TL;DR: Trial And Error Works

(As long as each trial is based on adjusting for previous errors.)

There’s nothing to be gained from making the same mistakes over and over again.

Yet we’re apt to do this when we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing.

Sounds trite, doesn’t it? Except that in modern culture people are rarely ever paying attention to whatever is going on right here, right now.  We’ve built a habit of directing our attention away from the present moment.

Don’t believe me? Sit down, pull out a piece of paper and a pen. Set a timer for five minutes.

Now pay attention to your breath- no need to control it, just watch it, feel it go in and out, over  your lips and through your nostrils and throat and inflate your lungs which fill your whole torso basically.

Each time you notice that your attention flits away from your breath- to schoolwork, friends, hopes, fears- make a mark on the page.

I just did. I made twenty-two marks.

A few things that drew my attention away from my breath:

  • Thinking about what I was going to write next
  • Wondering how many minutes remained in the exercise
  • Wondering how many marks I’d end up with
  • Wondering if there was some number of marks I ought to end up with
  • Realizing that the notion that there’s some number of marks it’s “bad” or “good” to end up with is absurd, and noting that I should mention that to avoid confusing readers as to what meditation is about

If meditation (which is what you just did, if you played that little game with me) can be said to be about something, it is simply that act of noticing when your attention has wandered away from whatever it is you wish to be focusing on, because noticing is more than half the battle.

If you practice noticing the moment at which your attention goes astray, you may notice (ha) that it feels like less of a struggle to pay attention to what is happening.

You sort of naturally drift back to the present, to the task at hand, when you have noticed that you’ve drifted.

This sort of course correction is perfectly natural- you don’t have to try to make it happen. In fact, trying will prevent you from allowing it to happen.

And it’s what allows you to notice patterns and break out of ruts.

How, exactly? Well, we could point to three processes involved with improving at doing anything.

One is to have the general intention of improving, which then breaks down into the specific intentions of improving in certain areas and correcting certain mistakes.

Another is to know one is making a given error, and to have some idea of how to correct that error. An experienced teacher can tell you both of these things, but that won’t help until you see and understand them for yourself- and anyway, teachers don’t know everything. Sooner or later, you’ll have to find your own way forward.

And another is to notice at the moment one makes the error, or is about to make the error, and to reach for a different pathway.

Perhaps it’s obvious to you, but these three are interrelated. They depend on one another. Without all three of these factors (and some others besides, but I don’t want to overcomplicate things for you at the moment) you can’t improve.

To put it another way, in order to get better at something:

You must want to get better.

You must know what sorts of mistakes you’re making, and what you might try instead.

And you must notice when you are about to repeat a mistake, and try something else.

The first one is easy. Either you want to get better, or you don’t. If you don’t, quit if at all possible. Find something that you want to get better at.

The second one is easier than ever. Teachers abound on YouTube, on message boards, in good old brick-and-mortar schools and studios- it’s never been easier to talk to someone who knows more than you about whatever it is you want to know about. If anything, there’s too much information- if it ever gets overwhelming, just remember that in the end the answer comes from within you. Don’t be afraid to tune out the other voices for a bit and just play around.

It’s the third one that seems to hang so many people up, and this seems to be because by and large we have lost touch with the present moment.

Luckily, it’s always there, waiting for you to get on board and ride along.

 

How to Practice

This whole text is a TL;DR. I hope you’ll be able to use it as a reference if and when things get really confusing for you.

This is a shortlist of the most useful approaches to practice I’ve come across in 20 years of playing, practicing, reading and thinking about music of all sorts. I will constantly update this as I remember and discover practice tactics. This isn’t a place for style-specific approaches; you can Google for that. These are broad principles that help musicians in every style on every instrument free themselves to truly play.

Where I can, I’ve included links to videos that illustrate these concepts with clarity and brevity. If you’re short on time, 1.5x speed the video.

GOLDEN RULES:

Yoda was right. “Trying” to do something is useless. Either you can do it, or you can’t. If you can’t, generally you’ll become able to if you do lots of things like it.

