Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mastering Your Practice, part 3: Nitty Gritty Practice

(See here for Part 1 and Part 2 of "Mastering Your Practice" if you missed them!)

Nitty gritty practice is actually a term I stole from Sharon Sparrow in her fabulous book, 6 Weeks to Finals. It's a very thorough, very specific guide to preparing for orchestral auditions, but I think it's incredibly inspiring for anyone who wants to get more details in their performance preparation. In this final post about practicing, I'm getting specific about different ways to target what you need to do and how to break things down and build them back up, stronger than ever. Check out my suggested reading guide at the end if you're looking for some additional inspiration, as well. Good luck to you all, whatever your end goals are this semester (and every semester!).


Step 3: Try Something Creative
Ideas to avoid hitting a wall in your technical practice:
  • ·         “Chunking”: studies show the brain digests smaller bits of information better. Try playing fewer notes repeatedly, then gradually adding from the back or front.
  • ·         “Problem Note Sandwich”: do a diagnostic run through a passage and find which notes causes the first fumble.  Isolate that note and one or two (max) on either side and begin reps.  When this passage is learned, add another note on each end, then another…making sure you work past a barline or beamed group to work passage into context.

·         1 minute loops: with a metronome, practice a difficult passage repeatedly for one minute each day at your fastest controlled speed. Take 1 beat between reps to think about what you want to fix from the last rep; work towards performance tempo as quickly as possible.
·         S-L-O-W: practice a difficult passage as a slow, lyrical ballad, paying attention to how you maintain a connection between notes. Imagine pouring molasses from a bottle!
·         Practice rhythms: alter the rhythm to emphasize different notes in a run. If it’s straight 16ths, try dotting the rhythm in both directions; you can also change from duple (8ths or 16ths) to triple (triplets)
·         Move the metronome: place the metronome on all the other parts of the beat, and apply to loops above
·         Memorize difficult passages
Preparing to perform
·         Schedule a weekly recording session to check in on various moments (those that you feel are getting close to ready as well as those that have you stumped). Listen back immediately and take notes in your practice notebook on things that worked and areas of improvement.
·         Take video (preferred) or audio of a run-through of your piece. Watch/listen immediately and take notes as described above.
·         Perform for friends and colleagues whose opinions you value (and therefore make you nervous)
·         Schedule risk-free performances of your pieces to workshop them—nursing homes, churches, coffee shops, or competitions if applicable!




Suggested reading:
Colvin, Geoff.  Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else.  New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

Daniel Coyle.  The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown.  New York: Random House, 2009.

Greene, Don.  Fight Your Fear and Win: Seven Skills For Performing Your Best Under Pressure--At Work, In Sports, On Stage.  New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

Leonard, George.  Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment.  New York: Plume Books, 1991.

Loehr, James.  The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Conditioning from one of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists.  New York: Plume Books, 1994.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Mastering Your Practice, part 2: Controlling Your Time


Last week I shared some tips for thinking creatively about how to schedule all your the necessary practice each day. But once you get into that practice room, it can be difficult to know how best to spend your time. Here are my thoughts in part 2 of "Mastering Your Practice":

Step 2: Control Your Time

1. Develop necessary categories of playing that you must exercise every day; consult with your studio teacher on this (mine are sound, technique, and repertoire). For myself, and for my students here at University of Wyoming, I suggest the Practice Triad of Triumph, which I've also shared here before. You can review it here, and feel free to sub in your own favorite sources for each category. 

2. Create a to-do list under each category. Under sound I have tone in each register, flexibility, articulation, vibrato; technique includes scales, arpeggios, chords, and high register fingerings, etc. Again, this comes from the Practice Triad.

3. Decide how your budgeted time blocks, above, will correspond to your to-do lists for each category every day.

4. Insist on maintaining your focus (which is hard after a while!).  Consider the Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break.  Give it a try for a couple of days and take stock--when do you start to space out? That's how long your work session should be.  How short can you make your break, and what;'s the best way to spend that break so you feel refreshed quickly? (I like to stay off social media, which can suck me in for far longer than 5 minutes at a time!)

5. Keep a practice diary with problems you're tackling and the solutions you're currently testing. Keep lists of practice tempos for different passages you're wood shedding (more on that next week). And if you're a student, keep track of questions you would like to bring up in your next lesson. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Mastering Your Practice, part 1: Finding Time

Crunch time is here for fall juries, concerto competitions, and recitals here at UW!  Of course, one can never successfully "cram" with such an ongoing process as mastering your craft, but there's always room for growth. And as those performance dates get closer, the subject of how to practice effectively always seems more compelling to my students...

In this three-part series, excerpted from my workshop, "How to Become a Practice Wizard", I'll cover everything from finding the time to the nitty gritty of polishing difficult passages. This is a presentation I have given at numerous high schools and colleges across the country, and if you'd like me to come to your school, you can contact me about scheduling  here.

Introductory thoughts…
Ø  Effective practice habits are the result of discipline and time management skills
Ø  Practicing, not performing, occupies the vast majority of our time as musicians
Ø  In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell claims it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. This specific number has been debunked (if only because hours differ based on the person and the specific task), but it’s still true that many hours of repetition are required to achieve the “next level” in any area of your playing.
Ø  Honing your practice skills will not only help you become a better performer, it will make you a more effective teacher, as well. You are the guinea pig for your future students!

Step 1: Find Time

1. Go through your schedule with a fine-toothed comb, placing ( ) around any non-essentials (like watching t.v.) and a * next to moveable items, like meals. Don’t know what exactly you do all day?  Spend one week keeping a detailed log of everything you do, including specific times when you begin and end each activity. Be honest!

2. Now, take your required daily practice time and sprinkle it into your schedule wherever you can.  Be realistic about how long it will take you to find a practice room, get to and from classes, etc. Your practice blocks may be an hour or longer, or they may be as short as 20 minutes.  Work with what you’ve got, and prioritize having every required minute accounted for every day in your written schedule. Replace ( ) items with practice, move * items as needed…be creative!

3. Follow your schedule, tweaking as necessary without sacrificing required amount of practice time. Keep a log of exactly what you do in each practice session and thoughts on what was effective, when you started drifting off, etc. Read this log every night and devise remedies for challenges. You can further break down long practice blocks of 30 minutes or more into smaller chunks with 1-2 minute breaks to maintain your focus.