About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Managing a Busy Schedule

Please, forgive me for the relatively long hiatus.  I've been extremely busy with performances.  In fact, I don't think I've ever been this busy.  That is a very good thing!  We all like to have our calendars filled with gigs, but we should also be careful what we wish for.  It only takes one or two extra commitments to go from feeling good to being totally overwhelmed.  Practice Monster can help, but only if we train for success under pressure.

Have a Schedule

Mark down all your concerts and rehearsals on the calendar - that should be obvious.  From there, assess how much music you have to learn, and divide it up.  Literally assign yourself a page a week, or 2 lines per day; get out your calculator, and split things up into manageable chunks that have hard deadlines.  Block out your practice for each and every day, and set very specific goals.  Get excited about attacking the music for the day, and keep on schedule.

Keep the Beast in Blinders

Practice Monster has a way of freaking out when he feels overwhelmed.  Use the schedule to distract him.  Focus intensely on learning the new material on your schedule, and on reviewing what you have already learned.  As long as your schedule is reasonable, and you allow extra time at the end to synthesize everything into a finished product, there is no need to fret about the looming performances.  Get yourself organized at the beginning, and then try not to look to far ahead.  Focus on the work at hand, and on the short-term deadline.

No Rest for the Weary

I recently played a concert at a major venue.  The preparation was long and intense.  It would have been very easy to take a few days off.  I started the very next day by forcing myself to practice for the next project at 8:30AM.  I was aiming for 8AM, but I'm only human!  Excellence is habit forming, but so is lounging about.  When you have work to do, go do it.  The sooner, the better.

Just Say Yes - Unless . . .

It is very important to say yes (read Bill Shatner's new book).  I can't count the number of times I reluctantly agreed to do something, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience.  At different times in our careers, the stipulations for what we are willing to do will change.  (I don't play very many weddings anymore, and performing gratis is rare.)  While it is important to seize opportunities, we must also be cautious not to go overboard.  There are limits to what an individual can do, and it sometimes isn't worth the stress and strain to do "just one more gig."  Always lean towards saying yes, but respect your schedule, and try to have a life outside of work.

There is a time to put Practice Monster to bed.  And with that, I say goodnight!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Canvas of Creativity

After my last post (Coltrane's Brain . . . ), I had an interesting email exchange with a friend.  He made some points about talent and genius that I would like to expound upon.

The purpose of the last post wasn't purely Coltrane worship, which has been overdone already, to the point of absurdity.  Rather, my point is that his recorded works provide documentation of the transformative power of effective practice.  What makes Trane so special, in my opinion, is that he perfects his technique to the point that he can sometimes execute ideas faster than he can think them up.  One Down, One Up is one of those rare moments when he is able to temporarily equalize the velocity of his technique with the creativity itself.

This is the mark of a mature genius - insight through applied skill.  Take for example the thought experiments of Albert Einstein.  Einstein spends so much time thinking about specific ideas, he must have myelinated circuits that related to deep thought, giving him access to insights that were far outside  commonly accepted ideas.  In 1919, scientists prove what Einstein predicted to be true four years earlier:  gravity bends light.  This changes the way we look at physics forever, and although many scientists found the idea to be impossible, Einstein had already worked it out in his mind.  Unfortunately for us, the birth of an idea is impossible to observe - that moment is experienced by the thinker alone.

Improvised music makes for an ideal look at the speed of creativity because the canvas is time - we listen to the creative act as it unfolds.  The level of creativity varies, depending on the musician, and the style.   The creativity of bebop is different than that of the later works of Coltrane, simply because bop relies more on assembling clichéd constructs to outline chord changes.  While bebop is a difficult and nuanced style of playing, the expressionism of "the new thing" attempts to break free from building with pre-composed chunks of music.  Coltrane gives particular voice to this movement because his technical abilities have been so finely honed.  As much as I love the avant garde playing of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, they rely much more on entropy, simply because they lack the technical circuitry that Coltrane earns throughout the 1950's.  (I'm not judging one music to be better, or worse - just different, on a purely technical level.)

The creative genius of writers, composers, theoretical physicists, and philosophers is much more difficult to examine with proper perspective.  A writer's talent is built up with sketches and drafts that are carefully hidden from the public eye, and creative thought is hidden away in a tangle of white matter.  In most disciplines, it is impossible to observe the precise moments of insight, which is exactly why Live at the Half Note is so special.

