“Practice Makes Perfect” and other Fairytales

An introduction to practicing strategies, myths and tools for advanced students in preparation for the concert stage.

Reading time: 15 minutes

For many, the idea of practicing has become synonymous with the idea of hours of endless repetition in a torture chamber, also known as a practice room, until you “get it right”. The problem with that premise is that repetition doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Repetition without comprehension leads to practicing in your mistakes, repetitive strain injuries, boredom, mental fatigue, bored performers, boring playing, leading to bored audiences.

A more deliberate approach

What happens on the concert stage is a direct consequence of what happens in the practice room. According to sports psychologist Don Greene and Performance psychologist Noa Kageyama, we have a tendency to practice somewhat unconsciously, mindlessly repeating passages over and over until they sound better. However, as soon as we walk on stage, we end up trying to perform consciously. Our brain gets flooded with over-analytical thinking and criticism, which leads to a pre-occupation with technical details. We end up freaking out because we don’t know what instructions to give our brains and we end up unable to play as freely and automatically as we are capable of playing in our practice rooms.

It might seem justifiable to tell yourself to “just relax” on stage and to try and duplicate the unconscious and mindless state of mind from our practice room… I think we all know how this scenario turns out. Instead, a better solution would be to rather duplicate that super conscious, analytical, detail orientated, and critical state of mind found on the concert stage in our practice room.

Practicing should be a deliberate, goal-orientated, detail-focused process of correction and experimentation to improve one’s musical ability and of mastering music for performance. The violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian (1903-1981) proposed the methodical distribution of practice time into three: Building (purely technical), interpretive (expressive detail) & performance practice (integration of technique, musicianship and performance-related concerns when playing an entire piece). Performing is the culmination of stages of practice.

In On Practicing: A manual for students of guitar performance author Ricardo Iznaola explains there are two factors that we must overcome in the practice room to be able to prepare for a public performance: Inner & Outer Poise.

Inner Poise

Inner Poise can be described as a mental state of alertness as well as a heightened sense of curiosity and readiness for intellectual activity without emotional tension and judgmental attitudes towards ourselves.

Inner Poise can only be achieved when the following conditions are met:

1. Emotional detachment from the material to be practised

Similar to a scientist in a lab, we observe the results of experiments/mistakes rather than condemning ourselves. Violinist Paul Kantor once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with musical and technical ideas to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for.

2. Objective observation of what we are doing and the results we are getting

If something is wrong in the practice room, it will not miraculously fix itself over time. We must observe the sensations and mechanism of our playing and analyse the mistake. We should observe the mistake or discomfort, take note of it and then RESPOND scientifically rather than REACT emotionally. We should see every incorrect note, technical flaw and inconsistency as a teachable moment. Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance continually looking for new ways to improve.

In a 2001 study by Cleary & Zimmerman, published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Basketball experts, non-experts, and novices were studied for differences in their practice habits, most notably their self-regulatory forethought and self-reflection processes regarding their free-throw shooting. Two main differences were distinguished:

  1. The experts and top athletes were very specific about the goals that they wanted to achieve during each practice session whereas the amateur and bottom rated athletes had much broader goals
  2. The experts and top athletes where able to attribute missed shots to specific technical problems that they would address in their next practice session whereas the amateur and lower ranking athletes often reacted to failures emotionally and would attribute failures to non-specific factors.

Problem-solving can be divided into three stages:

  1. Identification and isolation of the problem
  2. Understanding the exact cause of the problem and finding the appropriate solution
  3. Integrating and assimilating the valid solution through guided repetition, reinforcing the correct habits until they are stronger than the bad habits.

Taking inspiration from industries outside the music sphere: The Kaizen approach

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” It is a Japanese business philosophy regarding the processes that continuously improve operations and involve all employees. Kaizen sees improvement in productivity as a gradual and methodical process. By improving standardised programmes and processes, kaizen aims to eliminate waste for leaner manufacturing. It was first practiced in Japanese businesses after World War II, most notably as part of The Toyota Way. Point Kaizen is one of the most commonly implemented types of kaizen. It is based on quick, small and immediate measures that are taken to correct small issues that can have a huge impact.

Quick Kaizen, also known as 5S, is a workplace organisation method that uses a list of five Japanese words translated as “Sort”, “Set In order”, “Shine”, “Standardise” and “Sustain”. How can this relate to practicing music? Good question!

