Back to the Basics (1083 Hours)

After I passed the 1000 hour mark, I decided to take some time to reevaluate the effectiveness of various practice techniques.  In the months while I was recovering from my recent injury, I was given the “opportunity” to test to the effectiveness of certain elements of my practice routine by virtue of their absence.   Doing too many repetitions would have aggravated my injury, and slow practice was also dangerous since any accidental tension is magnified when you hold on to it 4 to 5 times longer than during performance speed.   The lack of these two pillars in my routine manifested in increasingly poor technique and culminated in a lesson where my limbs became completely inarticulate and betrayed the 20 hours of practice I had put in during the prior week.   Luckily, my injury had sufficiently healed to resume a more rigorous practice routine, so I resolved to spend the week after my disappointing performance getting back to the basics. The resulting changes in confidence and reliability while under pressure were palpable, and one week after my most disappointing performance at a lesson, my teacher gave me the best compliment I’ve ever gotten while behind a cello.

To clarify what I mean by “basics” I will describe in detail the missing stages of my daily routine that seem to yield the best and most reliable results:

Slow Practice:

There are several methods of slow practice.  The simplest and most basic is to play a piece through in it’s entirety at half tempo.  This is like riding an obstacle course at a relaxed paced to look for trouble spots and start building up confidence in expressive techniques while still retaining the basic musicality. I find this tempo is most effectively used for an initial exploratory sight-reading and then for more routine practice once I am already familiar with the musical phrases and beginning to stitch the pieces together in context.  However, in order to first familiarize myself the building blocks of a piece I utilize the next type of slow practice: “super slow motion” where the metronome is set anywhere from 40 bpm all the way down to a tantric 6 beats per minute.   This is more like walking an obstacle course and examining each rock on the trail with a magnifying glass.   The great benefit of this technique is in the first phase of learning, when we are developing a solid base of muscle memory so every initial repetition is a good one.  A “good” repetition doesn’t mean perfection, it simply means that you can clearly identify what went wrong, and then address it on the next repetition.  This is key because it not only reduces the amount of unlearning you will have to do as you polish the piece, it also makes the learning you do in this piece more adaptable and generalized to other pieces though the magical effect of consistent reinforcement.  The “downside” of super slow practice is that it requires a substantial initial investment and can take several days just to finish an initial run through of a challenging piece.  It’s important to remember that while this may seem slower, it is actually much faster than rushing through a piece only to collect a series of unconscious and ingrained bad habits. By focusing on a smaller volume of music with deeper and more meaningful repetitions, you can become reasonably competent at a new piece in a fraction of the time it might take otherwise.

When first attempting a piece at these super slow speeds, its musicality changes completely to the point where the melodies can be virtually unrecognizable for a while, but this is actually a good thing because as your working memory adapts, you start to see the whole structure again and at a much deeper level.  Initially, it is also very difficult to play this slowly and retain your sense of rhythm.  There are two methods I know of for alleviating this hurdle:

1) Starting at half tempo and slowing down the metronome in a stepwise fashion.  For example, starting at 40 bpm and gradually dropping the metronome down 8 bpm.  Much like slow and deep stretching, this helps to retain a feel for the pulse of the rhythm as you slow down to the speed of a tree sipping water.

2) Play with multiple clicks per beat. For instance, if you’re playing in 4/4 time, you can do 4 clicks per quarter note at 60 bpm (or 16 beats per measure).  If you are encountering a mix of triplet and duplet rhythms, then its best to use the first method and set the metronome for the common downbeats.

In both cases, every nuanced flaw in bow technique and intonation will become exposed.   This phenomenon is in part because playing “really slow” requires more mental effort than playing “moderately slow”, but it is also because most of the flaws we hear when we play in slow motion (that seem to disappear when we play faster) were actually there all along and were manifested as “unsweet” tone.    One hint that really helped me was learning that in order to get the same feel of resistance in the bow: the slower I went, the closer I had to play to the bridge.   Also, in order to get the most out of this technique, it is practically essential to have a good recording that you can play along with and try to match intonation and expressiveness.  To do this, you will need a device that will slow the music down while maintaining the proper pitch.   Some examples of this technology are Audacity and Anytune the former works on pretty much any desktop platform and is absolutely free, the latter of which works on iOS devices and of course costs money.  While Audacity is a great boon for anyone with a full blown computer in their practice space, I find that a mobile platform with something like Anytune is much more user friendly, easier to access into a practice room, and integrates sources like youtube/iTunes/email attachments with a one-button-press simplicity that saves me precious time.   One especially nice feature is the ability to create and bookmark loops in the music to use for repetitions, and a stepwise tempo ramp function that can increase the speed of a repeated loop incrementally until you are playing at full speed.   When increasing the tempo, I like to use the stepwise ramp in sets (eg 3 sets of 10 loops from 25% to 75% performance tempo) .  Which brings us to my second favorite practice technique…