Imagine that Coltrane is a supersonic jet, where his technique is the sound of the engine, and his mind is the aircraft.  As his processing speed increases, he starts to catch up with his own sound waves, until they start to pile up at the front of the vehicle.  When his creative velocity breaks the technique barrier, we hear the metaphorical sonic boom of Trane cutting through all that piled up sonic energy.  That sonic boom is common to all genius, but rarely is it captured for posterity.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Coltrane's Brain: Live at the Half Note

John Coltrane was a living shrine to the Practice Monster.  Sometimes I wonder if he broke the wild stallion and rode into the horizon, or if it was the beast that conquered the man, completely consuming him.  Perhaps they were twins, somehow equal partners in a furious dance.  Regardless, we can learn a great deal from listening to the recorded documentation of the musical career of one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Listen to the famous recording of the young Trane, stumbling through Hot House with the US Navy Band in 1946.  At 20 years old, he is certainly not anything special, and very comparable to many of the mediocre young saxophonists I hear today.  Fast forward to 1957's Blue Train, and we find a fully formed master.  He certainly would have been able to accomplish the requisite 10,000 hours of practice to get to this point, and from what we know about his practice habits, he probably far surpassed that mark.

To my ears, Coltrane spends the next, and ultimately the final ten years of his life developing at a rate that eclipses all but the greatest masters in the history of humankind, regardless of discipline.  He becomes a walking deep practice machine, honing his ideas and technique whenever he had the horn within reach.  Improvisation and practice become one act.  His solos have a halting sense of phrasing because he is right at the edge of his capabilities, constantly correcting his course, struggling to get it right.  He is a musical Einstein, redefining possibility.

Thanks to a bit of good luck, we have access to one of the most profound documents of myelin in action that I know of.  One Down, One Up, from the posthumously released "Live at the Half Note" allows us to peek into the mind of Coltrane.  We can hear him building circuits, correcting mistakes, repeating complex ideas - all in real time.  Reportedly, this was the only live recording in JC's personal collection that he backed up with a second copy.  Even he was aware that this was an extraordinary performance, and generations of post-Trane tenor players view this tape as a kind of holy grail.

You should listen to the entire track, an astonishing 27 minute excerpt of an even longer performance, but the heavy myelination occurs between 22:00 and 24:40.  It should be obvious to anyone with a reasonably developed ear that he is working through some extremely complex melodic material here, stopping and starting, increasing the speed, and eventually shifting into a gear that most of us will never know.  I believe that we are actually hearing him put the finishing touches on a few pieces of neural circuitry.  At 24:40, he moves on to play some familiar sounding Coltrane clichés, perhaps because he had exhausted himself.  The level of physical intensity here is amazing, but what is happening inside his mind is the improvisation olympics.

In John Coltrane, Practice Monster seemed to have found his master, or at least his equal.  Even if this type of jazz isn't your favorite style, there is a great deal to be learned from this recording.  I strongly encourage everyone to study this performance, at least on a conceptual level.  This is the sound of talent pushing itself beyond all accepted boundaries.  It is the sound of the final moments of a red giant, fusing iron at its core to create the rarest stuff in the universe.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Talent Diet?

We know that myelin in the brain is the key to developing new skills, and obtaining mastery.  Myelin is composed mostly of fat, but according to the Franklin Institute, the kind of fat matters.  Oleic acid is what you want, and you can find it in fish, olive oil, almonds, peanuts, and avocados.  Not only is a good diet helpful, but a poor diet is destructive.  If you eat a lot of fast food, those trans fats are going to make their way into your myelin sheaths.  Trans fat inhibits proper performance of the myelin sheath.

It is even possible that early humans surpassed Neanderthals because the diet of the latter was mostly red meat, leaving the Neanderthal brain undernourished.  Early humans had a more balanced diet, and seafood could have helped them to evolve bigger, more powerful brains.

This information is particularly important for college students.  It appears that a balanced diet rich in good fat will actually help you to build skills more quickly by supporting myelin production.  If you starve yourself, or consume trans fats, you are actually slowing your progress.

The next time you sit down to practice, make sure that you have given your body the fuel it needs to make the most of your hard work!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Talent = Inception + Work

The film Inception is based upon the concept that the most powerful thing in the world is an idea.  Moreover, that idea cannot be consciously planted in the mind of an individual . . . it has to be born there, if only on the conscious level.  Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code offers some compelling evidence that talent is nothing more than skill that is a product of intense and efficient practice, fueled by inception.  (Coyle calls this ignition, but the idea is the same.)

Practicing music was something I did because it was fun and interesting to me, until something huge happened.  I was listening to the radio, a program on Boston public radio called Eric in the Evening, when I heard something that blew my mind.  It was one of the Mingus Changes albums, and the late George Adams was doing things with the tenor that I never dreamed possible.  He played with speed, range, and reckless abandon.  Something in my brain jolted with electricity at the moment of inception:  If I practice hard enough, I could do that!  In retrospect, I also see that I didn't want to have to work myself to death in a factory like my father, so the idea really had the urgency of I must practice hard enough . . .

