Practice for calm

March 19, 2014, 3:43 PM · You've probably heard the mantra, "Practice makes perfect." And if you've been around this instrument a while, you know that it's not true. Closer to the point is, "Practice makes permanent"! Practice something a thousand times wrong, and you've got it well-ingrained, wrong!

So some teachers say, "PERFECT practice makes perfect."

The only problem with this is the word "perfect." It's such a loaded word, with the potential to cause a lot of stress. I think that if we practice for the general idea of "perfection," we sometimes sabotage our ease of execution with the stress of perfectionism. So instead of simply making "perfection" the goal, make the goal something specific and doable, and then go about accomplishing it in the calmest, most unhurried state possible. Why is this important? Because we can actually "practice in" the feelings we have while playing something. Very often, we unconsciously "practice in" a stressful feeling. For example, I can recall occasionally having the following feeling for a specific passage: "OMG here comes the REALLY HARD part that I CAN'T PLAY, I'm going to mess it up, I'm so stressed out, this is so hard, here it comes, I'm going to miss it, AAAAAAHHH!"

As a result, even if you have practiced quite thoroughly, even if you have trained your fingers to do the right thing, you just might tighten up and miss the mark.

Last week, member and founder Michael O'Gieblyn gave us 17 excellent tips for practicing, and I would recommend every one.

I've got something to add, though: When you isolate that tricky place to practice, be sensitive to how you are feeling and what you are thinking as you do it. Are you holding your breath? Scrunching your shoulders? Clenching your stomach muscles? Grimacing? Waiting for a mountain tiger to pounce?

As you play in rhythms, or practice part of a shift, or practice just the open strings, or put it all together, do so with relaxed muscles, a feeling of calm in your belly and a generally non-cringing attitude. If you can consistently cultivate a feeling of calm as you accurately execute a particular passage, you will find that after a while, that calm feeling is ingrained. When you arrive at the passage in question, your body will relax, as you have practiced. I kid you not!

Happy practicing, and remember: difficult passage, calm execution!

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March 20, 2014 at 12:12 AM · Bravo! Very fine teaching video. Well organized, concise, and presented in a manner that is friendly and authoritative.

March 20, 2014 at 08:45 AM · Hi Laurie,

Excellent post, video and such an important point!


March 20, 2014 at 11:04 AM · This is a great point. It's also why I dislike being stopped in orchestra (or in a solo) too many times at the same point. After 2 or 3 stops, people just start expecting to be stopped, because that's the way they've practiced it, and they play accordingly. Then it takes more rehearsal to undo the damage caused by the anticipation of being stopped.

I think it works better if the conductor tells you beforehand that you're going to work on a certain section several times and then you just do that. It's a different mindset than playing along until someone stops you because you screwed up again.

March 20, 2014 at 01:26 PM · What a good point about stopping! I find that students sometimes inadvertently practice stops into their pieces. Or rather, they practice making a mistake, stopping, then fixing it. Better to practice the whole passage slowly, without a stop. Or, if a stop is needed, it's better to do it intentionally at a designated place that allows one to then proceed correctly, than to make the mistake, back up, and rerun it.

March 20, 2014 at 02:38 PM · I'm working on this part in a viola piece right now, which is ascending octaves, in 3rds (or maybe it's ascending thirds in octaves, it's just 1-4, 1-4, 1-4, up the fingerboard). It goes E-E, G#-G#, B-B, and then back down. I've managed to practice in not only some good cringing and panicking, but also a stop and repeat. Last night I just decided I was going to go for it, play it in tempo and not stop. It was almost like aiming your trolley at the brick wall at Platform 9 3/4.

So, I got so I could make it through with correct rhythm and without cringing or stopping. But I still cringed inwardly at the intonation, which was still pretty bad at tempo. What do you do when you hit that wall? I can practice that part slowly and calmly, but when I try to bring it up to tempo, all heck seems to break loose again.

March 23, 2014 at 07:51 PM · I really appreciate this advice! I am an adult beginner who has just moved into the intermediate level, and I have been struggling with anxiety at lessons. It's not my teacher, she is wonderful, but I get stressed about sounding like I've practiced and showing progress. Your comments made me realize that I have "practiced in" those feelings before I even got to the lesson. This gives me a lot of ideas to improve my practice - like everyone else, I want to enjoy playing and be able to relax.

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