How to bring down practicing time by using a different mind set.
You need to prepare a new piece. Fun, you think.
You start practicing, the way you always do: take one chunk and practice it slowly. With the metronome, perhaps. Sound, intonation, phrasing: you meticulously check your progress.
Every detail needs to be up to your standard before you can speed up the tempo. Until you are satisfied and go on to another chunk.
By now, you have started to feel slightly bored… but hey! This is what you need to do, right?
So despite your boredom you keep practicing. (musicians have a surprisingly high level of endurance, have you noticed?)
So what is wrong with this picture? Well, nothing except that it is a huge WASTE OF TIME.
1. When you get bored, your mind starts wandering. Despite your best attempts to keep with the task at hand, you are just not in the moment. You can see that is not a good recipe for effective learning.
2. By starting from step one every time, you are holding yourself back, and down… it is like reading letter by letter instead of full words and sentences… Imagine what that does to your self-confidence? You are basically telling yourself you are a beginner.
3. Checking ‘after the fact’ is a poor learning strategy. You know what I mean? You play slowly, checking for mistakes. When something is not good, you stop, repeat that spot a few times, go back to the beginning of the chunk. But, waiting for mistakes to be improved works like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The way you see yourself playing has a direct effect on the results. Moreover, practising in this way engages left-hemispheric brain activity, when in order to perform complex motor skills optimally right-hemispheric process needs to be activated.
“Left-hemispheric function is strongly associated with verbal–analytical cognitive processes (D’Esposito et al., 1998; Galin & Ornstein, 1972; Hellige, 1990; Kinsbourne, 1982; Springer & Deutsch, 1998), crucial for early stages of motor learning (Fitts & Posner, 1967), whereas right-hemispheric processes are dominant when movements become highly skilled and automatic (Crews & Landers, 1993; Hatfield et al., 2004; Salazar et al., 1990). The right-hemisphere is probably activated during complex visuo-motor performance (Rebert, Low, & Larsen, 1984) and motor skill failure in athletes under mental pressure might be associated with enhanced left-hemispheric brain activity.” (1)
What do to
5 steps to reduce practicing time by using a different mind set.
1. Decide which chunk you will work on. Define your goal. Let’s say sound. Your goal is to play this chunk with a round, full and resonating sound. Ok, then…
2. Hear how you want it to sound. Turn on all your senses, feel how it is to play it, see yourself playing. Play the chunk in your mind a couple of times, until in your visualisation it sounds exactly how you want it.
3. Now play it on your instrument, even if a bit under tempo. Make sure you keep the result you want to produce vividly in your mind …Was it how you wanted it to sound? If not…why not? Was your mind going back to analytical mode? Or did doubt crawl into your mind? Maybe you need to improve your concentration skills?
4. One thing at the time. We like to believe we can multi-task…that we can focus on different things at the same time. Each time your mind wanders to thoughts that are not performance-relevant, you take precious attentional capacity away from performance-enhancing focus. Sorry to disappoint you…our attentional capacity is limited.
“…our focus is similar to a narrow beam. We are really only able to focus on one thing at a time. Often we will think that we are focussing on a hundred different things, because our mind seems to be full to bursting point. However, we actually only focus on one at a time and dart between the various things that are in our minds, spending very little time actually dedicated to anyone. Our torch beam hops between those thoughts that are competing for our attention, and only settles on any one of them for a moment before dashing off to the next (Hamilton 2008).” (2)
5. Find the right focus. To be able to perform up to your abilities on demand, you need to find the right cue for each chunk or passage. Yes, training muscles alone won’t do the trick…you need to know how to activate your motor system.
Is sound perhaps not the right focus for this passage? Try with the kinesthetic sensation, or a visual image…or a mood word.
“Mood words are defined by Rushall (2000, p. 1) as, “words which, when said or thought with appropriate feeling and emphasis, have some movement or emotional outcome. If a feeling does not occur, then the content is inappropriate and will be ineffectual.” Mood words can reflect various performance capacities. Typically, a list of monosyllabic synonyms for strength, power (force), speed, agility, balance, and endurance are presented to an athlete who then selects those which best fit his or her experience of the movement. More pertinently, mood words have been found to enhance performance to a greater extent than either positive self-talk or task relevant content [cues] (Holingen & Vikander, 1987). If athletes before, or during, closed skill task execution were consciously to attend to an array of task relevant cues or cognitions, this can often undermine performance (Ferrell, Beach, Szeverenyi, Krch, & Fernhall, 2006; Loze, Collins, & Holmes, 2001; Lawton, Hung, Saarela, & Hatfield, 1998). In contrast, mood words can, if carefully selected, provide a holistic “source of information” [SOI] (Reed, 1996) about how the total movement pattern can be optimally sequenced and executed” (3)
Our ‘non-thinking’, unconscious mind controls our movement. In order to execute motor skills optimally we need to engage our senses, not our thinking mind (Gallwey 1986). Feel the movement, see it and hear it. “Hear the sound before you produce it.” “Feel your balanced position”. “ Feel ‘lightness’ in your fingers.” “Feel the smoothness in your movement.” “Feel the air blowing”.
“It’s important to focus rather than think. We need to notice, rather than analyse. It’s easy to start analysing how something feels. If we do this, we could start screwing up our technique because our thinking brain starts to try to control our movement. Noticing allows us to simply observe and be aware of these sensory cues, without feeling the need to control or change them. Our subconscious mind will execute the skills. We simply need to see, hear, feel and trust!” (2)
What distinguishes a great performer from the rest doesn’t just lie in the muscle training but on the mental training in particular. It is vital to learn how to activate right brain processes to ensure optimal (and reliable) motor skills execution.
Good news. Mental, or performance, skills are just like any other skill: with practice you too can master them.
Did I mention you can then achieve better results in less time? ;-)
GLENN GOULD practicing Partita No 2 Sinfonia
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