As a university professor, I have witnessed this again and again.  A student only works as hard as they want to, and the level of commitment is directly proportional to the power of the idea that lives in the mind.  The student that isn't convinced that they want to be great will never be great.  Deeper still, one cannot force an idea to take hold.  Being in an inspirational environment is a key element, but each individual must eventually turn on the engine of internal motivation.

For an individual that hasn't experienced inception, Practice Monster is the enemy, constantly expressing the subconscious feeling of "I can't do this."  Meanwhile, Practice Monster is the friend of the person who deeply believes that they can do it, and that they must do it.  While there may be something to the physiology of talent, certain body types or physical structures making some skills easier to obtain, I have my doubts that talent really exists, at least in the way we love to over-romanticize it.  We say that someone is talented after the fact.  No matter how much we wish it were true, nobody is born with skills pre-wired.  Talent is earned.

So . . . what kind of Practice Monster do you have?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Starving Mediocrity to Death

Mediocrity is infectious and contagious.  It sneaks into our work and quietly spreads into everything that we do.  If you allow mediocrity to slide into what you practice, it will feed on everything around it.  If you myelinate sloppy circuits, you will become a master of mediocrity.

As you practice, force yourself to stop when you stumble.  Go back, fix things as you go, and pay attention to the details.  It is far better to practice one measure for an hour, if that is what it takes.  By demanding perfection in the the preparation process, you can literally starve mediocrity to death.

Habits are easy to form, and tend to be one-way streets.  Myelin breaks down very slowly, and the only way to get rid of a bad habit is to "over-write" it with a good one.  You literally have to myelinate a new circuit strong enough to overpower the old one.  Be thoughtful about the things you might be accidentally cementing through repetition, and spend most of your time focusing directly on your weaknesses.  SMASH!!!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Myelinate This!

Summer reading is one of the things I truly look forward to each year.  My brother-in-law hipped me to Daniel Coyle's fascinating book The Talent Code.  Coyle does a great job of clearly explaining what he calls deep practicing, and why it works.  Practice Monster knows the deep practice zone well, and you'd be smart to read this book right away.  It has everything to do with what I've been blogging about.

Here is the basic idea.  We have something like 100 billion neurons in our brains.  (Yes, you read that number correctly.)  In order to perform tasks, the brain builds circuits of neurons that must fire in a certain order, and with perfect timing.  The problem is that electricity is leaking all over the place, mucking up the speed and timing of the circuit.  Enter the oligodendrocytes.

Axons are the nerve-fibers that literally carry the electrical signals in our brains.  When we practice, anything at all, special cells called oligodendrocytes manufacture a fatty insulator called myelin.  Myelin wraps around the axon, insulating the electrical connection.  With less leakage, the signal is stronger . . . and faster.  The more you repeat a task, the more myelin wraps around the wires in that particular circuit.

Coyle describes deep practice as slowly stumbling into errors, going back to correct, and ruthlessly repeating.  He describes the facial expression of deep practice as "Clint Eastwood."  (I love it!)  This is precisely the state of mind that occurs when Practice Monster is awake, but he's still on the leash.  Coyle does a great job of combining current scientific research with time in the field, studying everything from musicians to chess players to athletes.  Remember, skills are skills, and the brain doesn't differentiate.

If you are a student or a teacher, you need to read this book.  At the very least, it provides some concrete affirmation of what we already know, but you are likely to get some great ideas about how to refine your practice, and coaching techniques.  By taking ourselves to the very edge of our abilities, and making that the normal practice mode, we can efficiently insulate our internal circuitry.  Get to work!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Have a Mantra

In one of my first posts (disorganized practiced . . . ), I wrote about the importance of keeping practice sessions mentally organized by continually asking, "What am I practicing, right now?"  The idea of mantra is at the heart of any good form of practice.  "What am I practicing?" can become a powerful mantra in itself, but it can also be an even more powerful, permanent cue for more specific mantras.  

Most of my students struggle to remember to use good air support.  At the beginning of a practice session, it might be helpful to repeat a phrase over and over again, such as "use my air, use my air, use my air."  Intensely connect the recitation with the feeling of an engaged diaphragm, and say it over and over again.  Then, in the course of regular practice, stop at measured intervals and recite the mantra again.  Try to think the mantra in your head as you are performing.

I have many little mantras that run in my head, almost like computer programs that run in the background.  LOOSE WRISTS LOOSE WRISTS LOOSE WRISTS . . . HEAD UP HEAD UP HEAD UP HEAD UP . . . AIR AIR AIR AIR AIR AIR.  These mantras are so intimately connected with my practice, they have transcended the words and have become pure constructs of thought.  This works much in the way that an unfamiliar object eventually becomes so familiar, we almost don't notice it, even if we use it every day.  (You can look at a chair and not have to think the word "chair," to know that is a chair!)