A corollary: thinking and doing are different things. Think about doing someth

Be specific. Don’t tell me (or yourself) that you played “well” or “badly” when you’re practicing. Look for specific changes that could be made, and make them. Don’t worry about whether you are good or bad, because it’s irrelevant- your intonation can be improved, your time can be improved, your sound can improve, but you are just you, and there is no useful, reasonable way of judging the whole musician or person that is you as good or bad.

Sing everything

Your voice is your direct line of contact with your musical concept. Strong singing opens the possibility of strong playing. By strong singing, I mean singing with purpose, with personality. It does help if you’re in tune and if your tone is pure, but those are secondary considerations unless you are primarily a singer. What matters most is rhythm and concept. If those are good with your voice, you can move to the instrument. If they’re not in your singing, it is not at all likely that you will be able to play well because you do not have a clear enough concept of what you’re trying to do to sing.

Get it with your voice, and the instrument will follow.

Space it out

You learn better if you space out study/practice sessions. 20 minutes a day is better than 140 minutes once a week, and 5 minutes of scales at the beginning, 5 minutes of playig, then another 5 minutes of scales is generally better than 10 straight minutes of scales (assuming only 20 minutes to practice).

Slow down.

This one’s simple. You’re probably going too fast most of the time. Even if you think you’ve got it on lock, slowing WAY down once in a while can show you incredible things about your playing, and it’s never a bad way to start with something difficult. I’m talking quarter notes or even eighth notes at less than 50 BPM on the metronome.

Chunk smart and weave

Zoom in on a problem area, even if it’s all the way to one or two notes. As you improve it, mix in practice with all the surrounding notes, start in various places in the scale or passage, and make sure that you can execute your solution in context. This one gets tons of people, even plenty of college students. Don’t be a victim to practicing out of context.

Variation/vocabulary of ideas and movement

“Blessed are the flexible, for they will not get bent out of shape.”

You’re not a machine, and you’re never going to do something exactly the same way twice. In fact, there are a number of ways in which the body can move to accomplish any given goal, a whole range of possibly “correct” solutions to any musical puzzle.

Practice your material at a variety of speeds with a variety of different articulation, phrasing, etc. Start in different places all the time- you should be able to play easily from anywhere. Don’t make yourself stiff by becoming overly reliant on specific conditions being fulfilled to succeed- the more different ways you practice, the easier it is to sail through “mistakes” and give consistently good performances.

This will also allay the possibility of repetitive strain injuries.

Grouping for speed

If you need to play something fast, this is a brilliant way to get it there.

Mental practice is your best friend

It’s all in the name- you can make incredible progress with any skill, musical or otherwise, by going over it carefully in your head, visualizing the sounds, sights, and feelings of successful performance as clearly as you can.

There are plenty of theories about how and why this works, but just know this- it does. There are dozens of anecdotes and studies to recommend this mode of learning, and if you need more evidence, just try it yourself and notice the improvements you make.

How To Read

[TL;DR

Hate reading? Short on time? Don’t let lengthy articles scare you off. Read with questions in mind, skip around to find answers, and be done with it. Most people don’t expect you to read every last word they write- I’m writing to get ideas across, so as long as you get the gist and can use it, I don’t care if you read the third sentence of the fifth paragraph.]

Because the content here is primarily for high school students, and because I’m writing it because I don’t have time when teaching in person to be as verbose as I might like, I want to mention something that may be obvious to some students out there, but that others probably do not know.

If you’re reading an article or a book or an essay, and it’s really long and you don’t have the time or patience to read the whole thing, don’t! I (and most other people who write) do my best to format this so that you can skip around- bolded lines indicate topic changes, and paragraphs either introduce big ideas or elaborate on them. I also put a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read for any older readers) so that if you want, you can get the most important point in 60 seconds or less.

Don’t ever let the length of a text scare you off- just be aware of the structural conventions that let you skip entire paragraphs or sections to see if what you’re looking for is within the text. You can go back and read every word later.

Likewise, if you like to read every word of everything you read, feel free- just get used to estimating how long it’ll take you to read something and decide if it seems worth it (and don’t be afraid to leave things unfinished).