Repetition:

This practice technique is a bit of a double edged sword.  As has been said many times: practice doesn’t make perfect, practice only makes permanent.  If all repetitions were created equal, then you could point any kid (or adult) at an instrument and given enough time a musical genius would emerge.   However, when we begin learning an instrument, most initial repetitions are extremely rough estimates, and if we accumulate repetitions without really hearing what we are doing or without knowing how to improve it, these rough estimates become our unconscious technique.   Luckily, the other side of this coin is that good observations reinforced by good habits will also tend to give good results.   There is actually a school of thought that claims that musical “genius” is really just the “dumb luck” that happens when someone randomly does everything “right” the first time and then reinforces this success through good practice.  The astronomical unlikelihood of this occurring randomly could be the reason why there are so few musical geniuses.  However it could also be true that these “geniuses” had access to a slightly less rare creature:  a knowledgeable and observant teacher who kept them on the straight and narrow and identified bad habits before they could become a real problem.   As beginners, and especially for adults, it is of paramount importance that we learn to hear as much detail as possible to gain the sensitivity required to start make good repetitions as early as possible in our careers.   As mentioned above, the best way to ensure that we can hear everything we are doing is by going slow enough that our brains have time to register an error and process the feedback so that a correction can be made.

Of course, the “fastest” useful speed will vary dramatically by our familiarity with the requirements of the music.  We can temporarily reduce the requirements of the music by simplifying it in various ways:

  • using separate bowing for each note (ignoring ties and legato)
  • ignoring time values and simply practice the feeling the space between two notes
  • simpifying rythms (eg making notes all the same time value)
  • inserting rests between notes on difficult shifts or extensions
  • removing the left hand from the equation, and playing open strings on difficult/rapid string changes
  • ignoring dynamics, vibrato, and other expressive markings
  • creating exercises that combine multiple simplifications

When doing repetitions, I try to manage the complexities of the instrument by using the above simplifications in order to focus on a single aspect of technique.   There is a school of thought that each repetition should be identical so that when you are playing under stress, your hands will only remember one thing to do, and I think there is merit to this principle once the basic fundamentals of technique are fully mastered.  However, beginners like myself still have so much to learn, and the only way we can do it is by breaking up highly complex tasks into their components and focusing on ONE single aspect of technique at a time.  Of course, it’s also best to re-implement the originally written markings back in as soon as (comfortably) possible to avoid creating confusing muscle memories.  With my limited knowledge, the basic elements I work on separately when doing repetitions are:

(in order or precedence)

  1.  intonation/finger spacing (separate bowing)
  2.  bowing patterns (open strings)
  3. rhythm/pulse
  4. body awareness/tension
  5. tone/expressiveness

The most important thing to remember when doing repetitions is to start as small as possible.   If I am just learning a piece, I will start by doing super slow practice, and loop a motif or a short phrase, and add motifs and phrases as I gain comfort with each of the 5 focuses above.   Once I am familiar with the section, I will begin increasing the speed and reduce the number of notes in the loop, starting with only 2 notes, and adding one at a time until I am at the level of a motif, and then a phrase.  I usually go through these 5 aspects of technique in order though my attention will often shift to a different one when a glaring issue pops up.   Steps 2, 3, and 4 are especially important to focus on when increasing the tempo.  1, 4, and 5 are most significant when doing very slow practice and against a good recording to get instant feedback on intonation and expressiveness.  The goal is to get to the point where 1-4 are unconscious, require only maintenance and tweaking, so that you can place the bulk of your attention on tone and expressiveness even when doing bursts at full tempo and eventually play the whole piece without becoming tense or fatigued.

I hope you found this post helpful!  Please feel free to share any practice techniques that have worked for you in the comments section!!

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