Like everything else, it only works if you practice, and the harder you practice, the better it works.

I'm taking a few weeks off of the blog, but please keep your comments and suggestions coming!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Make the Monster Your Servant

Have you ever had a burst of anger in the middle of a frustrating practice session?  When Practice Monster takes over, we lose momentum, and we might even become unable to progress.  There is a better way to deal with the situation.  Check out this excerpt from my May 2011 column in *Saxophone Journal.  (If you don't subscribe to SJ, please consider doing so by visiting www.dornpub.com.)

*Saxophone Journal has ceased publication.  Back issues are available from the website.
To read my new column, please consider subscribing to Saxophone Today.*


Without fail, the Practice Monster phenomenon occurs as a result of frustration and unrewarding practice.  He is the embodiment of sustained overreaching.  This is important information, as it offers a clear path to summoning the creature.  For this reason, it is a good idea to begin each practice session with something familiar.  Start with some long tones and embouchure flexibility exercises, to awaken the muscles and the mind, without overtaxing either.  Progressively move towards more challenging material in a consciously organized manner, saving the most challenging work for about two-thirds of the way through the total session.  For example, in a four hour session, the most difficult work should begin about 2.5 hours in.  The next part requires some experience, and a good amount of finesse.  The idea is too push just hard enough to feel Practice Monster surfacing.  This is a delicate balance, for if your practice isn’t challenging enough, you won’t awaken the monster at all, but if you push too hard, you won’t be able to continue.  Learn to go as far as you can without losing control, and just when you are about to reaching the point of no return, take a short break.  Get a drink, go to the bathroom, get a breath of fresh air – whatever it takes to briefly calm down and refocus.  You shouldn’t have to rest for very long; just long enough to stave off the impending disaster.

After the break, return to practicing, and preferably go back to the difficult material that almost set you off.  With a new sense of calm, practice the material much more slowly and carefully.  If the subject is technical, dramatically decrease the tempo and relax as much as possible.  Turn the emotional energy that you just felt into cool-headed purposefulness.  Tell yourself, “This is very difficult, but I can make progress if I go slowly and take my time.”  After a reasonable duration, end the practice session with some more familiar material that is fun to play.  . . . .  Whenever possible, end the practice session with a feeling of accomplishment, feeling good about yourself.

©2011  David J. Pope


Practice Monster can be a constructive force, if we use him as a signal to take a break and refocus.  The harder we push our own limits, the easier it becomes to give up.  If we turn the energy of our own anger into calm determination, we get closer to our true potential.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Air Goes ZOOM, Part 2

Once you have mastered the techniques from my previous post, it's time to apply the concepts more deeply.    It is probably counterproductive to go on without mastering the basic idea of "powering" a single finger movement with air, so take your time and don't get ahead of yourself.

In sixteenth notes, play a G major pentachord . . . the first five notes of a G major scale, up and down.  As you play the notes, imagine that your air is flowing through your fingers.  Transfer the idea of pneumatic saxophone keys into pneumatic fingers.  Repeat the pattern, and focus your mind on completely relaxing your hands and fingers (and your entire body, for that matter).  The only tension should be in your diaphragm.  Keep your body inflated and concentrate on feeling the flow of the air, and imagining that it extends outward into your hands.  As your fingers move more quickly, draw on the airflow (real and imagined).

There are two primary purposes of this exercise.  Firstly, the concept reinforces a relaxed technique: relaxed fingers.  The second purpose is to mentally strengthen the connection between fingers and air.  In reality, the air is certainly not powering the fingers, but remember that great air fixes many of our problems.  Relaxed fingers, powerful air.

Now get practicing . . . ZOOM!!!!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Air Goes ZOOM!

This is an exercise I recently started working on, and I'm very happy with the results so far.  I'm always looking for ways to make smoother phrases.  This means we must avoid slamming down the keys, and we have to keep the air supported as the notes change.  I call this "the air goes zoom."

Play a middle G, and focus on relaxed fingers and fast moving air.  As you lift your ring finger to play an A, imagine that the finger is being blown upward by your air.  Repeat this process, slowly moving to a B.  In the beginning, you will probably slightly "puff" the air as the fingers move.  Once this is accomplished without effort, imagine that the air column is constantly pressurized, and that simply relaxing a finger will cause that key to pop up.  At first, only work on finger exchanges that "release" keys.  Once this is mastered, try imaging the air flowing into your fingers to gently pop the keys downward.

Work through the exercise slowly, and really internalize the feeling that you are controlling the fingers with a rapidly moving, highly pressurized column of air.  Imagine that the keys are pneumatic, and that the fingers mostly get out of the way of the air.  Try to feel your diaphragm pushing at the keys.  Feel the air moving under your fingers, even through your fingers.

