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

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.)

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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.

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