To raise the level of one’s music, one must practice at another level. To raise the level of one’s practice, on must think at another level. To think at another level, one must ask questions at another level. Questions are more important than answers. Questions have energy, answers kill questions.
What happens between lessons is every bit as important as what happens in the lesson itself. A student can be very sincere, really want to learn and be better, have a good teacher, practice regularly, and even a lot, but to accomplish one’s aims, goals, and dreams efficiently, productive practice* is essential.
Learning curves will always have their ups and downs, but if practice is productive, the general trend should always show an upward spiral of accomplishment over time and not just a turning around and around in the same circle.
Unproductive practice is always uncomfortable and feels not unlike those bad dreams of running as hard as one can and yet not going anywhere. Productive practice, on the other hand, always feels lighter, and clearer, and has its own unique kind of joy.
There are no rigid formulas or mechanical methods that will automatically produce productive practice; productive practice is a very personal affair—it is a process that is written in the sand and not carved into stone, yet, there are a few simple suggestions I can offer that may help to create conditions favorable to a productive practice.
Formulate an agenda and a plan for each week. Be very specific. Don’t just say, “I’ll do technique exercises for the first ten minutes;” instead, think about what technical issues you specifically want to address and what studies or exercises you want to use to work on those technical issues.
I often remind my students that mindlessly and mechanically repeating any technical exercise or study will amount to nothing more than a total waste of their time! But those same exercises or studies become invaluable when used as an opportunity to address very specific technical and musical issues. Define your objectives as simply and specifically as possible, for example, playing more on the tip of the fourth finger of the left hand in scales and chords. Continuity is very important in productive practice—students sometimes start things with the best of intentions but don’t follow through.
Control is another important aspect of productive practice; go slow enough so that you can control the placement of the fourth finger every time you use it in the exercise or study you are working with.
In my book, From Silence to Sound, ** the teacher, Alex Kubadi says, “Two should always be present in your practice; your teacher and your student.” The teacher is the mind and the body is the student. The teacher works in the realm of concepts and ideas. The student’s intelligence is in its ability to learn and remember and reproduce specific physical positions and movements in time. An effective teacher is always very clear with regard to what it wants the student to do and how it wants the student to do it.
The job of the teacher is to translate his ideas—his vision—into the language of the body and then to create the right conditions to facilitate the learning of the student. The student—the body—learns by repeating an action a number of times, but the teacher must always keep in mind that practice, in the sense of repetition, does not make perfect, it makes permanent; and that the number of repetitions needed for the student to learn a particular action is in direct proportion to the teacher’s state of attention while guiding the actions of the student.
In the relationship between the teacher and the student, the teacher functions in the domain of the mind—and in that domain, the body is slow. For example, in my mind I can travel from my house to my friend’s house at the speed of thought—much faster than the time it takes for me to physically go to my friend’s house.
But conversely, in the domain of the body, the mind is slow. Once the body learns even a relatively simple action, the mind cannot keep up with it. Think about even the act of walking and all its components of multiple and simultaneous actions regarding the coordination of the feet and the legs and the arms and balance, etc.
Because of the discrepancies between the relative speeds of the mind and the body in the mental and the physical domains, it is essential that the mind establishes and maintains control of the process of work and must never allow the tempo of the work to get out of its control. Therefore, if one feels that the work is going too fast for to control, that the body is allowed to make the same or random mistakes over and over again, then it is time to stop and think and ask questions that will lead to a better plan of work.
And this leads to one of those little secrets. Speed can be very impressive and its pursuit can become very compelling, but speed is never achieved by trying to go fast. The capacity for speed is acquired through perfection and refinement of positions and movements and the degree to which these positions and movements are programed into the body’s memory—what is generally called muscle memory. That is why refining and perfecting positions and movements at slower tempos, tempos that the teacher can control, leads to the capacity for speed. It could be said, to play fast later, practice slow now.
One further point on the subject; if you allow the body to learn three different ways of the doing the same thing, one of which is preferred over the others, when called upon to reproduce the action, there is only a one in three chance that the body will reproduce the preferred way.
And finally, always review your work weekly. Ask the pointed questions. Remember that being critical is not the same thing as being negative. Negativity has no place in Productive Practice. As the poet once said, “Ours is not a caravan of despair!” Ask questions like; “What progress did I make over the week? Did I meet my expectations? What could I have been better? What could I have done differently, etc.? As with the initial plan, the answers should be very specific and simple. Your review should lead to your next week’s agenda and plan. There is a saying, “A good plan is a plan that works!”
*&**Because of the initial difficulty to objectively observe and evaluate one’s work, the guidance of an experienced teacher can be useful. For one on one lessons in Productive Practice, or to purchase copies of the book, From Silence to Sound, please contact Michael Kovitz at FromSilencetoSound142@gmail.com