In time, the fingers will become increasingly relaxed, resulting in a fast and nimble technique.  Keep the potential energy of the springs in mind, and avoid squeezing or clamping down.  Whenever there are technical problems, first move your attention to the airstream.  Imagine the air rushing through the instrument, literally powering the music.  Each time you imagine this, think the phrase, "the air goes ZOOM."

Monday, June 6, 2011

Practice Versus Performance

Students sometimes ask me how to balance demanding perfection in the practice room with accepting the inevitable mistakes that happen in performance.  If we forgive ourselves for making mistakes, doesn't that lead to complacency?

Remember that performance relies entirely on the integrity of the preparation.  Practice Monster is a necessary part of that process, but he has no place on the stage.  I have a cartoon on my studio door that shows a young student asking his teacher, "If practice makes perfect, and nobody's perfect, does that mean nobody is practicing?"  Of course not!  But if we can wrap our heads around the deep meaning of that little newspaper comic, we see the practice/performance paradox.

Never tolerate mistakes in your practice.  Stay organized and on task, and let Practice Monster occasionally fuel the fire that keeps you coming back for more.  Prepare with ferocious tenacity, intensely focussing on the tiny little details.  When the time comes to perform, soften your focus to the see the whole process.  Be the friendly Performance Monster, sharing the ultimate expression of your work with the audience.  Don't worry about mistakes!  If you have spent enough time and energy preparing, the performance will be the best that you can offer, and that's all that matters.

Be critical at the appropriate times, especially as you prepare, and as you eventually evaluate the final result, but don't rob yourself of the joyfulness that we can experience on the stage.  There is nothing like the feeling of a fun performance, and if you enjoy yourself and shrug off the mistakes, your audience will have fun too!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Practice for love

Please, do yourself a favor and listen to Jonathan Franzen's 18 minute commencement address for Kenyon College:


We love music, which is why we are drawn to practice it, but real practice is emotionally painful.  We come face to face with our weaknesses and shortcomings.  As Franzen says, pain hurts, but it doesn't kill . . . pain is a part of real life, and real love.

Practice Monster doesn't understand the complex relationship between pain and joy, but as humans, we can never forget that love is only possible because of those polar opposites.  Without darkness, there is no light.

So practice because you love to practice.  Play because you love to play.  Forget about the risks, see the pain for what it is, and be grateful that you are alive.  You don't have to "like" your work, but you'd better love it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

GRAM Variations - Part 3 (and 4)

This entry is a followup to  GRAM Variations Part 1, and Part 2.  Having dealt with Groupings and Rhythms, try changing up the Articulations.  I find it very helpful to take a difficult passage of more or less slurred notes and to temporarily practice it as staccato.  This type of articulation gives extra clarity and purpose to the individual notes.  As with the other variations, the sky is the limit.  The added benefit to this type of practice is that it is likely to improve your articulation, while working on something else.

The "M" in GRAM is for Metronome.  If you are a serious musician, you need a Dr. Beat-style metronome.  The flexibility that this little machine provides makes it well worth the price.  For extra audibility, I run mine through the stereo system in my studio.  At any rate, a cheap metronome simply won't allow you to do some of the things that I am about to recommend.

The traditional approach to using the metronome has the click on the pulse, so quarter notes in 4/4 time, for example.  Especially at slower tempos, an extra level of subdivision can help you stay in time.  Try having the metronome click 16th notes while you play 8th notes.  When this is comfortable, set the metronome to click only on the syncopated 16th subdivisions, so that you play the 8th notes into silence, while listening for the internal backbeat.

As you work through a complex passage, experiment with different ways of using the metronome.  I like to set the metronome to click at very wide intervals, to test how well I can stay in tempo with only occasional assistance.  In a measure of 16th notes, set the metronome to only click on beat 1.  What if you set the metronome to only click on beat 1 of every other measure?  Try the metronome only on beat 2, or on second subdivision of alternating beats.  Use the loop function on the metronome to set up all kinds of crazy situations.

By starting with a lot of subdivision, and slowly reducing towards the vanishing point, we develop rhythmic independence and stability.  I have heard the argument that the metronome is a crutch, and while I generally disagree with this assertion, the type of practice outlined above easily moves in the opposite direction.  Rather than leaning on the metronome, you can use it like the training wheels on a bicycle, progressively relying more on your internal clock.

The next time you are stuck on a difficult piece of music, and you can feel the Practice Monster rising, take a breath, center yourself, and try some GRAM variations!

Monday, May 30, 2011

If it was easy . . .

We all know that mastery is difficult to achieve.  It takes thousands of hours of hard work.  Don't kid yourself about the challenges that you face; if it was easy, everyone would be a master!  When those long-term challenges are overwhelming, take refuge in your commitment to your daily practice.  We make the long climb in little steps . . . just keep climbing.

Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment, and focus on the work at hand.  It is normal to be frustrated, but channel that energy into moving forward, even when it feels like you are standing still.  The integrity of your overall preparation depends entirely on the humble, little hours of faithful practice.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The brain is responsible for the body

Sometimes our desire to improve gets ahead of our physical capabilities.  Good practice will regularly push the limits of our skills, but we must also take care of our physical health.  A healthy body can only be maintained with a healthy mind.

Practice Monster has never heard of tendonitis, and he could care less about things like pinched nerves and repetitive motion injury.  Getting carried away can be a deep and meaningful experience, but injury is a steep price to pay.

It is always a good idea to break up long practice sessions with little breaks.  Try some type of physical exercise, like a sport, yoga, Alexander technique, or whatever you find interesting.  Most importantly, listen to your body.  Practicing in pain is a very bad idea, highly habit forming, and a sure way to summon the monster.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Practice Monster Power Up: Rampage Mode

Whether your discipline is music performance or building electronic circuits, or whatever, you can probably think back to a time when practice was fun.  Unfortunately, undertaking serious study has a way of killing a lot of the wonder from earlier experiences in the craft, replacing it with frustration and disappointment.

Despite the seriousness of pursuing perfection, we must keep that wide-eyed little kid from our past alive!  In reality, the version of ourselves that loves to play is just another side of the Practice Monster.  If we keep the beast well fed and let him run free once in awhile, he will be less likely to misbehave.  The monster is a tremendous source of energy, and it can be used for help, or for harm.

Enter rampage mode.  Pick something that you love to do, something that is not necessarily "easy," but something that you have learned well and enjoy.  Have at it!  Forget about everything except the sheer joy of playing.  The monster will melt into that part of you that made you want to study in the first place.

Don't overindulge, but think of the occasional rampage as a fancy dessert . . . it's not on your diet, but life is too short to miss out on a well-deserved treat.  Practice Monster will be in a good mood, which means more productive practice down the road. So go ahead and POWER UP!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Right Key, Wrong Key, Right Key

Every instrument offers certain challenges that are intrinsic to its mechanism and design.  Practice Monster is easily angered by things he doesn't understand . . . like physics.    In awkward keys, or uncomfortable parts of the horn, even a modest passage of music can create serious problems for the performer.  Aside from the technical challenges, basic musicality is frequently compromised when our attention shifts to the distractions of technique.

I was lucky to attend a masterclass given by legendary flutist (and practice master), Trevor Wye.  He addressed this issue with an approach that I have come to think of as "right key, wrong key, right key."  Simply put, move the passage into an easier key with the goal of performing it as musically as possible.  Temporarily free from the added mechanical challenges, aim for perfection, and listen for details of phrasing that you may have missed before.  After a brief session in the "wrong key," return to the original transposition.  In my experience, the results are frequently instantaneous.  Remember, listening is the most important musical technique of them all.  The best musicians can push the limits of their fingers and their ears at the same time (and this is more difficult than it seems).

Besides the obvious concept of moving a half-step away, or into a less complex key signature, try playing in a different register.  If the passage crosses the break, try moving it into a key that stays in one register.  It can also be musically useful to shift only portions of the overall passage, to keep everything in the same octave, or register.  Be creative while you work, and the monster will be soothed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tracking the monster (practice log)

Keeping a practice log is an easy way of measuring the quantity, and quality, of our work.  A good journal should have just enough detail to adequately provide tools for long-term self-assessment.  An example of a single session might look like this:

Thursday May 11
15 minutes:  Long tone exercise, B-flat with drone (no tuner)
40 minutes:  Scale routine, all keys.  16ths @ quarter = 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 110, and 120
30 minutes:  Etude #34, focussing on difficult passage with trills, still under-tempo
5 minutes: break (for smashing)
20 minutes:  music for upcoming band concert
30 minutes:  Improvising eighth notes on "All The Things You Are" (Q = 80, 90, 95)

Over time, your entries can be viewed as a summary of your practice.  If you are frustrated, for instance, that your articulation is sloppy, get a reality check from your log about exactly how much, and how often, you really practice articulations.  Usually, we discover that our problems are a result of relative neglect.  However, if you are practicing something a lot and without success, it is time to try a new way of addressing the problem.

Try making an additional note in your practice log whenever you get severely frustrated.  (Maybe you could draw a little picture of Practice Monster!)  Look for patterns that cause the monster to emerge, and build strategies for keeping your cool in the shed - more on that in a future post.

I require most of my students to email me their daily practice logs.  In the recently completed school year, I collected around 1,600 individual entries . . . well over 4,000 hours of practice.  Practice Monster SMASH!!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

GRAM Variations - Part 2

Rhythmic variation is an excellent way to change up the process of learning difficult sequences.  Altering the rhythm is certainly related to grouping variation, but it is also possible to decrease (or increase) the rate of notes, or to move the emphasis within the meter.  Here are a few possibilities for your next practice session.


