Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Practicing and Performing

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Be harder on yourself in the practice room and
be easier on yourself in performance.
---Bryan Edgett

Going through my notes from the end of last year's Trumpet Camp at Shell Lake, I came across this note:
Practice like you want to perform; perform like you practice
I had some kind of intuitive idea of what that meant, kind of along the lines of the quote above from trumpeter and professor Bryan Edgett. Practice is where you work out what you want to do and performance is where you share it with others. It also meant to me that when I am practicing I should NOT just be playing the notes on the page. Instead I need to be digging into all the aspects of the music- tempo, tone, shape, groove, etc. If I can't find those in the practice room, they won't be there when I go to perform them.

I have seen that happen in my own playing with a concert band. I practice my part and have it down cold. Technically it feels right and I'm feeling good about myself. Then I get to the next rehearsal and I hear my part with the rest of the band and, oops, I can't make it happen. That means that on some level my practice has been missing some things. One of those is to see practice as a performance.

So I dropped an email to one of the faculty from last summer's camp, Bill Begren. I asked him what he took that statement about practicing and performing to mean. Here's his answer:
Performing at a high level is a habit. Develop that habit by practicing at a high level. This most often means:
  • Fundamentals make up 50% to 75% of your daily practice.
  • Slow down to the point where you can play without mistakes.
  • Repetition is your friend.
I told Bill that I would riff on what he said- and he gave me lots of things to think about. Let's start at the top.

I had never thought of high level performing as a "habit." Sure, I knew about muscle memory and getting in the habit of doing things the right way so I don't have to fix them later. But to see performing itself as a habit was an expanded insight. If I have not gotten into the habit of practicing at a high level, I won't be able to do any performing well.

About the same time Bill wrote me the above, we had a brief conversation online about the meme that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his 2008 book, Outliers. What has come to be called the "10,000 Hour Rule" basically says that the key to becoming expert in any field is to have put in 10,000 hours of practice. In our instant gratification society this came as a shock to some. You mean I can't be an expert at this for what, 3 1/2 years of 8 hour days? Sorry, not for me.

The other side of instant gratification is finding an "easy" answer to getting what I want. So, if I sit down and play for x amount of time for x amount of days, even if it is 3 1/2 year, I will be an expert. Let's get started. That naturally doesn't happen that way since someone with that type of attitude isn't going to stick with it for 3 1/2 months let alone 3 1/2 years because they will not see themselves changing.

That's because just practicing for 10,000 hours alone isn't going to do it. If you do it wrong for those 10,000 hours, you will be an expert at doing it wrong. If you settle for less than your best for those 3 1/2 years, you will be great at being less than your best.  Hence, Bill's comment above that the practicing at a high level is what it's about.

But 10,000 hours of practicing and performing at a high level will lead to even higher levels of practicing and performing. THAT I find exciting and motivating. That does mean making a commitment to doing just that. After a few months of that kind of practice and performance, you will know whether you want to continue that commitment.

But what is "high-level" practicing all about. Bill gives three parts to it. The first is fundamentals. Back in the 60s and 70s Earl Weaver was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Weaver was known for preaching one thing over and over- it's the fundamentals that win ball games. You practice the fundamentals until they are routine. Next time you watch a baseball game, notice things like how the first baseman moves to his position to get the ball. It's habit. You watch him throughout the game and you will see him do it the same way almost every time. I have taken hundred of pictures of pitchers pitching. For each pitcher I very seldom get a picture that is unusual. He always pitches the same way.


I didn't ask Bill what he considered fundamentals. I already know the answer:
  • Long tones
  • Chromatics
  • Daily Drills and Technical Studies
  • Scales
Google "Bill Adam Trumpet Routine" and you will find the best-known of routines and many variations on it. THAT is fundamentals. Doing them over and over. One is never so good that you don't need to work on some of those early Arban's routines. Herb Alpert told me he plays scales every day. Keeping the fundamentals clear and sharp makes those 10,000 hours effective. If you have an hour to practice, at least 30 minutes of that hour should be fundamentals. I know- we don't have that kind of time. Sure we do. We find it when we up our level by practicing at high levels.

Bill Bergren's second insight into high-level practicing is to "slow down." But Bill, it says allegro! So what. I read on one of the sites I was looking at the other day that if you recognize the tune when playing it, you're not playing it slow enough. Slow down. Make sure you can ht the notes cleanly. Make sure you know what the phrase looks like. Give the phrases feeling- but do it slowly. My one teacher had to keep at me for wanting to play it too fast. I want to be able to show I can do it, that I have the technical chops to succeed at it. But when I do that I always flub up.

Sure we will get faster as time goes on, but it is the ability to play it slowly with meaning and purpose without mistakes that leads to high-level performance.

Finally, repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is our friend. Don't run it once and forget it. Play it. Then play it again, only better. Build your confidence. Remember the Inner Game tactic of trusting yourself in your playing? Repetition is how you get that confidence.

This isn't deep rocket science or even deep music theory of performance. It is plain old common sense. Which is why we ignore it. We think we have an easier, softer way. We think we can get it done in half the time with half the effort. Well, if it's going to take 10,000 hours no matter how you practice, why not make those 10,000 hours count!

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