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Safe practice is more complex than safe sex.

September 12, 2006 at 2:11 AM

A while back a poster blogged the rhetorical question `How much practice is safe?` At the same time there was some discussion occurring about how long a person can concentrate and by implication perhaps the question `what is useful practice?` Since these questions all interlock with each other to a large degree I’m going to waste a cup of coffee or two while musing on them.
If we take the first question at its most literal, obviously if one is injured, then the advice of a professional or three plus commonsense is the start point. But what about those of us who don’t think we are injured? What are the safety factors in violin practice?
I suggest that the three most important `Safe practice` factors that are completely ignored by most violinists are warming up, the `ten minute rule.` and stretching.
Warming up is not as simple as it might seem. The usual interpretation of warming up is not best done on the instrument. It is a question of getting blood to the extremities. A five minute brisk walk, some calisthenics or whatever. According to recent research on the effectiveness of stretching this does not have to be done so much before practicing. But, we are also bundles of feeling and focus. Without activating these aspects of our playing we cannot really claim to be fully warmed up. I think it is helpful for many players to try and assess how they are feeling at the moment they begin practicing. Really try to objectively assess and put a word to your feelings. Then try improvising something that corresponds to that feeling or play a piece that matches the mood. This helps to bring the concentration into focus which can then be further refined by playing something technical of moderate difficulty such as a two octave scale or a sevcik/Schradiek exercise and really paying attention to intonation, tone, rhythm. After such a beginning work on scales is likely to be more useful than jumping in cold and assuming that the complexities of scale practice make a good warmer upper..
The ten minute rule is something I leant only recently and I have no idea why it is not taught at colleges etc. Basically, the fingers are lubricated in the same way an engine piston uses oil. After about ten minutes the lubricant is used up. If you continue to practice without a minute or so break you are effectively playing without enough lubricant in the joints . The result is wear and tear. How many violinists just keep going and going in the hope of getting better when what they are really doing is shortening the twilight zone of their career.?
Stretching. What is the purpose of stretching? Muscles contract and expand at different speeds. The former is faster. So if you play rhythmic structures over and over again the muscles involved do not have the time to stretch back. Over time the continued shortened condition becomes an integral part of you physiology. It is limiting and harmful to your health. A wise player learns and uses stretches continuously both during and after practice as well as during long rehearsals.
Which brings one to `how much practice?` and `what is good practice?` One of the oddities of college life I noticed was how little practice the really good players did (I mean really good) compared to the rest of us. Then when it came to their concerto appearances with us wannabes suiting in the orchestra those same players practiced for 13 or fourteen hours a day without any apparent harm or effort. How often had I been told as a youth that practicing six or 8 hours without concentration was useless and harmful? So wasn’t this marathon stuff twice as harmful and even more useless? You wouldn’t think so from the playing…
What then is going on? The truth is these players have mastered genuine concentration while we lesser mortals have largely misunderstood it. While we think that concentration is effort (resulting in tension, injury, ingrained stage fright etc) the immortals have grasped the psychological complexities of concentration. They know that it is goal oriented. There goals are clearer than the average players. Very specific.
In the inner game of tennis Galwey states that ones degree of concentration is a function of the goal we have in mind.
They break the goals down into a series of steps which operate within a very narrow bandwidth of not too easy, not too difficult. The rest of us have difficulty selecting this range of operation.
We play passages over and over without ever really observing where the problem is and homing in on that.
Most of all, they are actually having fun. Without the element of fun learning is -real- slow.
Once concentration is analyzed in this respect we can begin to see that the amount of practice one can do with concentration cannot really be reduced to a comparison of numbers, some camps saying 20 minutes, some 30 to forty minutes (Auer for example) 50 minutes (Galamian/Delay). The majority of player should err on the brief side but strive to enter the `flow` state that the great players can access so readily. Any other kind of practice, no matter how long or short is simply not safe.

From Kelsey Z.
Posted on September 12, 2006 at 5:15 AM
Buri, as always - awesome post and so so true! There is a reason that I take brief breaks to sip my cup of tea, grab a glass of water, stretch my hands etc. or just to move around!
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 12, 2006 at 7:21 AM
Thanks, Buri, for reminding us of some important things that we should keep in mind.

William and Constance Starr discuss relaxation and focus in detail in their book "To Learn with Love." They advocate the use of relaxation techniques such as progressive relaxation and visual imaging before beginning practice. They say that "profound muscle relaxation can lead to startling changes in awareness and states of consciousnessness." Not only the body, but also the mind, must be relaxed. Then the mind and body can be coordinated in their focus. The Starrs and Suzuki agreed with Zen writers who state that "the mind and body are one, that a calm mind and clear vision are attained in a quiet body, and that only the quiet and focusing mind can perceive the ticking of a clock or produce an exquisite tone on a musical instrument." They advocate practice of martial arts suck as aikido to help attain a state of relaxed focus of the mind/body. The Starrs believe that people brought up in Japanese or related cultures benefit from these aspects of their cultures when they learn to play music. I think that your suggestion of warming up both the mind and the body by focussing on your internal feelings and ways of expressing them would help in the same way. I sometimes warm up by putting my fiddle under my chin and letting it play me. I, too, believe in the Zen approach. I have practiced yoga for years, and I can attest personally to its value. It is a matter of chi or prana. It's also very hard to explain in words.

On a practical level, I thank you for your suggestions on warming up and on stretching to relax during practice breaks. It's so easy to get involved and forget.

From Karin Lin
Posted on September 12, 2006 at 4:43 PM
"We play passages over and over without ever really observing where the problem is and homing in on that."

I completely agree that mindless practice is next to useless. Before my current teacher taught me how to practice, I'd just play something over and over and wonder why it never got better, instead of figuring out WHAT was wrong and HOW to fix it. Even now I have to struggle not to go on auto-pilot, but if I maintain my focus on my goal, I can get a lot done in a short amount of time.

Very insightful post, thanks.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 12, 2006 at 7:15 PM
Karin, William and Constance Starr talk about the importance of training the student to listen, find his own mistakes /weaknesses, and correct them, rather than having the teacher say, "You played this note in this measure wrong." Self-awareness is a quality which is notably lacking in many people, but it can be recognized and nurtured. That is one of the most important challenges in teaching. What did your teacher do to increase your self-awareness? I ask because I'd like to try help my students help themselves more.

Thanks again, Buri, for giving us so much food for thought.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 12, 2006 at 10:56 PM
actually I find the comments more interesting than the original post...
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 13, 2006 at 6:44 AM
Buri, thanks, but you're entirely too modest.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 15, 2006 at 4:30 PM
This is a fabulous essay. Among other physical things (stretches, arm swings, etc.) I do a ritual hand washing ala Gould before I start the morning practice.
Also, are the typos on vacation?
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 15, 2006 at 11:09 PM
vacation? Good heavens, no. I can write a blog in the word processor and then the spell checker kicks in.
Aaaaaa technology...

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