This is fairly self-explanatory.  If the passage is in 4/4, for example, change the meter to compound time.  The beat moves, but the proportional rhythm stays the same.  In other words, change eighth notes to triplets, or vice versa.

Ma-ry  /  had a  /  li-ttle  /  lamb


Ma-ry had  /  a li-ttle  /  lamb


In a passage that combines complex sequences of notes with tricky rhythms, try just playing the notes in straight eighth notes.  By eliminating the rhythmic complexity, the focus shifts directly to getting all the right notes.  Start slowly, and when the tempo reaches, or slightly surpasses the fastest subdivision of the goal, return to the original rhythm.  This same trick works in all triplets, groups of five, or any other static grouping.


This is a standard practice method used in etude and study books.  Say that the original rhythm is eight notes.  Go through a series of variations that explores the many ways that two notes can be spread across a single beat.  Two eighth notes could become dotted eighth + sixteenth, sixteenth + dotted eighth, quarter note triplet + eighth note triplet (or the reverse), swing eighth notes, or anything else that you can dream up.  Make up your own series of rhythmic variations and make it part of your routine.

These ideas are all very simple, but the concepts are widely applicable.  Scales and patterns could be practiced in long chains of different rhythms.  Try writing short rhythmic figures on slips of paper, shuffling them up, and then assembling a random series.  We are only limited by our own imaginations.

Monday, May 16, 2011

GRAM Variations - Part 1

When woodshedding difficult passages, it can be helpful to change aspects of the actual music, for practice purposes.  Remember these four variables mnemonically with GRAM:  Groupings, Rhythms, Articulations, and Metronome.


The human brain is very good at organizing stuff.  Babies put the blocks in one pile, stuffed animals in another.  We do the same thing with music.  We look for recognizable patterns and immediately implement the patterns into our thought process.  We see some notes from a scale, a skip upward, a set of three notes together, etc.  Practice Monster gets easily frustrated when we think too hard . . . but changing things up distracts him, thusly prolonging a successful practice session.

As an analogy, imagine that we were practicing Mary Had A Little Lamb.  The first groupings are:


Recite the words as they are grouped:  two syllables, two syllables, three syllables.  Now, imagine that we changed the grouping to 3, 2, and 2:


If you play an instrument, finger the notes as you recite the syllables, with appropriate breaks.  It will feel awkward at first, because the grouping is purposefully unnatural.  This exercise provides an opportunity to play the same sequence of notes, but with the mind grasping them in a different way.  Imagine playing the Prelude of the first Bach cello suite, but two notes at a time, and then in triple groupings.  The sound and feeling would be totally different, even though the sequence is the same.

I have found this technique particularly helpful in learning long strings of sixteenth notes.  By breaking the notes up into different groupings, and inserting rests to separate them, we divide a meal into manageable little bites.

Grouping variations can be practiced out of time (rubato), or with the metronome.  I like to start without a steady beat, and then introduce rigid time.  By practicing a variety of groupings, the mental process becomes more supple.  When we return to the original version of the excerpt, there should be a better sense of flow.

Stay tuned for more on GRAM Variations.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Stretch out with the Time Vulture

Many of my students complain that they don't have enough time to accomplish their daily practice goals.  My approach to this involves something called The Time Vulture.  Make a detailed schedule of your entire day, and look for potential dead time.  Then, descend and scavenge!

I recently had a student that was struggling to get through his assignments.  I challenged him to add 15 minutes to his usual 2 hour routine.  He was able to find that 15 minutes pretty easily, and used it to for additional scale practice.  In a single week, we both saw obvious results.

This only works if you are honest about what you do with your time, and make a real commitment to use that time every day.  How much open-ended time do we spend at the computer, texting, and watching television every day?  Even if a young student can stretch a 30 minute routine to 35 minutes, there will be measurable long-term benefits.

For perspective, a college student that increases their routine by 15 minutes, for just five days per week, will add over 17 hours of practice to a single semester . . .  Practice Monster SMASH!!!!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Big Slowdown

When I was relatively young, my music teachers instructed me to practice difficult material slowly, and gradually increase the speed.  This is the standard method of learning, and it works very well.  Research has proven that the human neural network adapts itself to repetitive tasks by increasing the connectivity between appropriate neurons.  This is why we slowly progress from struggling to a state of "muscle memory."

Unfortunately, Practice Monster is an impatient beast.  He doesn't want us to do enough repetitions, and he pushes us to prematurely increase the speed.  By not spending enough time at the slow tempos, we introduce mistakes into the process, and worse still, we end up practicing these sloppy mistakes!  Here is a solution that I have used in my own practice.

