Mar 03

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Duke’s Guide For Practicing

“Reduce the effort whenever possible. The use of force is the opposite of awareness; learning does not take place when we are straining. The principle should not be no pain, no gain. Rather, it should be if strain, no gain. ”

– From Norman Doidge’s “The Brain’s Way of Healing” on core principles of the Feldenkrais Method

There is nothing more fundamentally important to learning and performing music than this idea. Yet, when presented with something that we perceive as difficult we tend to bear down and try harder, even when it physically hurts and there is no improvement.

Nothing in music is difficult. Your effort makes it feel difficult and interferes with your learning.  There is no it.  There is only you.

Here are some suggestions to help make your practice effective and reduce strain:

  1. If you are struggling or feeling frustrated with your playing, pause and take a breath. Be grateful for your errors. Your ability to recognize them tells you what you need to learn. Let your errors be your teacher.
  2. Play it the way you play it, without trying to be better than what you are at the moment. This will expose your errors.  Otherwise, you will cover up what you need to learn.  Practicing is not the same as performing.  Don’t practice when you perform, and don’t perform when you practice.
  3. Slow down. Slow WAY down, until you feel yourself relaxing, one-half to one-quarter of the marked tempo. You have a choice; you can practice slow and learn fast, or practice fast and learn slow. You get to choose.
  4. Notice if your hands are soft. If your hands are tense or straining, then the rest of your body is tense and straining, and you are not learning.
  5. Play at an MP or MF dynamic with an easy breath, bow, or hand action. Then when you get comfortable, learn to play at louder and softer dynamics.
  6. Analyze phrases to simply your thinking, such as recognizing an arpeggio or a common rhythm.  A clear mind thinks simply.
  7. Improvise with a few of the notes from a phrase.  This helps develop and clarify your imagination.
  8. Break the music into small motifs or phrases.  Bite size, chew slowly.
  9. Sing the music or your improvisation slowly, in tune, and in time.  Nothing exposes your image of the music more than your own voice.  Clarifying your image, will clarify your playing.
  10. Play the phrases or tune in twelve keys.  That way you will know if you are playing mechanically or if you are using your imagination.
  11. Without your instrument, imagine the music, slowly.  Notice if there are moments when you tense up, even when imagining. Notice if your breath, jaw, and eyes are soft and relaxed.  A restricted breath, tight jaw, and/or bunched eyebrows are sure signs of effort and confusion. Practice imagining your music in a relaxed manner.
  12. After you get comfortable with playing slowly, play lightly and quickly. We organize ourselves differently when we play quickly from when we play slowly. But, not fast – play light and quick.  When we think “fast” we tighten. When we think “light and quick” we stay loose. Try this with #4, 7, 8, and 11 from above.

Your performance reflects how you practice. Take your time. In your own way and with curiosity, figure out the things in your playing that you want but are unfamiliar. Then you will treasure your practice, reduce your effort, and come to own your music.

® 2015, Steve Duke

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