consistency, but the quality of our sound.

I still remember how tense I would get in the opening of Mozart’s 5th violin concerto, for instance. Technically speaking, it isn’t that difficult, but because it’s Mozart, and because I wanted it to have the most perfect, clean, pure, yet expressive sound, I’d struggle mightily even to get the first note to speak just right.

My shoulders would scrunch up, my arms would get tight, and there’d be an “oh crap – is it going to work? Is it?! IS IT?!” moment of hesitation right before the bow hit the string. It was as if I had been given a chance to diffuse a bomb and save the day – if I could thread the smallest needle in the world on the first try.

The result was playing that sounded tight and strained. It may be difficult to play Mozart well, but I don’t think it’s supposed to sound like such a monumental struggle.

Oh, and the kicker? We get even more tight and prone to micromanaging every little detail when we walk on stage and the pressure is on.

The relaxation advantage

Paradoxically, whether it’s hitting a sizzling serve in tennis by keeping our grip loose, running a fast 100 meters by accelerating and staying loose through the last 50 meters, or punching someone really hard, maximal results are generally achieved when one is able to maintain the proper technique with muscles loose, not tight.

I’m not a biomechanist, but presumably this allows us to utilize a greater range of motion and keeps the opposing muscle groups from working against each other, enabling greater velocity, more fluid movement, reduced likelihood of injury, and better energy conservation.

So how do we make things easier?

Take action

Take a difficult passage that you can nail pretty consistently.

Play it through and rate your expenditure of effort from 1-10 with 10 being effortless, and 1 being exhausting effort.

Try it again, seeing if you can dial up the effortlessness and ease.

Don’t worry – it’s not going to sound perfect at first. There will be glitches. But for now, the primary objective is to maximize ease. Keep at it a few times.

Feel a difference? Hear a difference?

Once you get it up to 9+, start tweaking and polishing up the technical elements, while being sure to maintain as much of the ease and effortlessness as possible throughout the process.

For many, there’s a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling, a thrill, when you nail something really difficult and it feels easy. It may even take you by surprise and catch you off guard when you realize how much easier this passage can be when you trust your body to do what you hear.

Trouble?

But then again, you might find it difficult to trust yourself on a consistent basis. Playing with less tension and “letting go” can be scary, and goes against our natural inclinations at first. You may not feel like you are “in control,” even if letting go produces better and more consistent results.

If so, you may need to work on trusting yourself…which is actually kind of fun, and will be the subject of a future post.

The one-sentence summary

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”  ~Bruce Lee

photo credit: _Pixelmaniac_ via photopin cc 

(bonus points and a free copy of Metronome+ if you can explain how the picture relates to the topic of this post). UPDATE: That was too easy! I’ve run out of codes for Metronome+ this time around, but will hopefully be able to do something like this again in the future.

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Comments

34 Responses

  1. Could another definition of the purpose of practise be “to develop the cognitive structures that support performance”? A hole in my knowledge that I only filled in yesterday was the difference between fast and slow muscles. Understanding the way that strenuous exercise can convert fast muscles to slow ones explained to me why thinking we are struggling against physical, rather than mental, limits in our practise can actually reinforce those limits.

    One other thought inspired by your article is that perhaps we should allow ourselves to make more mistakes in practise – just go for a leap and see where we end up, observe the result and try again, rather than trying to control too much and reinforcing semi-accuracy.

    1. Hi Julian,

      Indeed, at the end of the day, practice is a lot about neural development. The Talent Code does a nice job of illustrating what is happening in the brain when we’re practicing the right way.

      And yes! Just taking a leap can lead to some really cool discoveries and new ideas on how to play a phrase both from a technical standpoint and musical one. Saw a quote just this morning attributed to Einstein that underscores this point: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” That’s a great word – semi-accuracy. Might have to borrow that from you and start using it myself!

  2. Perhaps slightly off subject…I had a student who said, “I practiced this week because I was tired of it being so hard.”

    More on the subject…The tension that often results from emotional anxiety is believed to be a contributor to the condition Focal Dystonia. Many medical professionals don’t know this but people with the condition know. I tell my students, “tension is the enemy.” Anxiety/tension is a natural but counterproductive reaction to a stressful situation and a musician can become crippled emotionally and physically. In the mist of college or professional careers, it’s easy to forget the reason we initially wanted to play a musical instrument in the first place….maybe for fun or to make and share something beautiful. I used to think the quote, “Perfection is expected, excellence will be tolerated” was funny. After my diagnosis with Focal Dystonia, it’s not that funny anymore.

    Specifically to violin, many people believe (including myself in the past) that 3rd and 4th fingers are the weakest and therefore need to be strenghthened so they can keep up with the others. I believe now that the larger muscles should be protecting the smaller ones by doing as much work for them as possible. This will help to avoid many types of injuries allowing those fingers to be useful to us for many years. For example, using the elbow and hand to get 3 and 4 to the fingerboard instead of stretching.
    This is an excellent article….spot on for healthy playing.

