Tired of losing practice battles? Wage a practice campaign!

March 12, 2017, 8:55 PM · There’s an old brainteaser about a frog stuck at the bottom of a well. The well is thirty feet deep, but the poor frog can only jump five feet high. There’s good news: he sticks to the wall at the end of his jump. But there’s bad news too: he can only muster the energy for one jump a day, and while he sleeps at night, he slips four feet back down the wall. How many days will it take him to get out of the well?

You can check your solution at the end of the post…

Do you practice like the frog? Do you make progress one day, only to come back the next feeling as though you’ve slipped all the way back to the beginning? This kind of one-dimensional thinking (all ups and downs) is terribly limiting. Let’s add another dimension and put your practice campaign on the map!

The theater of war, violin version

soldier
"Two more hours of metronome work, and we take the city!"

Let’s be clear: even though war is the least desirable solution to real-life problems, it’s a brilliant model for problem-solving. That’s because a military campaign needs to have a clear objective. And so should your practice.

Military objectives usually involve land: someone else has it, and you want it. Think about the last war movie you saw. There was probably a scene with a bunch of generals smoking cigars and unrolling giant maps, right? Land is a clear objective because it’s easy to define. You can see on a map just how much you have in your grasp.

Your practice campaign should look simpler than this.
Your practice campaign should look simpler than this.

Most musicians would be better off defining their objectives just as clearly. It’s admirable to want to make a better sound, or to learn to phrase more naturally. But in my experience, you achieve these qualities during the pursuit of a more concrete goal: learning a piece, preparing an audition, or entering a competition, for example.

Ironically, when you define an objective specifically, you free yourself to pursue it via different paths simultaneously. Imagine those cigar-smoking generals tracing several curving lines toward a key fortification. They might stall on one path while making fast progress on another.

Just think: in the practice room, you rank above the generals. You’re the commander-in-chief! And as long as you keep your main objective in mind, you will find a way there.

Campaigns, battles, and tactics

In order to achieve your campaign goal, you’ll need to plan smaller goals along the way. Some will take just a day to conquer, while others will require a bit more time. I call these smaller goals battles. Therefore your daily practice is made up of various tactics that will allow you to win your battles, and ultimately your campaign.

Since we’re really talking about goal-setting, here are the three goal types with their military terms in parentheses:

  1. Long-term (campaign)
  2. Short-term (battles)
  3. Daily (tactics)

Tying these three together is your overall campaign strategy. Your campaign goal is fixed, but your strategy may shift according to circumstances. That's to be expected, especially for your first few campaigns. As you gain experience and become a seasoned campaigner, you'll be able to identify your goal and lay out a strategy as naturally as you would tell a story to a friend.

Campaigns

The most important part of conducting a practice campaign is defining it. You have to know what you want to achieve, so keep it simple and well-defined. I suggest something along the lines of a concerto, an audition list, or a competition program. Projects like these typically take several months to complete, which is about as long as most of us can sustain our enthusiasm.

It is possible to look farther into the future. You might say, for example, “I want to learn all six Bach Sonatas and Partitas in the next two years.” But the further away you focus, the hazier your vision. It’s too easy to get derailed from such open-ended projects, and that’s why I prefer to break them down into campaigns of more limited scope.

Beware of how far away you cast your gaze!
Beware of how far away you cast your gaze!

Battles

Battles, like campaigns, can be easily defined and written down in advance. They’re checkpoints that should, if all goes well, lead you to your campaign goal. For an audition campaign, one crucial battle is to put together the audition book. Such a checkpoint doesn't rely on luck or even skill, but it's something you have to do in order to advance. Another series of battles would consist of learning each excerpt for the first time. Then, once you’ve gotten all the excerpts under your fingers, your list of battles might run in this way:

It’s important to remember that battles should directly support your campaign. As the saying goes, you must “pick your battles” in order to conserve your physical and mental energy. You don't need to solve every one of your problems in order to succeed in your campaign. If you discover technical weaknesses that truly stand in your way, you may add them to your list of battles.

Don't forget about instrument maintenance while you're planning battles! Unless you schedule time to take care of any outstanding issues with your equipment, such as bow rehairs, string changes, or actual repairs, you will likely let them slide until it's too late. As the Pharaoh says in The Ten Commandments, "So let it be written... so let it be done!"

Tactics

Finally, once all the planning is in the books, battles are won or lost based on moment-to-moment tactics or maneuvers. Your daily practice is made up of hundreds if not thousands of these actions. In fact, every time you put the bow to the string, you are making a decision as to which direction your campaign is going to go! You might run through a section, record yourself, practice under tempo or without vibrato, or employ note grouping. But whatever tactics you select, they must support a battle.

