Flow and Grind- Thoughts, Tips, and Tricks to Practicing
Lets start by noting a few basics:
Practice does NOT make perfect. Practice makes PERMANENT. This is why doctors 'practice' medicine- not because they can save every patient, but rather, because by making strides in the process, we are able to better understand the human body and how to optimize a patient's life.
Practice is not a perfect tense verb. Rather, it only exists in the Progressive tense (as in I 'AM' practicing, rather than 'I practice'- This nit-picky English language difference is important, because what we mean when we say 'I practice' is in fact 'I will practice, and then pause, and continue to practice later.'- ONE NEVER STOPS PRACTICING. This is monumental. What it REALLY MEANS is that the greatest musicians still have to practice all the time to be great- you never graduate from having to practice.
Your skill is NOT defined by what you can do, but rather, what you can REPEATEDLY DO UNDER PRESSURE. What this means is that you need to not judge yourself on what you can accomplish or have for the day in the practice room, but rather, for how much further along you are from where you were yesterday. PRACTICE IN AND OF ITSELF IS AN ART. What this means is that just like practicing performances or auditions, you should practice practicing. I know what you're thinking- Don't you practice this every time you...well, practice? Yes. You absolutely do. HOWEVER, your mindset may not be as progressive and supportive of that endeavor as it could be- Many of us practice with attitudes in our internal dialogue that look like this- “F#$! that was so bad!” “Gosh, I suck” “I should quit” “Bob is so much better than me- Screw that guy”...you get the idea.. We're all guilty of this, but really, would you teach another student like this? It would make you perhaps the worst teacher around if you spoke to students like this- Instead, we must CULTIVATE a healthy practice voice inside our heads- We must cultivate healthy practice habits- healthy practice strategies. THINK OF HOW MUCH FASTER YOU'LL IMPROVE IF YOU DO THIS.
Mental Hack 1: The Line Strategy
I'm a strong fan of visualizations, both internal and external (I happen to also be an oil painter, so for me, visual ideas often illustrated and hung in my practice area make HUGE differences. Maybe for you as well.) Allow me to produce an analogy for you: The Line.
Imagine a straight line that goes from the first day you've ever played trombone all the way to the greatest possible trombonist imaginable. Imagine your trombone hero- Now picture them on their 'perfect' performance day, playing a perfect horn to a sold out audience, and as if they couldn't miss a note. That should be the end of the line. NOW- how would you describe that line trajectory from beginning to end? Well, you'd probably talk about how they started practicing regularly and in doing so, walked a path on the line going from left to right. At some point, private lessons begun, and maybe that took them further to the right, or moved them faster. At some point, maybe a new horn or braces coming off pushed them further. Youth orchestra, district band, harder practice, chamber music- all of these things moved them along. Maybe in college, they continued to jump forward, then graduate school, some subbing work, freelance stuff.. anyway, at some point, they stopped moving to the right quickly- it slowed to a crawl. What do you think they did to get better? You already know the answer, and I'm sure as you read this, you're snickering at yourself saying, “Of course I know, they just practiced the basics really hard for long times, eventually crawling enough to the right to win a job. After that, they continued to do that, and with the experience of playing in a really great ensemble, they kept crawling, eventually getting them to the right side of the line”.
...It all seems so damn simple, right?
Well, you know it isn't that easy. BUT EASY AND SIMPLE ARE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS. At the end of the day, It's not easy because there are setbacks. Imagine for every two consecutive days you 'skip' practicing, you take a leap to the left on the line. Maybe a mental health problem can pull you left as well, or over-practice in an unhealthy way can lead you to an injury.. Many things can get in the way of success, and of course, the mental side of this struggle is that even crawling right on the line takes IMMENSE willpower to sustain. We all have heard of 'burnout' happening to the best players. For this exact reason, this analogy is so wonderful- it's simple. It simplifies everything into a logic problem, which I will present below:
Think of everybody around you that plays better than you. How did they achieve that (you know this-they practiced to get better.) If EVERYBODY gets better through practice, and you feel like you're practicing, but not getting as good, then you must consider one of two possibilities: either
a. you will also get better from practice, you need to do more of it/ do it better.
b. you are some freak abnormality that functions differently than 99.99999% of all other people, and for that reason, you can't do what they can no matter what.
........WHICH IS MORE LIKELY???
I mean, come on- we have athletes that can do inhuman things with their bodies even when missing a limb. There are humans that can recite pi to the 10,000 decimal that are NOT savants, but rather, have practiced memorization. A human can learn to draw a near perfect circle freehand on a whiteboard in around 45 hours of practice... Get my point? You're not unique- practice works.
Great. Glad we're now on the same page. Let's address the second part.
SINCE we know that practicing will make you better, the question isn't really how to get better- It's HOW TO GET YOU TO PRACTICE AS OFTEN AS CAN BE HELPFUL, AND IN THE MOST HELPFUL WAYS.
...See, this never was a physical thing. It was always a mental thing- our goal is to streamline, temper, shape, form, hack, alter, personalize, empower, and support your practice narrative. For this reason, the Line Analogy is incredibly helpful.
