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.
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 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.
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.