What sets tactics apart from campaigns and battles is that they must succeed. You should expect setbacks in your campaign, and you should be prepared for some battles to take longer than others. But each individual tactic you choose should give you a positive result. If a certain tactic doesn’t bring gains, switch to another. If nothing seems to work for a particular passage, then leave the passage for another day. Nothing will sap your focus more quickly than repeatedly failing at the same task in the same way. Never rehearse failure in the heat of battle!

this time
"I know I'm going to make it THIS time..."

The power of two dimensions

If your progress in one battle is slow, you’ll surely win another battle more quickly. And that is the key to long-term success: refusing to get distracted just because one fight drags on. You have to trust your campaign strategy to see you through the daily ups and downs.

Of course, some battles must happen sequentially. You can't practice your audition excerpts until you have an audition book. And you can’t play a piece in tempo before you can play it at two-thirds tempo. But oftentimes we impose limitations on ourselves without realizing it. What if a piece contains spiccato, and yours is not up to par? Do you have to suspend all work on the piece until you fix your stroke? Of course not! You can get the notes up to speed with a simple detaché, while adding another battle to run concurrently: "spiccato boot camp"!

Your weaknesses are only part of the picture

Speaking of technical weaknesses, it’s standard practice to focus on them in order to get better. Otherwise they’ll never turn into strengths, right? But it is possible to take this to the extreme: to focus on weakness at the expense of strength.

I’ve worked with many violinists, for example, who convinced themselves that they had a small sound. The successful ones learned how to pull more volume out of their instruments when necessary, and left it at that. But a few unhappy players couldn't rest until they had "conquered" their puny sounds. They concentrated on big tone to the exclusion of everything else, and ended up with a pressed sound on top of stale musical ideas! Only after opening their ears to their other qualities could they regain their balance.

That's why I love the “campaign” analogy: you can give a technical weakness its proper place among other battles. You can employ tactics to combat the weakness, such as scale and etude work. Your progress there supports the other battles in your campaign.

Conquer, then consolidate

In war, once an army conquers a certain amount of territory, it’s dangerous to keep grabbing for more. Supply lines get stretched, and forces fatigued. At that point, it’s time to consolidate gains: to rebuild infrastructure and install at least rudimentary control over the new area.

The same is true for your development as a musician. Once you score a “win” by learning a new technique, or memorizing a new section, you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you expect to simply move on to the next conquest. You’ll likely need time to get comfortable with your new skills, as you learn how they fit with the music you’re playing.

Here again, scales and etudes are an enormous help. One of my favorite tactics is to use unfamiliar material (pick a dusty etude book and open to a random page!) in order to consolidate a new technique. Have you just improved your spiccato? Congratulations! Now play Kreutzer #2 off the string. Then Dont #3. Then an F-Major scale. When you return to spiccato in your repertoire, you won’t even have to think about the stroke.

Need to know which etudes help which techniques? Check out the Shipps Guide to Survival Repertoire!

Putting it all together: a sample campaign

Let’s take an example campaign and map it out. Start by downloading my practice campaign worksheet so that you can map right along with me.

I’m going to perform the Beethoven violin concerto this fall with the Azusa Pacific University Symphony. I’m on faculty there, and I know the conductor well, so it should be a great experience. But although I studied the Beethoven in school and have accompanied major soloists countless times, I’ve never performed the solo part.

I like to be specific with my campaigns, so I have two supplementary details: I will play from memory; and I will play Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza since I didn't learn it when I studied the piece previously. So, this will be the campaign I record in my practice journal:

Perform the Beethoven concerto with Kreisler cadenza, from memory, with the APU Symphony.

With more than six months to go, I’m not quite ready to start this campaign. I’m still focusing on the music for the rest of the LA Philharmonic season! But in June, it will be time to lay out my battles for the Beethoven campaign. I’ll actually write them down. I imagine them running in this way:

For my very first week of work, I'll likely want to accomplish the first three goals on my list. Getting the score and marking my part should take only a day: I’ll be able to change my mind as I go along. The rest of the week will be devoted to the Kreisler cadenza, since that will be completely new to my fingers.

First week’s tactics

Here’s where things will get interesting! In the beginning, my tactics will be open-ended. I’ll play through the cadenza, sensing what the difficulties are going to be. When I encounter one, I’ll mark it and move on. Once I see which spots will require the most work, I’ll dive in with tactics appropriate to each one. I’ll change tactics as soon as one stops getting results. Then at the end of the day, I’ll make some notes in my practice journal. Mainly, I'll record the progress I made in various battles (marking the part, learning the cadenza) and what still remains to be done.

