Thursday, March 15, 2018

Tuning Slide 3.38- The Myths of Practice

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Misunderstanding is generally simpler than true understanding,
and hence has more potential for popularity.
― Raheel Farooq

Last week we looked at the myth/misconception about equipment. While I used the never-ending discussion of the best mouthpiece to use for the example, we could have taken all kinds of twisty, overgrown back roads about equipment. The answer was, of course, that equipment doesn’t make the music. We do. Hence “Holy Truth #1” was

Equipment is not the answer.

Well what might be the answer? Not hard to guess what the answer to that might be.

Practice, of course.

But if you’ve been following the Tuning Slide for a while you know that just the thought of “practice” brings with it all kinds of myths and misconceptions that never seem to go away.
  • Just practicing as we have seen in a number of different series of posts over the past three years can do nothing but keep us mediocre if we don’t have goals and plans.
  • Just practicing for the sake of practicing gets pretty boring- and getting bored with practice ends up with us not practicing.
  • Just practicing without working at what we need to work on keeps us doing the things which keep us mediocre without improvement.
But I found a couple myths and misconceptions on the website Trumpet Journey that we might have missed, depending on how we have learned our practicing skills.

Myth #1 is that old saying

Practice makes perfect.

Stanley Curtis, author of the Trumpet Journey blog says:
Perfectionism, while seeming to be a noble goal, is actually not that good for trumpeters. More than most instrumentalists, we miss notes, and we need to get on with life. By becoming fixated on our weaknesses, we never let our spontaneous self naturally blossom.
Another way of saying that might be, if we work at being perfect, we are just feeding the ego of old Self 1 who likes nothing better than to find out what ’s wrong. I like that second sentence in that quote where Curtis says that we may very well miss more notes than most instrumentalists. It is a humbling thought which may be why we work so hard at perfect. But Curtis is right, the more we work at perfection, the less likely we are to be perfect.

That does not mean that we should ignore what we need to work on! We know what particular aspect of our playing is not going as well as we would like. It is painfully obvious to us. So we then make a plan, a deliberate practice goal, to do something about it. It’s not rocket science.

Before one of the concerts in the community band last year I realized that I was having some difficulty with intervals beyond fifths. An interval jump of an octave or more just wasn’t falling into place. So I dug out the lessons from the Arban’s book and worked on them. The problem was I was not hearing or feeling the interval and my flexibility was sloppy. It didn’t take much to improve. I just had to do it. Deliberately. Intervals are now on my once or twice a week practice plan.

Myth # 2 that I found on Trumpet Journey:

If practicing makes me better, then MORE practice will make me ever better.

Why sure, that makes sense. If I can do a two-hour practice today, maybe I can make it more tomorrow, and on and on.

Curtis nicely sums up why that’s a potentially dangerous misconception:
The error here is that there is a limit to practice, especially the physical aspects of practice. Practice is a lot like a great paint job on a fine automobile. Instead of one sloppy, thin coat, it’s far better to paint many thin coats to avoid runs and smears. When we practice too much, we start to get sloppy, and then we get used to being sloppy. I like to think of weekly practice goals, so that each day can be a little different.
In my own reading and research into practicing, I read somewhere (which means I didn’t note where I read it) that we should make sure we stop our practice session before we have exhausted ourselves, our lip, and our mental capacity to keep growing. The reason is simple, we will learn the exhaustion stage more than the place where we were sounding good. This is the same as an athlete. They do not set records in practice. They want to build themselves to a point of 80% of maximum. The only time they need to give 100% is the race or game when the extra push is needed.

We have to do it slowly. We have to build. We don’t blow it all in one marathon practice session a day. We will hurt ourselves that way. Slowly, surely, build it up. Curtis’s statement about building many thin coats of pain reminded me of what the master Leonardo da Vinci did. He would add very thin layers of paint slowly over time. The Mona Lisa or Last Supper were not done with thick layers. The wonder of his artistry was how he built it slowly, one layer at a time.

So, again, we have seen a couple myths and misconceptions of practice. There are more. We will surely invent them (or re-invent old ones) on a regular basis. We think we have all the answers, which as the quote at the start of this post indicates, will lead us to more misconceptions. So slow down and keep it patient, balanced, and deliberate. After all this is supposed to be fun, not torture.

Which brings me to the Holy Truth for this week. I think by following this, I may be able to keep that patience and deliberateness that is essential to better musicianship.

When you practice, rest as much as you play!

By the way, Stanley Curtis at Trumpet Journey has a series of weekly lesson plans for trumpet practice over three years. While many of us have adopted the basic routines that we have learned from teachers who were taught by William Adam, there are also other lesson plans that we can use to build certain aspects of our musicality. If we remember it starts with the sound, these lessons may be helpful. Just thought I would pass it along. It should take you the rest of your life to get through it. What a great thought!

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