My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Learning to "Leave Las Vegas" when it comes to practicing

Today's the day!  To start off my series on practicing I thought it would be good to share what my philosophy is on the topic. Here it is:

Taking the randomness and luck factor out of practicing improves the quality of our learning.

When I follow this principle, I:
  • save time and energy,
  • feel more successful on a daily basis,
  • increase my confidence going into a performance situation,
  • increase my enjoyment of music-making and performing, 
  • which helps the audience feel more at ease and enhances their enjoyment of the performance
I call this my, "Leaving Las Vegas" theory because I feel that practicing with the mindset that accuracy and consistency will naturally occur with repetition and hours of slogging away at our instrument is somewhat akin to playing the slot machines.  True...if I repeat something enough times I am bound to get it right at some point.  With the slot machines, if I keep putting in those quarters and pull the handle enough times, I'm bound to get something back, right?.  But is that "jackpot" really much of a jackpot?  

So what are the signs someone has taken that highway to Las Vegas and is practicing based on luck and randomness?  He or she:
  • keeps hitting wrong notes.
  • is guessing a lot of the time when it comes to playing rhythms.
  • has to stop a lot.
  • does not keep a consistent pulse because of musical stuttering. (Here's a post on musical stuttering.)
  • plays at too fast a tempo.
  • uses inconsistent fingerings, bowings, or breaths.
  • does not play very musically because the brain is too busy worrying about details that aren't consistent or solid.
  • uses mindless repetitions of a passage with the hope that eventually it's bound to be right.
  • plays straight through pieces a lot.
  • starts at the beginning of the piece over and over again because he/she can't get past a hard part.
  • practices for hours and hours without a lot of improvement and consistency.
  • feels like they have to be playing right up until they perform in order to increase the chance that they'll hit the jackpot at the right time on stage.
  • has an unpredictable track-record when it comes to performing.  Sometimes he/she does brilliantly, sometimes he/she crashes and burns.
  • doesn't enjoy performing, largely because he/she isn't truly confident that the technical aspects are secure.
So why do so many people have these habits?  I think there are several reasons:
  • We feel like we don't have enough time to practice or we feel rushed so we have the mentality that it's better to practice some than not at all, even if that practice is not efficient.
  • We haven't been taught how to practice in a structured, mindful way.
  • We get so excited about playing the music that we gravitate towards playing through music rather than working on it.
The good news, of course, is that we can learn how to practice and see improvements very quickly.  It is just a matter of recognizing how our brain and body process information.  Practicing in a random way does not help our brain in any way.  In fact, I feel that it is detrimental to our learning process both physically and mentally.  Our brain learns by making neural connections when something is repeated the exact same way multiple times.  Unfortunately that means if you keep playing a given passage differently each time, the brain doesn't have anything to recognize - neural connections cannot be made.  Or if you play a passage with wrong notes several times in a row, this is the neural connection that is made and that is taken to the concert hall.  As the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains in his fabulous book, This is Your Brain on Music

The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced...Memory strength is also a function of how much we care about the experience.  Neurochemical tags associated with memories mark them for importance, and we tend to code as important things that carry with them a lot of emotion, either positive or negative...Caring may, in part, account for some of the early differences we see in how quickly people acquire new skills.  If I really like a particular piece of music, I'm going to want to practice it more, and because I care about it, I'm going to attach neurochemical tags to each aspect of the memory that label it as important: The sounds of the piece, the way I move my fingers, if I'm playing a wind instrument the way that I breathe - all these become part of a memory trace that I've encoded as important.  (pgs. 197-198)
This leads me to one last thought before I end this post...for me, it's all about getting in a different mindset.  If I approach practicing with the desire to really care for each note, for the music that I get to play, I practice in a different way than if I enter my practice time as if it is a daily chore.  In the next few posts, I will talk about the specific techniques I use whenever I practice.  I am excited because these are all techniques that are easy to implement and their results are immediately electrifying and dare I say, addictive?  Quoting Levitin again:
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of these factors; caring leads to attention, and together they lead to measurable neurochemical changes.  Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with emotional regulation, alertness, and mood, is released, and the dopaminergic system aids in the encoding of the memory trace.
So let's get off the road to Las Vegas, shall we? And together we'll find a healthier addiction.

Previous post in this series:

A new lease on life, music, and practicing

Subsequent posts in this series:

Project Capriccio: learning to practice by learning a new piece of music
Project Capriccio, day 2: the fun begins!
Project Capriccio, day 3: dealing with doubts


  1. Ok, you've got my attention: I recognized half of those signposts "on the way to Las Vegas" because I keep passing them! Thanks and can't wait to read your next posts on this matter.

  2. Lots of good information here Erica. Looking forward to reading follow-up posts!

  3. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.