At the end of the week, I’ll sit down with my journal and take stock. I’ll look at how much time I have left in my campaign, and how many battles I still have to face. I’ll evaluate whether the ones I have planned will point me toward my campaign goal. Then I’ll add, subtract, or change battles as needed. For example, once I begin my work on the first movement of the Beethoven, I’m going to run smack into those ascending broken octaves! If they aren’t feeling comfortable after a tactic or two, I’ll insert a “strengthen octaves” battle into my campaign.

Finally, I’ll take a hard look at the tactics I used during the past week. Which ones helped me win my battles the fastest? I’ll use those tactics again the next week. Which tactics seemed to lead toward dead ends? That's more painful to admit, but just as important to note. If I spent a great deal of time isolating shifts for intonation, yet those shifts are still out of tune, then I’m going to need a new shifting tactic. I might look back through my journal entries from a different campaign, seek help from a colleague, or look at YouTube for inspiration.

Talking strategy with my generals

I’ll repeat this "conference" at the end of every week to make sure my campaign is on track. Each time I’ll be sure to consider those two pitfalls we outlined earlier: exaggerating weaknesses and failing to consolidate. If the same battle keeps showing up on the list, week after week, I’ll have to ask myself: is this truly a battle worth fighting, or am I making a mountain out of a molehill? And if I’ve learned or improved a skill, I’ll remind myself to consolidate: to get comfortable with the new technique in some etudes or other repertoire. Only then should I expect to easily integrate it into the Beethoven.

Plan your first campaign and track your results

With the campaign approach to practice, you’ll never think one-dimensionally again. You’ll see setbacks for what they are: detours to your eventual destination. You’ll realize, too, that on these detours you’ll pick up intelligence that you might have missed had you been stuck in a cycle of frustration and recrimination. I look forward to hearing about your campaigns, and how you see them through to the finish!

Make sure you download my practice campaign worksheet so that you can try it out for yourself!

frog
Who put this cute little guy down the well anyway?

Solution for the frog in the well:
At the end of the first day, the frog's high point was 5 feet and he finished at 1 foot. At the end of the second day, his numbers were 6 and 2. Therefore at the end of the twenty-fifth day, his numbers were 29 and 25. On the twenty-sixth day, his jump took him to 30 feet and thus out of the well!

Replies

March 13, 2017 at 04:14 PM · Each time you wonder...can Nate's blog posts become even better? Only to conclude later on: yes they can!

March 13, 2017 at 05:25 PM · I like the frog analogy. Mine is more like an old rowboat that keeps springing leaks.

Every time you plug a leak, one springs up somewhere else. And the ones you thought were patched well suddenly blow out again.

Patches on top of patches on top of patches....

March 13, 2017 at 06:36 PM · I can feel your analogy, Scott. I always wondered if it was my imagination that when I'm really focusing on some aspect of my playing, other parts seem to get worse. Am I just noticing more?

Nate, one thing I was wondering about is your plan for doing performances in the weeks ahead of the concert with a pianist? Is that a big part of your strategy to do retirement homes or smaller venues, so you can really insert some nerves into the process and see what surprises come out of it?

March 13, 2017 at 07:29 PM · Another fantastic article from Nathan Cole! Any chance you could share a video of your Beethoven with us after the performance?

March 13, 2017 at 09:23 PM · The frog gains reliably and predictably, even if slowly. I'm jealous.

There's a saying from chess: Tactics are what you do when they're something to do. Strategy is what you do when there's nothing to do.

March 14, 2017 at 04:35 AM · Paul, I always got a grin out of that saying when I played a lot of chess! Thanks for remembering it here.

As for video, I hope I can share it when all is said and done! That will be up to APU and whatever rules they may have in place. And of course I'll want to make sure I don't slip on a banana peel on my way off stage, or do anything else truly embarrassing in the performance...

Christian, yes I think that is an important part of any program prep. The more performance experience the better, up to a point! The vast majority of people could benefit from performing their material more than they usually do. I say "up to a point" only because it's possible to drive yourself crazy planning this and that event, running around, dealing with logistics, while your mental and physical energy would have been better spent on yourself, or conserved altogether. But yes, I think those "retirement home" gigs would be great battles to add near the end of the campaign!

March 14, 2017 at 06:44 PM · That chess saying about tactics vs. strategy was good. Here's another one that I like: "Tactics win the battle; strategy wins the war."

I'm off to plan my battles now...

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