I'd like to also point out a few other incredibly helpful things that will support your practice techniques. The first thing that has always helped me, and continues to, is that practice is an art of practice. The way that I practice is something I am constantly improving on, tailoring to my needs, and always remaining flexible and curious. My mentor always says, “Live in the mystery”, which is a fancy way of saying, “keep open to new ideas as they appear”. This is why so much of my time is spent writing new ideas, pondering better ways to approach things, and trying my absolute best to creatively improve on my method.
Idea 1: Practice with a timer.
Have you ever noticed how differently your brain perceives time when you're happy or frustrated? Gosh, for this reason alone, you should consider running a timer when practicing. However, there is another reason- urgency and efficiency paired together- When we perform, we do not get to decide when to play- that is either decided by a baton or by an audience- In a solo recital, you enter the stage, and then you (within reason) may take a few seconds, but ultimately when your internal voice says, “crap, I don't want to do this actually” you have no choice- you've got to. Why wouldn't we practice embracing this reality on our practice time. If you're going to play 20 minutes of long tones, set a 20 minute timer- If you start to get frustrated, forget about the time, and allow yourself to 'just grind'- the timer will return you to relaxed reality away from frustration. If you're doing well, allow yourself to 'just flow' in forgetting time and delving into practice. Your timer will pull you out when 20 minutes are up, reminding you to 'quit while you're ahead' rather than letting you keep going until you hit a frustration, and then stop out of a feeling of failure.
The biggest reason for me to practice with a timer relates back to the Line Analogy. To dismiss the self doubt created by Imposter Syndrome (google this if you need a definition), if I feel like I'm failing at long tones, and I'm therefor a bad musician/trombonist /worker/human, I can simply say to the voice in my head, “HEY- I just did 20 minutes of them- I PRACTICED them hard for 20 minutes straight, which is similar to what people who are good at trombone do daily- by logic, if I continue to practice them like this I WILL BECOME GOOD because THAT'S HOW PRACTICING WORKS.”
Idea 2: Keep a practice journal, and fill it out ahead of time.
Remember school? I mean middle school and high school. Remember how efficient you were? You were up at like 6:30 AM and were at school by 7:30. You sat for 6 hours of class, and came home and did 2-3 hours of homework. You may even have played a sport, worked a job, and then had rehearsal after. Do you ever sit and wonder, “How did I do all that?” It's simple- You had no choice. You were presented with what I call a BINARY OPTION. You couldn't really skip school, maybe once in a rare instance, and you couldn't skip homework, your job, or band rehearsal, so instead, you were forced to be efficient.
Now, when you enter the practice room, I'd guess you're probably not that efficient. What if you took choice out of the equation, just like school did? Here's what I do : I make a practice chart for my week that has all of what I'm supposed to work on in blocks, and with times built in. Not times of the day, but rather length of time for each block. Once I have completed one, I highlight it in green. If I get to the end of the day and I have missed one, it gets highlighted orange. In this manner, it is easy to look back and see how individual days or weeks went. Of course, some days are busy and have less ASSIGNED practice time, just as some have more. This isn't about that, because even on a light week or day, if I hit everything I assign myself, there should be very little to no orange. It's almost like a game I play with myself- I try and have a 'no orange week'.. It hasn't happened yet, but it's still a goal. Remember, practice is an art form to constantly improve on. Another key with this is having your practice notebook be one with pages that cannot be removed. My practice journal was spiral bound myself, and has only 52 pages in it- one for each week of 2020- Each page is also numbered at the top with 'week x of 52”. If I were to tear a page out, it would break the system, and for that reason, I am forced to stare at orange should I not get stuff done.
If this seems harsh, it is. That is because this is a system that works for me. I really try hard not to be too 'Type A' with my practicing- AGAIN, practice is an art always to be improved on. For this reason, a little orange simply reminds me there is always room to grow. I know for a fact that this system has gotten me practicing both more efficiently and more often. Additionally, an added benefit of this is that you can remove some self doubt from your process- If you are not improving on something, you can look back at your practice journal and see if you've been working on it enough or targeting it enough. Also, you can completely smash Imposter Syndrome by having a log of all of your hard work. Again, there is only one way to walk on the Line Analogy- to the right- and by practicing, you are improving on that system clearly and slowly.
Idea 3: Talk to yourself out loud.
There are so many reasons that this is beneficial, but I will start with the obvious ones- When talking, you are not playing. By recognizing this, you are helping to destroy the relationship linking criticism while playing. Critique is really useful, but doesn't help you in the moment. When playing, your mind must be clear of critique, so that you can focus on performing, practicing, or just playing. This will help battle self doubt, toxic internal dialogue, and self doubt.
The second reason is actually psychosomatic: have you ever noticed that you can conceptually comprehend things more fully when explaining them to somebody? This is not coincidence. The act of verbally translating something with clarity of understanding and communication as a priority causes you to process and dissect information differently. Since this leads to a better comprehension by the person explaining, we can clearly come to the conclusion that it is helpful for any person to 'teach themselves' in the practice room. If your goal is to get better quicker, then there can be no denying this benefit.
As I struggled to reinforce earlier, these are all tips that have made a profound difference to me- the goal of the art form of practicing is to grow YOUR practicing relationship with yourself and your art. Remember mostly that the only rule is that the rules can change, and you need to try and be as flexible as possible.
PS- Please leave any feedback on topics you'd like me to delve into, beyond those I am curious about myself, and help yourself to the PDF of my own practice tracking journal page.