Dos and Don’ts of Deep Practice

Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Saturday!

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I have discussed goal setting and how to effectively organize practice time in previous blog postings, but I have not yet touched on the differences between effective and ineffective practice techniques. Numerous books have been published about the necessary evil of practice, covering topics from practice time management, playing from the heart, relaxation, and self-evaluation. The gist of many of these books is that practice makes perfect (as the saying goes). Well…that is only partly true. Smart practice makes perfect. Mindless, repetitive practice, however, is simply a waste of effort (ain’t nobody got time for that). Today’s blog is devoted to the dos and don’ts of practicing. How can we make the most of the one-on-one time we spend with our music? What is the difference between 10 minutes spent drilling scales and 10 minutes spent woodshedding technical passages in Bach Sonatas? What are the future effects of “deep practice”?

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle discusses the idea of “deep practice,” which, simply stated, is the process of stopping, stumbling, and working through mistakes. To create a stronger performance, or learn new skills, we must give ourselves permission to make mistakes and learn from our errors. Do not be afraid to confront your practice demons! Deep practice forces us to slow down and, as Coyle states, “operate at the edge of your ability.” (pg. 26) This is essentially the biggest difference between effective and ineffective practice. Effective practice requires us to examine our weaknesses with a large magnifying glass and patiently seek solutions. Sometimes the answer is simply to slow down. Other times we must take apart the entire passage, practicing it in chunks, or in different rhythms, or transposing it to different keys. Deep practice demands that we face the struggle and, as Tim Gunn from Project Runway says, “make it work.”

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On a biological level, the process of deep practice encourages the growth of myelin in our brains, which helps us permanently retain whatever we struggle to learn. What the heck is myelin?? Myelin is a protein-rich fatty material that coats and insulates nerves, creating, as Coyle suggests, a brain activity code. Whenever we learn a new skill, electrical signals are circulated between neurons connected by axons (thread-like extensions). When these signals fire repeatedly along axons, myelin-producing cells recognize the repeating signal and wrap myelin (or white matter) around the active circuit wiring. Okay – boring science talk done. What this means is that the myelin our brains collect during the deep practice ritual is protecting what we learn for later retention (like saran wrap for skills). We are literally programing our brains to remember patterns. Struggling in the short term, therefore, has significant power to create lasting results. Remember this the next time you are frustrated trying to master that impossible run in Chant de Linos.

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It is very easy to fall into the trap of mindless practice. Often, when the time comes to focus on musical problems needing our attention, we lose interest, or, more likely, the struggle intimidates us into procrastination. Struggle is uncomfortable. It is easier to simply clock our hours playing pieces we like that do not challenge us. I have been there. I have even programed recitals featuring only pieces I like or ones that I know will be easy, making the inevitable struggle easier to stomach. Did I create new skills preparing these recitals? Rarely. Did I produce new myelin? Probably not. The pieces that presented me with a challenge, however, are the ones that have stuck with me. Why? Because I remember the struggle and the ways I won the battle with my own mind. They are the reason I write this blog. They are the reason I seek out new challenges and learn new pieces that make me uncomfortable up front but move me forward toward my goals in the end. Muscle memory obtained from mindless practice is not reliable (a memory slip early in the Carmen Fantasie at my Junior Recital taught me that the hard way). Skills obtained through deep practice, however, last forever. That is the difference between effective and ineffective practice.

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That was a long introduction to a Dos and Don’ts list, but it is important to understand the idea of deep practice before identifying small ways that we can incorporate the concept into our own practice. As you read through this list, think about some of the ways you can bring deep practice into your next practice session. Where are your struggles? What can you do to stop, stumble, and correct?

Dos and Don’t’s of Effective Practicing

DO begin your practice session with a plan. What are your priorities during this time? What would you like to accomplish by the end of your session?

DON’T warm up by playing through an entire piece that you “like” just to inspire you to practice what you don’t like later. I like to think of playing through these types of pieces as the dessert course to my practice session. If I can get through the appetizers and the main course successfully, then I may indulge in dessert.

DO bracket sections in your music that you are struggling with. These include complicated runs, long phrases that are difficult to perform in single breathes, and passages that are difficult to keep in tune.

DON’T spend too much time playing through beautiful melodies already under your fingers. Yeah, I know – They are pretty and easy to play and make you feel good. Save them for the end. Playing through these is often a clever way to procrastinate working on the scary bits which actually need our attention.

DO find new ways to practice scales. Find new scale exercises! Use scales to practice new articulation or to work on finding a better center to your tone in different dynamics or through different tone colors.

DON’T mindlessly drill scales. Taffanel and Gaubert is a great exercise but it does not need to sound the same. every. time. you. play. it. Experiment with one of the many scale games available for this exercise. Make up your own!

DO pull out that etude book that made you cry once upon a time and look at it with fresh, more experienced, eyes. What skills can you work on using these exercises? Challenge yourself to conquer what you once thought was impossible.

DON’T avoid difficult etude books in favor of easier, more attainable, studies. Don’t simply practice studies your students are working on because you want them to sound good in lessons. Remember – always practice at the edge of your ability.

DO download the entire part to famous orchestral works that contain famous excerpts. There is, for example, much more to the Firebird Suite than the firebird movement. Understanding the work as a whole will help you understand how the technical passages fit within the context of the piece.

DON’T just stick to the orchestral excerpt book. Although these books are great for collecting all the most famous excerpts in one place, they only tell part of the story. Audition committees can tell when you do not actually know what is happening in and around the music you are playing.

DO select to work on pieces that you believe are waaaaay out of your ability. Watch YouTube videos to search for performances of pieces that sound challenging but very exciting. Face what intimidates you! It may not be as scary as you think.

DON’T program those same, boring French pieces that you have played a million times since high school simply because they are easy to work up to performance quality. You know the ones I am talking about! There is no challenge there. Myelin has already been created for those pieces. Create new collections of myelin!

DO set goals for your playing. What level would you like to reach in your flute playing? What groups are you hoping to join? Which pieces would you love to learn and perform? Which works would you like to memorize? What techniques would you like to master? When will you host your next recital? What will your program consist of? Remind yourself of these goals each time you sit down to practice. What small measure can you take to get you one step closer to your goals?

DON’T settle for your current rut. There are always new pieces to learn, new performing groups to participate in, new performances waiting for you to host, new skills to experiment with, new classes to take, and new challenges to be met. Find them! Your playing is not defined as a single category. It is ever-changing. Be the agent of change!

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How do you challenge yourself to make the most out of your practice sessions? What techniques to you use to achieve moments of “deep practice”? How do you snap out of mindless practice? What do you do to play at the edge of your ability? Please comment below!

 

Happy fluting (and practicing)!

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