...continued from Part I...
I so commonly hear of musicians that will practice for six to eight hours at a time—on a daily basis—repeatedly rehearsing pieces for upcoming auditions, performances, and lessons in an endless attempt to perfect their performance. This type of practice is often expected—if not encouraged—within the conservatory setting. But does this method of practice really make for “better” musical performance?
Growing up, my flute instructor drilled into my head that “amateurs practice until they can get it right, professionals practice until they cannot get it wrong”…so much so that she had a card printed with this adage that sat on my music stand at home, staring at me each time I played. Other teachers I know speak of the “1000-hour rule” which suggests that 1000 hours of dedicated practice is the delineating threshold to yield expert performance in a certain area (whether that is sports, music, etc.). I personally don’t subscribe to either school of thought, and here’s why:
1. We know from extensive research in sports medicine that rote practice of physical tasks does not significantly improve performance.
Breaking up practice time into smaller chunks of time is more likely to be effective in improving performance, as is varying motor patterns.For example, rather than practicing for four hours continuously, try practicing for two hours with a 5-to-10 minute break halfway through the session, followed by a second 2-hour practice session later in the day.When trying to master a particularly tricky passage, playing the passage the same way over and over “until you can’t get it wrong” isn’t likely to work.A more effective way of practicing that passage would be to vary the speed, rhythm, and articulation to help you master the motor patterns needed for coordination of breath support, articulation, and finger dexterity.
2. We know from performing arts medicine research that repetitive practice actually makes the musician more likely to develop task-specific dystonias, and that overuse syndromes are extremely common among musicians.
Excessive practice, especially rote practice, makes the musician more likely to develop dystonias (also known as “musician’s cramp”) in which the individual loses partial motor control only during certain tasks (such as playing their instrument), as well as playing-related musculoskeletal disorders (PRMDs) such as tendinitis and nerve compressions. Studies suggest that between 30 and 90% of orchestral musicians experience musculoskeletal disorders that interfere with their ability to play their instrument, with most studies hovering around the 70-80% incidence rate.Employing mentalization strategies such as reading through the piece you are working on while consciously focusing on shaping of musical phrases, dynamics, where/when/how to breathe, etc. without your instrument is an effective way to enhance practice sessions while reducing the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders due to excessive physical practice.
3. Assessing musical performance is highly subjective: what one person thinks sounds optimal, another may not care for.
We all have different opinions, and the musician is never going to please all listeners equally.To that I say, decide what YOU like to hear and what story YOU are trying to tell through your music.Practice a healthy amount using good ergonomics, understanding that over-practicing can have negative effects on both your body and your performance.As is the case with all artistic endeavors, there will never be a “perfect” performance, but adhering to a balanced practice regimen can set you up for success in performance and longevity as a player.
In the last blog post, I likened musical performance to athletic performance. Just as an athlete needs to practice nearly every day, has little “down time” away from their sport, and performs in very challenging environs with stiff competition, so too does the musician. Just as the athlete must demonstrate terrific coordination, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness for optimal sport performance, so must the musician have expert fine motor coordination, muscular endurance particularly of the upper limbs, and excellent respiratory control.
The athlete, however, is able to measure the fruits of their practice objectively in sport performance: a pitcher can clock the speed of their fastball or the accuracy of their pitch in relation to the batter’s box, a runner can track their improvement by race times, and a hockey goalie can calculate how many shots they were able to successfully block during a game. In sports, there is a clear winner and there are various criteria to objectively grade performance. The musician is not so lucky.
Yes, the musician is assessed certain concrete aspects of performance such as their ability to play rhythms and notes correctly. So much of musical performance, though, is the sum of various intangible parts: tone, timbre, emotion or “feeling”, phrasing, etc. When playing mezzo-forte, how loud is too loud? Exactly how many beats per minute should that accelerando get to? Where, really, is the best place to take that quick breath? How is your tone? Is it clear? Too bright? Too mellow? Too breathy? What does that mean, actually? Is your tone improved if you play on a different instrument? Should you play that flute excerpt using a silver head joint or a gold one? Which one sounds “better”? Which one “fits” the piece? Are you conveying the emotional landscape set forth by the composer? Are you interpreting that musical landscape “correctly”, and are you able to convey that spirit to the listener?
…and down the rabbit hole we go. Musical interpretation and assessment of performance is, at its core, a subjective experience. My definition of something as seemingly simple as “good tone” may not exactly match yours, just as my reading of a composer’s notes and markings may not fully align with your interpretation. This variance and freedom in artistic expression can at times yield two wildly different performances of the same piece. Both performances are valid and that’s what keeps the world of music (especially classical music) alive, interesting, and relevant. The audience, however, is always going to judge which one is “better” and thus the musician is always going to strive for perfection and to optimize their performance…this often yields a cycle of seemingly endless practice. With so much subjectivity, how can a musician best prepare?
....continued in Part II....
Allison Shearer, mot, otr/l, cht
Allison is a flutist, occupational therapist/certified hand therapist, and founder of Resonance Wellness. When she's not treating--or playing--you can usually find Allison out for a run, sitting by the river with her dog, Lacey, or curled up with a cup of tea, a good book, and her cat, Willow.