    1. Annette, just on the point about strengthening muscles, the issue of fast vs slow muscles may be pertinent. Apparently strengthening a muscle causes the body to replace “fast” muscle fibres with “slow” muscle fibres that have more stamina. So strengthening playing muscles could be damaging our velocity. I only came across this concept yesterday but it was a bit of a eureka moment for me. It explained problems I had with velocity after working in a long running show, as well as reminding me how often I see young players at the start of their careers and think “how the hell do they play so fast”?

    2. Annette, I know exactly what you are talking about. I too suffer from “Focal Dystonia” in my left hand. (I am a guitar player). Looking back, the reasons for the development of this condition…tension, over-control, perfectionism, anxiety to play “wrong”…

      1. George (and Annette),

        Perhaps you’ve read this recent writeup on focal dystonia in musicians at the NY Times website?

        http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/arts/music/dystonia-which-struck-glenn-gould-and-other-musicians.html?pagewanted=all

        It seems that focal dystonia can be quite devastating to the musician – not just physically of course, but emotionally as well. Interesting that it doesn’t seem to get much attention, and I suspect there are many musicians who have never heard of it. I feel like it’s something we ought to be more aware and cautious about, to the degree that it is preventable.

        For those who are intrigued by this discussion of injury prevention, cellist Janet Horvath’s work may be of interest.

        1. This is a FASCINATING article. Interestingly, I’ve been in some correspondence with Thomson ever since I began studying viola, and he was a HUGE supporter of my learning to play the viola and bow left-handed. He’s a big, big supporter of bowing with the dominant hand, whichever hand that may be, and states openly that after years of teaching himself to bow with his nondominant hand, he is definitely not as good as he was when he bowed with the hand Nature meant for him to use. Left-handed string players owe him a vast, vast debt of gratitude.

    1. Hi guys,

      Sorry to be a downer, but I’m not sure if fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fiber type distinctions matter to musicians’ playing all that much. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I took exercise science classes, but my impression is that fast-twitch fibers are more about generating force, than speed per se.

      Here’s a piece for musicians that I think is pretty on target: http://www.drummerworld.com/forums/showthread.php?t=75744

      And another more general one that seems to fit what I remember from grad school: http://www.biopulser.com/fyi.html

      But perhaps someone more familiar with the subject can chime in and clarify things for us…

      1. FWIW, the only time I’ve heard anyone talk about fast-twitch muscle fibers in a musical context is when a violinist or fiddler is appealing to them to excuse why they can’t play like Sarah Chang or Mark O’Connor, when the fact is they can’t play like Chang or O’Connor because they don’t want it as badly as those two do. 🙂

        When I think of the number of incredibly gifted musicians who are or have been profoundly disabled, with extremely poorly athletically suited or flat-out damaged bodies (or just weak, tiny ones as in little kids), the whole fast-twitch muscle thing goes out the window. Perlman’s entire nervous system was savagely attacked and damaged when he was a child; he’s dealing with post-polio syndrome nowdays, which is not a minor thing. Chang played the Paganini Concerto when she was nine. There is no way that force is required to do what they do. Endurance yes, but not physical athleticism.

        In truth, we play instruments with our minds, not our muscles. If I can’t play Rach’s Musical Moment #4, it’s because my brain can’t keep up, not my hands.

      2. So the second link http://www.biopulser.com/fyi.html says:
        “slow-twitch fibers require .075 seconds to complete a twitch contraction while the fast-twitch fibers do so in only .025 seconds.”

        Does this mean that demisemiquavers (32nd notess) at above about 100 bpm would be faster than the time taken for a slow fibre to complete a contraction? Or am I completely barking up the wrong tree?

        We live in an amazing time where there is so much information that can be of use to us, the only problem being the lack of time in which to develop the expertise to process it!

        1. I think that momentum would factor in after you initiate the first note in the sequence. The equal and opposite force that comes from the string might speed you up – maybe creating some kind of synergistic chain reaction, adding to your velocity and speeding you up. Meaning that number (.075 or .025) only applies to initiating the movement.

  3. Either way, I stand by my opinion that fingers 3 and 4 were not designed for the work load that is often given them. It’s totally individual of course and many factors contribute to a variety of injuries/conditions. Perhaps I have guided us off course. Then again, you don’t acquire a repetitive use condition without practicing:-).