Begin by selecting a manageable amount of difficult material, and set a tempo that is slow enough that you can reliably perform the excerpt without making any mistakes.  Once you have determined this tempo, begin by playing a few metronome clicks slower than the tempo you just set.  Play the excerpt ten times in a row, and do not allow a single mistake.  When you have played the selection ten times perfectly, move to an even slower tempo.  Continue this process until you are performing at a ridiculously slow speed.

At the slowest tempo imaginable, make sure that you are performing with a beautiful sound, perfect rhythm, and flawless technique.  In super slow-motion, focus all of your attention on the note ahead of the note you are on.  When you move, immediately start thinking about the next note.  Try thinking about the notes in groups of two, and think a full couplet ahead of where you are.  Whatever you do, resist the urge to speed up.  If you start making mistakes, go even slower.  Even if you play perfectly, continue to decrease in speed.

End a long session, as long as you can stand, by immediately moving back to the tempo that you started at.  If you have success, experiment to see how quickly you can play the material.  My experience has been that "the big slowdown" is more effective for building speed and muscle memory than the traditional method of incremental acceleration.  My hypothesis is that the brain has an easier time hard-wiring itself when we do the repetitions at very slow speeds.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Reprogram yourself with the "exaggerated opposite" approach

It is very difficult to simply "stop" poor technique.  When, despite our best efforts, we realize that we are still engaged in a negative habit, Practice Monster has a temper tantrum.  A far more effective method is to replace a bad habit with a good one.  I use this technique in my own practice, and in my teaching.  Here's an example of how it works.

Problem:  As the student plays into the high register of the saxophone, she stretches her body upward.  Even her eyebrows ascend, and the resulting tension makes the sound pinched and unpleasant.

Solution:  Begin by practicing ascending scales.  As the student ascends, she bends her knees and slightly squats downward.  She moves the eyebrows downward, relaxes the forehead, and focusses on doing exactly the opposite of what she did before.

In time, the student shifts towards thinking about the exaggerated opposite, without actually doing it.  After extensive practice, the student might be able to accomplish the desired result just by slightly bending the knees, or softening the muscles around the eyes.

This technique works because not doing something is abstract, but focussing attention on the exaggerated opposite gives a tangible target.  The undesirable habit is methodically replaced with a desirable one.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Monster loves it when you try to cram

Frantic, last-minute over-practicing is about the worst thing you can possibly do.  Practice Monster loves it when you cram.  He feasts on your fear.

Whenever I have a big performance coming up, I make sure that I am practicing at least four hours per day for the full month before the event.  I might schedule a specific number of measures per week, spread out over several months.  I try to have the entire program learned the month before, so I can focus on details and stamina in the weeks leading up to the concert.

It is of extreme importance that the basics routine is never abandoned.  A long session might be half fundamentals and half repertoire.  Bailing on basics weakens the foundation that you are building upon.  Would a basketball player only practice dunks during the regular season?  Only if the goal is injuries and missed free throws!

The luxury of a long preparation period isn't always a reality, but we can take steps to avoid the frenzy of "crunch time."  A practice schedule that includes a solid routine of fundamentals will keep the beast at bay.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Disorganized practice is an investment in long-term failure

I can remember not being able to play an etude, and trying to solve the problem by "just practicing it more."  Aimlessly performing the difficult music over and over again, only cementing in the problems.  The most important practice habit of all is to have clearly defined goals.

When you can feel Practice Monster coming to the surface, take a break to ask yourself, "What am I supposed to be practicing right now?"  If you can't answer that question in one short sentence, you should evaluate what you are working on, and find a way to clearly state the goal.  Try stating the problem, and then some simple solutions:

Problem:  I cannot play the measure with the ornament without losing the rhythm.

Solution:  Practice playing without the ornament, and then slowly add the various elements of the ornament, one by one.

Practice Monster thrives on self-sabotage, and disorganization sets us up to fail before we have begun.  Clarity of purpose keeps us on task, and the time spent working goes quickly and smoothly.

Unstructured practice can be fun too, and for many of us, it can be an important part of the creative process.  (More on "Rampage Mode" in a future post.)  Just remember to keep asking yourself, "What am I practicing, right now?"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Chronicles of Practice Monster

Welcome to the world of Practice Monster.  Make no mistake, I am not The Practice Monster!  He is a fictional character that personifies the way we obstruct our own progress with self-sabotage, anger, and surrender.  Practice Monster has the potential to devour us, but we can learn to control his energy and use him like an engine for improvement.

In this blog, I will discuss the various ways that my relationship with practice has evolved over the years.  Topics will be mainly geared towards musicians, but the concepts will be applicable across many disciplines.  We can be happier in everything that we do, the moment we begin to associate work with joy.

I welcome your questions and comments.