  • Sort: Identifying a specific passage or problem which you would like to address at the start of each practice session
  • Set in order: Analysing the cause of the problem and finding a solution
  • Shine: Polishing the passage and integrating it with the rest of the piece or programme
  • Standardise: Create clear guidelines that can be implemented in the future to avoid similar technical problems
  • Sustain: Incorporating the rectified passage or problem into future rehearsals as part of maintenance or performance practice.

An alternative, somewhat oversimplified version: four-step problem-solving model from Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code:

  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one.

3. Ease of action in what we are doing

We should develop a keen sense of the minimum amount of physical effort needed to achieve the motions of playing and should continuously strive towards the economy of movement through refined movements and Outer Poise. We should not allow difficulty, fatigue or pain to become part of our approach to play an instrument. Our aim should not be short term perfection in spite of physical unease but rather being consistently accurate while and being able to find joy in the physical performance.

Iznoala (2000: 4) warns that when our inner poise is disturbed, we cannot practice optimally. We become so frustrated that we condemn ourselves due to our own incompetence. This leads to anxiety and physical tension which in turn eliminates ease of action. We then stop listening objectively to protect ourselves from these painful feelings of inadequacy and condemnation, untimely leading to loss of motivation and the desire to practice.

Recommended reading:
The Inner Game of Tennis: The ultimate guide to the mental side of peak performance, Timothy Gallwey

Outer Poise

Outer Poise can be seen as the absence of dysfunctional tension and the achievement of ease of action. According to Iznoala (2000: 5) we must learn to distinguish the difference between sensations of weight (when we allow gravity to act upon our limbs) and that of effort (resistance to gravity through muscular activity). Poised limbs can be seen as the balance between weight and effort in order to create a feeling of floating. When and how much exertion to use at any given moment is the challenge and controlling Poise is the key to solving this challenge.

The Alexander Technique, named after its creator Frederick Matthias Alexander, is an educational process that was created to retrain habitual patterns of movement and posture. Alexander believed that poor habits in posture and movement damaged spatial self-awareness as well as health, and that movement efficiency could support overall physical well-being. He began developing his technique’s principles in the 1890s in an attempt to address voice loss during public speaking. He credited his method with allowing him to pursue his passion for reciting in Shakespearean theatre. The Alexander Technique has a long history of helping instrumentalists and singers to perform with less stress and likelihood of injury.

Recommended research: Alexander Technique

Many factors may affect our practice negatively. Let’s discuss a few that might be relevant.

1. Too little time!

Not being able to find enough time to practice seems to be a recurring theme in every musician’s life. How long should you be practicing? One of the 20th century’s most iconic classical pianists, Arthur Rubinstein stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than four hours a day, you probably weren’t doing it right.

Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours

Leopold Auer

According to Noa Kageyama studies suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day, and that gains gradually begin to decline after the 2-hour mark. The key is to limit practice sessions to a duration that allows you to stay focused. Ricardo Iznaola also recommends 4 hours practice but warns that for university-level guitar students no practise approach will produce results if done for less than an average of 2 to 3 hours over a period of six days, resting on the seventh day.

2. Too much!

The tendency to practise fragments that are too long or tackle too many projects at the same time.

George Armitage Miller, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, 1956

Chunking revers to a practice technique where one focusses on tiny sections of music. In a famous paper, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information (1956), American psychologist George Armitage Miller proposed as a law of human cognition and information processing in which humans can effectively process no more than seven units, or chunks, of information. Using this premise, we should break down difficult passages into “chunks” of no more than 7 items, for example, a complicated rhythm, a difficult shift, an extended technique, a fast passage, a large left-hand stretch or difficult right-hand string crossings.

Consider journaling

Try using a practice journal to keep track of your specific goals for each session and what you discover during your practice sessions. Be specific about the goals you want to achieve during each practice session, focussing on your ability to attribute mistakes to specific technical problems that you can address in real-time or in your next practice session

Four tips to help you start journaling, NPR Life Kit.

Taking inspiration from computer science

In longer or new advanced repertoire, it can be difficult to prioritise which problem areas to work on first as the sheer volume of work that needs to be done may feel overwhelming. In Algorithms to Live By: The computer science of human decisions, authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths show how algorithms developed for computers can show us how to deal with overwhelming choices when confronting large amount of work in combination with limited space and time. According to Christian and Griffiths humans and computers alike pay a penalty for starting a new task or interrupting the task that they’re currently busy with. That penalty is reduced output or productivity. At the extreme, you can find yourself in a situation where you are so frantically switching your attention between so many different things that you fail to make any progress on any of them. In computer science, this is called thrashing.