    1. I read about fast/slow muscles in relation to piano playing in the book downloadable here: http://www.pianopractice.org/
      I would be very interested to know if there is any relevance in it to playing or if, as Noa suggests, it’s a bit of a red herring. Fast playing is such a crucial technical issue. It certainly seemed to explain what I was experiencing at the end of a 6 month run of music theatre work earlier in the year. It felt like I had “stupid fingers” that just wouldn’t play as fast as before. Because of sound problems in the show I new I had been overplaying. Subsequent good practise and fewer gigs has allowed me to get my playing back, in fact probably better than before. Perhaps there is another explanation for what I experienced. Certainly stress was a big factor.

    2. I’ve heard exactly the opposite from martial arts types, especially aikido practitioners — that the 2/3/4 side of the hand is meant for strength and no precision, and the index finger is meant for precision and not strength. They go out of their way to grip with only the outside part of the hand. The thing is, I’m not sure that any finger is meant to do power work in the artificial position that the scroll hand is held in when playing a string instrument.

      Happily, power and strength are not required from the scroll hand to play a string instrument at all. Fingering a scale is not weightlifting. (Even on a piano where force is required, the strength comes from arm weight, and not the hand.) On a string instrument, power comes from the bow arm.

  4. hey, Julian… Can you expand on what you mean by overplaying? Extremes of exertion, inefficient exertion at speed, both, neither…?

    1. Yes I mean pressing too much with the arms. On my instrument, the bandoneon, it is very difficult to judge how hard to play if one can’t hear well so the tendency is to use too much force.

  5. Ease is surely what is missing in my playing. Ease as an objective makes such good sense. Trying really hard and caring a lot isn’t getting me too far up the road.

    Dr Noa, I read some of the thread at drummerworld and was intrigued by another poster’s comments about how playing at speed is about training the nervous system to react to more inputs at a time. This is reasonable on its face but not too illustrative. Any comments?

  6. To bring up Bruce Lee again, having maximum relaxation helps you to strike harder and faster because there is less resistance from opposing muscles.

    1. Less resistance from opposing muscles. Hack away at the unessential. I will sit with these ideas and see if I can feel what that means while practicing. Thanks, Kyle.

      Struggle certainly isn’t the solution.

  7. I believe that Focal Dystonia can be prevented. The problem is that the symptoms are not well known and the onset is very gradual. Everyone I know with FD attributed their initial difficulties to a lack of practice, etc. and so we all practiced more and it got worse. I asked for help from two different teachers. Both told me I just needed more practice. The hand specialist I went to had never heard of it so he was no help….doing all kinds of worthless tests. I flew across the country for my official diagnosis. I expect my retraining to take years….as long if not longer than it took me to learn to play violin the first time. This condition can affect people who play ALL different instruments so it’s important for everyone to understand the initial symptoms. And that is my rant….hope it helps someone:-).

    1. Thanks for the additional input, Annette. I’m only just starting to learn about focal dystonia, but it seems like something that needs more public awareness, given how career-altering it can be.

  8. George – there is a private FB FD group that would be of great benefit to you. I’m not sure how to tell you to join as my computer skills are seriously lacking but perhaps you can find it or e-mail me and I’ll figure it out. “Private” means that only members of that group will see your posts. Many of the musicians on there prefer to remain annonymous.

  9. In May 2012 I started working with a very insightful teacher. He is constantly asking me, “How does that feel”? I don’t want to bore you with the details of my personal situation and the emotional and physical devestation of FD so I will simply say that I’ve discovered for me, the goal is to feel nothing….no stretching, pain, or strain…..my body is just moving…that’s all. My initial symptom felt like weakness in my 3rd finger which I atributed to lack of practice. The fact is, I was practicing a lot but isn’t that always the solution we have…practice more? The point of practicing is to make it easier but the practicing itself should also be physically easy.

    1. I think your situation in different because of FD, but for most others I think there needs to be difficulty associated with practice. It’s like a muscle that needs to be broken down in order to grow.

      1. I don’t know what you mean by “a muscle needs to be broken down in order to grow.” The difficult part for me, before and after FD, has always been mentally organizing and then executing many skills at once. It hasn’t been physically difficult like digging a ditch or running a long distance. In any case, I don’t believe it is necessary or healthy to stretch or strain the small muscles of the left hand but that’s just my opinion.

        1. It’s science. When muscle fibers have greater force applied to them it stimulates the body to repair and rebuild more muscle tissue. Thus muscle must be broken down in order to grow.

          I was trying to draw an analogy about the importance of practices being physically difficult.

          I see what you mean, but I feel there is such a thing as healthy stretching for the hands. For example: yoga hand stretches to prevent carpal tunnel.

  10. George – I’m working on it. You can look me up on FB (Annette Farrar Brower) and maybe I can get you in the group from there.
    Kyle – healthy stretching to avoid injury makes sense.

  11. Dear Dr. Noa,
    The guitarist lost in a sea of falling kittens and gangnam style could be “William (or Bill) Kanengiser” and his videos “Effortless guitar playing”…
    Best, Mathieu

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