Think about how you practiced when you first learned.
Lots and lots of playing the same thing over and over, right?
Think about how you practice now.
Hopefully it’s very different and your teachers over the years have taught you many useful practice techniques.
Examples of these techniques include …
But why do we practice in these ways and what is the objective of doing so? Think beyond getting the notes right and doing it “better.” Knowing the reason why may just be the key to getting what you do in practice to stick.
Getting to the root of it
Almost everything we practice is a transition of some kind, and that is what we’re tackling when we practice.
Really consider what happens when you practice a difficult interval and finally get it to work. You’ve probably spent a few minutes playing it over and over - perhaps you were being quite detailed and dove into your toolbox of practice techniques to really sort out what needed to happen to make it consistent.
So, what actually happened to make it work?
Your air and muscles happened to be in the right places at the right times and the interval came out?
Yes, but there’s more to it than that. If you really did the work on this transition there is way more to it than that. In the case of the interval, you learned how the distance you’re seeing between the notes translates to how you lead up to the interval and what repeatable physical action your embouchure must take in combination with your air when you see that interval on the page.
Where it began, and where it’s going
When we are kids learning to play our instrument and blindly repeating things over and over, it’s likely that we aren’t reading all that carefully.
If you teach, how many students have you had that blatantly don’t read a rest or slightly difficult rhythm and play something more simple instead?
Another example of this is the student who has been told the key signature does not include Eb, but continues to play them ad nauseam. These students are not really reading - they are skimming and working off of previously developed muscle memory.
When we practice in a detailed way, pulling resources out of our toolbox, we read carefully. We identify the details of what is printed on the page, and in turn build a pathway between what we see and what we know. It gives us the ability to overwrite what we might have thought we read at first glance if it was wrong.
You might remember times that you were detailed in reading, but still couldn’t facilitate whatever difficulty you were working on. I am reminded of my students when they know what’s on the page, but continue to play something over and over at a tempo that is too fast making the same mistakes.
When we practice well, we draw a line between what we have discovered by reading carefully to the physical act of playing our instrument. We connect the dots between what we see and the physical actions required to make it happen through a detailed consideration and exploration of what creates the desired result.
As an example, let’s think about a passage that is written in difficult key signature. Maybe it has some double sharps and a few intervals that feel really awkward under the fingers. Reading and identifying the notes and intervals is not enough. Playing slowly is a step in the right direction because we can build accuracy, but if we speed up we often still miss. The pathway we need to build is between what we see and know and the physicality of doing in the difficult transitions.
Through smart practice, we can be specific about the air and embouchure shape that is necessary, and also the feeling of the intervals and rhythms in our fingers. Understanding the physicality of the line is crucial to our ability to replicate it every time we play the piece.
When we practice in a truly productive way, we identify the difficult transitions and dissect the issues using informed practice techniques from the toolbox we fill during our studies. In turn, our brain builds stronger and stronger pathways for the actions we need.
How to implement Pathway Practicing
Begin by reading in a detailed way, going beyond skimming the music. What follows is using our available tools to fully connect what we see on the page to what needs to physically take place to create a consistent result.
The key to performing well is not using practice techniques sporadically in practice.
The key to consistently performing well is the identification of transitions and the use of practice techniques to facilitate the physical and mental actions that the music demands. By approaching music in this detailed and methodical way, we create strong, mindful visual and physical connections. This is how we build neural pathways that are necessary for consistent success through practice.
(Practice techniques incorporated throughout)
1. Rough read through
2. Identify transitions
3. Read with detail
4. Identify physical demands
5. Practice to connect the visual and physical
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Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.