If you’ve encountered the giant spinning beach ball of doom, you have perhaps seen thrashing first-hand in your computer. Thrashing occurs when a computer’s virtual memory resources are overused, leading to a constant state of paging and page faults, inhibiting most application-level processing. This causes the performance of the computer to degrade or collapse. The remedy or solution is to stop wasting unnecessary time and resources on trying to prioritise the importance of problems or the order in which these problems should be solved, thus leaving more time for actual practice and steering clear of the dreaded “paralyse by analyses”.

Algorithms to Live By: The computer science of human decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

3. Too fast!

We often have a tendency not to allocate enough slow practice and to practice the material at performance tempo prematurely.

According to Ryan Holiday (Stillness is the Key 2019: 47), bestselling author of The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy, in Stoicism, Buddhism and countless other schools of thought we find the same analogy: The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle. First impressions are often misleading. We are disturbed and deceived by what’s on the surface. We then make bad decisions or miss opportunities. We must be patient and slow things down in our practice rooms.

Recommended reading: The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday

During slow practice the tempo should be slow enough to allow you to think before each note and to play without any mistakes while allowing time to think about what you want to ‘say’ with every note, fine-tuning the execution while monitoring and analysing every little detail.

Although practice does not make perfect, it is clear that repetition makes permanent. Think of your brain as a massive filing cabinet (analogue) or a supercomputer (digital). It’s better to get the right information into your mind/brain from the start than it is to quickly dump everything into so-called file 13 to be correctly filed at a later stage or to fix “corrupted data” once the piece has already been learned. It is more difficult to correct bad habits or mistakes in the future, adding to the amount of practice time you will need to eliminate these bad habits and tendencies in the future.

One final point: metronome, metronome, METRONOME!

4. Too difficult!

The tendency to tackle works that are unrealistic for our current state of development. You cannot accelerate the growth of a tree by polling its branches. Honest realism is a fundamental virtue for all performers (Iznoala 2000: 8). This is especially important to consider when choosing repertoire for your postgraduate auditions or exam recitals. 

Existing research shows that most expert musical performers started playing an instrument at a uniformly young age, between six and seven years old (Ericsson, Tesch-Romer, & Krampe 1990). The level of practice had to be sustained and increased through adolescence and early adulthood to reach the expert level. The increase in practise needs to be gradual as a sudden massive increase can lead to overuse injuries and a possible burnout (Ericsson 1996).

A novice guitarist recently asked Marina Krupkina, a Russian decacorde performer, on an Instagram post if she ever suffers from burnout from playing the guitar all day? She responded that one should play what is comfortable for you and after that only increase the level of difficulty with 1%. It’s impossible to burnout from playing what is only 1% more difficult than you are used to playing. If you repeat this process continuously, your progress will seem incredibly fast to everyone else.

5. Too much pressure!

Practicing incorrectly negatively affects our confidence as we lose trust in our ability to overcome obstacles. According to Noa Kageyama real on-stage confidence comes from knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can perform a piece correctly on demand, because we know exactly what we need to do from a technical standpoint to play the passage perfectly every time.

Often the pressure we feel in our practice rooms is further exasperated by our tendency to compare ourselves to others.

Audiences do not attend concerts to compare previous performances with the current one. “In many ways, a concert resembles many aspects of a love relationship; it is the unique attractiveness of your artistic message and personality that will make you successful. Audiences are, in this context, promiscuous; they have an unlimited capacity to fall in love with all possible unique artistic messages and personalities.

Ricardo Iznoala, On Practicing: A manual for students of guitar performance

There is of course also a new, darker side to music performance that may cause students and young performers to feel less than enthusiastic about sharing performances on social media: seeing a flood dislikes and unwarranted, often anonymous negative comments. Cyberbullying is, unfortunately, part of modern-day living and should be viewed in the same manner as schoolyard bullying. Unlike paying audience members, these anonymous bullies are not actively contributing to your concert career and should thus not get a vote.  Hater gonna hate. Potatoes gonna potate. A slightly more elegant quote from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations comes to mind: It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinion than our own.

Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own f***ing art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert
Recommended reading: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Letting go of past negative experiences and criticism, acting bravely, finding confidence while avoiding ego are just some of the inner battles we fight as musicians. I bid you farewell with this quote by Theodore Roosevelt quote and wish you many hours of happy practicing!

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt
Presentation for the 2020 South African String Convention

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