About practice

In order to achieve a very high degree of detail control within the highly restrictive framework that the written musical piece represents, we have to work very thoroughly with the piece, so that it motorically and perceptually becomes embedded in us. Many sub-elements need to be automated and a lot of the musical content has to be repeated many times before we get a sufficient degree of security, speed, sound and musical expression, in short, a sufficient degree of control and mastery of the piece.

Repetition of elements is thus a primary focal point in our practice process. A “prototype” practice process with the lowest level of awareness would therefore be to play the piece of music “as it was concert” over and over until a satisfactory result was achieved. In most cases this is practically impossible, as it typically is difficult to decode the score in the right tempo, but even for someone capable of doing this, it rarely produces good results. The probability of learning mistakes that must be unlearned is big, the security of your control of motor and musical elements is rarely optimal and it is – all in all – a process that tend to become stressed, frustrated, and containing a lack of decisive quality regarding the content of the work.

So, what do we do?

One method is to repeat sections slowly with a great awareness for details and then gradually increase the tempo. Variations of this method probably represent the backbone of most professional musicians’ practice. Some have systemized this and play shorter sections with a metronome, gradually increasing the speed. Of course, this binds the musical flexibility, but on the other hand it is a controlled method of the process that has a basis outside yourself.

Another approach, which is especially used by pianists and other musicians, who have to coordinate many elements, is to practise the individual elements separately. One hand at a time, only the melodic line, a solo voice in a fugue, broken chords as combined grip, etc. The purpose is to automate the individual element to such an extent that we do not have to pay much attention to it in the overall performance, as well as learning the various layers of the musical piece in an optimum manner.

A third possibility is to approach the work in an analyzing and experiencing way. You can try to decode structures in the written score – harmonies, rhythms, shapes, or try to listen to recordings to get a sense of the direction in which the target of one’s acquisition of the piece should take. One possibility is also to practise mentally, to imagine playing the music. This makes sense in relation to the term “action representation” (See About action representation and motor cognition) and it is a method that has had good effects for many.

Often, at the beginning of a practice process, there are very specific problems to be solved – most of them through some kind of a trial and error method. We test different options until we find a solution that works. The greater experience a musician has, the more problems you are probably able to solve before beginning the more elaborate process which aims to embed the musical work in us so that we can play freely and on a highly artistic level at the concert.

Thus, there are a lot of practices in the piano profession about how to achieve better results in the sense, that we have a number of practice methods that have specific purposes: greater security and mastery of the various parameters such as precision, dynamics, timing, sound, etc. Likewise, many professional musicians have developed great discipline about the formal structures of the exercise – when to practise, how much time on which works in which order, how much warming up, what technical exercises, etc.

But an aspect which I haven’t had enough awareness about is, how we structure our practice in time, especially within very small time intervals. It has to do with a number of questions that concern our attention to the actual practice process, as it appears to us here and now:

Awareness. What parameter do I focus on right now?

Purpose. What is the criterion for succes / my interim goal right now?

Evaluation. How is the quality of my process?

Meta-reflection. Is my strategy the right one?

And here, a problem arises in relation to this control in micro-time: How conscious are we when we change strategy? Are we always 100% aware of what we do when we repeat a passage for the tenth time? And finally, a matter of great importance: How do the aesthetic choices emerge in the process? (See About strategy changes)

These are the questions that have the leading roles in the FormingPerforming project.

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