Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Tuning Slide: 2.10- Building on Basics-Being Deliberate

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
Last week I started looking at some of the research information published by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in the book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. They present three levels of practice: naive, purposeful and deliberate. It is only through that last level that we move beyond just being okay or even good to new levels of “expertise.” This goes beyond the supposed “10,000 Hour Rule” that was intuited by Malcolm Gladwell and others from Ericsson’s research, as a key to making that level of success. Ericsson points out first that 10,000 hours was an “average” - meaning there were those who had more and those who had less. Beyond that it wasn’t just any practice that allowed them to get that far. It was very clear, deliberate and quite intensive practice.

What is deliberate practice then? Well, combining several of Ericsson’s and Pool’s explanations, here is a summary of the elements of “deliberate” practice.
  • Deliberate practice is focused. Students must give it their full attention.
  • Deliberate practice involves feedback. Immediate, specific feedback on where students are falling short is vital.
  • Deliberate practice requires a teacher
  • Deliberate practice requires leaving one’s comfort zone. If students aren’t pushing themselves beyond what is comfortable and familiar, they will not advance.
  • Deliberate practice requires specific goals aimed at target performances
  • Deliberate practice builds on mental representations.
I note that in the list there are no suggestions. These are all required. No “electives” on the list. Deliberate practice is not for those just in it for simple fun. It is not for those who want to be casual players. It is for those who want to reach significant levels of expertise in their chosen field. I would say that from my observations over the years in my career fields (ministry and counseling) that these elements hold true for those who end up excelling in those fields. They work at it; they don’t take any of it for granted; they are never complacent about what they can do or can accomplish. They will almost always look for new ways to step out of their comfort zones to experience, to learn, to grow, and often to share their expertise. I have no research data to support this- it is what I have seen often. It may be that what many of those have done is just very effective purposeful-type practice, although I would argue that the expanding elements of deliberate practice are also at work- with or without the research data.

Ericsson points out that the research data is rich in certain fields- sports being one; music being another. That is because there are very specific skills and methods of teaching that can be employed in those fields. They can show that taking those extra steps and actions do have real and measurable impacts on the development of expertise.

An important element of why this works is what we now call “brain plasticity.” This is the ability of the human brain to grow and change throughout our lifetime. The brain will “rewire” itself with enough practice and exercise. Many of us used to call this “muscle memory” when we would work over and over on a particular passage until it fell just right beneath our fingers. That’s part of the brain plasticity. The memory is in the whole interconnection of brain, nerves, and muscles.

Building on basics, one on top of the previous, next on top of what we already know. That’s the stretching out of our comfort, the need for feedback, the place of a teacher. But it is also why even the top trumpet players still practice their scales on a daily basis. Many also do a series of routines that keep their skills sharp. Yes, they have played them for years; yes, they do them from memory; no, they are never satisfied that they know them cold. Those basics, whether they are from Arban, Clarke, Schlossberg, or Charlier, are still the basics. These do not change.

What I have discovered, since I am not planning on reaching that very high level of expertise that would require 3-6 hours of practice daily, is that these routines keep me grounded in my trumpet playing AND in how my abilities are improving. It is these basics that are truly never “just” basic. What Doc or Wynton does is based on those. Everything is built on them. Every time I play those I need to remember to stay focused. Even the famous Clarke #2. Pay attention. What do I hear differently this time? Why am I having trouble with that particular key today? Why do I forget that particular sharp or flat note? Focus. Give it my full attention. I wish I could say I can do that regularly. I can say I am better today that I was six months ago. If I stay focused, I will continue to improve.

(Bob Reeves published Jerry Hey-Larry Hall Extended William Adam Practice Routine. That is how one becomes an expert!)

Paying attention is, in and of itself, a source of discomfort- moving out of my easy box. When I pay attention I don’t just go through the exercise and say, “Got it for today. Time to move on.” If I am focused I will notice the tone is off, the breathing isn’t falling into place, rhythm skips, or all those missed or sloppy notes. They better get fixed or I will never get it right. That brain plasticity works for the mistakes, too. Mistakes get ingrained if we don’t do something to correct them immediately. The single best way to do that is simply to slow down. Still not right? Slower. Remember a few weeks ago when I looked at the three elements of a great trumpet player?
• Great Sound
• Great rhythm
• Great ear.
If tone or sound is off, you need to hear it. If you can’t get the rhythm, you need to hear it. If you can’t hear it, assume you are playing it too fast. So slow down. In a different context I often quote comedian Lily Tomlin: “For fast relief- try slowing down.” It works on trumpet as well as it works in daily life. That is the whole idea of mindfulness, one of those ideas that flow in and out of these posts. More on that again in three weeks. Right now, simply slowing down is the basic. That, in and of itself, can be a stretch for most of us. We want to play at speed, we want to be Dizzy playing a Charlie Parker bebop lick at full speed. Resist that temptation. Learn it first. If the sound and rhythm are off, slow down and get them right. Speed will come- often one beat/minute faster each day.

As I was working on this post, the lead trumpet in the quintet emailed me about having a “trumpet sectional” i.e. the two of us. My first thought was to think back on the quintet’s rehearsal the day before. I know that on one of the numbers I was less than good. It is a section of the piece in a style that I have trouble with. My response back was “Good idea.” It is for the very reasons I have been talking about. I will not get better if I am doing something wrong and not getting feedback- even when I know I haven’t done it right. There are the times and places, more than we realize, when we must move to that deliberate practice of getting personal feedback and then working with a colleague on improving it. The email came at the right time. Maybe I should do that more often if I want my practice to be deliberate.

What will be your deliberate practice movement this week? Maybe it will be an extra ten minutes with improving Clarke #2 or working that second section of Charlier at a slower speed in order to get the tone and rhythm right? Maybe you have a piece coming up in a way-too-soon gig that needs your attention. Don’t put it off. Work on it. Be deliberate- and slow- until the brain picks it up. Listen. Hear the good and the not-as-good. Work on fixing it. Get feedback from a colleague or a teacher.

Above all- be deliberate. It’s what gets you to your next level.

Next week we will look at more of the elements of deliberate practice and add one more thing: Grit- the thing that keeps us deliberate in our practice.

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