Personally, I switch between the two as needed depending on time, attention, and how well I get along with a writer’s style.

Practice, pt. II: Getting Out of The Way

TL;DR I

Practicing can make playing as simple and free as breathing. There’s not much in life that tops the sense of satisfaction you get from realizing that something which used to seem extremely difficult is now something you can do without a particle of conscious effort, whether it’s playing a simple scale, flying through a dense section of a complex piece, or playing a beautiful solo on your favorite song. Like all skills, the more you give, the more music gives back.

The reason for this, the whole goal of practice, is to hand off as much work as possible to the unconscious mind.

Empty your mind when you play.

[If you’re low on time or patience and you want the very short version of these notes, just listen to a 1950s broadcaster quote Bill Evans and sum up my point in 20 seconds. For those of you who want the nitty gritty, read on.]

What do you think about when you’re playing your instrument?

I thought of a new way of looking at practice (at least for me) that I found intriguing. The Music Collective students got a visit from some friends of mine at NEC, and after they showed us their skills, one student asked, “What do you think about when you’re playing music?”

The answer the bassist gave was basically “Nothing,” which might seem trite or confusing- he must be thinking about something. There’s so much to think about, so much going on in music of any style! Even if you’re just playing one long note, you’re maintaining intonation (which itself has multiple components), counting, looking ahead in the score (if you’re reading), watching the conductor (in orchestra or band), listening to the rest of the ensemble- there’s an overwhelming to be thinking about!

Thinking vs. doing

Now, the thinking mind doesn’t keep track of all those things at once.You may know that that there’s no such thing as multitasking– if you’re thinking about multiple things (like eating while watching TV or doing homework while chatting on Facebook) you’re just switching attention back and forth between different tasks, one at a time.

This is a clue about what most of us call “thinking” really is: the direction of conscious attention. Whatever your conscious attention is focused on is what you’re “thinking” about, by most definitions of the word. But you are doing a whole lot, all the time, all at once, without any conscious effort- breathing, beating your heart, and maintaining a safe core temperature, to name a few (and each of these is made up of numerous individual actions by different parts of the system we call the body). Dreaming happens without conscious effort, but you see things you would never imagine if you were fantasizing to avoid boredom during a lecture.

Great players don’t think about playing music. They just do it, in much the same way that they breathe. In fact, thinking and doing are at odds with one another- you cannot really think about doing something and do it easily at the same time.

Why? And what does that mean for our approach to music?

Memory

Last time, I framed learning/practice broadly as a process of memorization- of preparing  information of all sorts, whether facts or patterns of movement, for easy recall.

There are a couple things we know about memory which might illuminate this process for you a bit.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of memory.

Short-term or “working” memory can be viewed as whatever you are thinking about- whatever is within your conscious attention. It’s very narrow- studies have estimated that most of us can only hold between 7 and 12 “bits” of information in our conscious attention. To demonstrate, have someone read you a phone number and see if you can repeat the whole thing back. Then try it with a credit card number- most of you probably can’t manage that. The limits of working memory are what make problems hard. Think about word problems in math- the difficulty lies in holding all the various parts of the problem in your “mind” (another word people typically use to refer to their conscious attention) and figuring out how to put them together.

Long-term or “implicit”memory is all the other stuff that you know but aren’t thinking about- the lion’s share of what’s engraved on the more evolved parts of your brain, your “unconscious mind.” It is, of course, very broad- everything you can look at and identify, for example, is stored somewhere in your long-term memory. Without it, you’d forget everything as soon as it passed out of your conscious attention- you’d basically be unable to form any memories (like Guy Pearce’s character in Memento).

When you answer a question on a math test, or visualize something I’m describing to you, or play a scale and know that it is a scale, you’re experiencing the interplay of these two functions of the brain. Very simply, information passes from implicit to working memory.

The unconscious becomes conscious.

The magic of “chunking”

You might notice a quirk of short-term memory as I just described it- what constitutes a “bit”? How many “bits” does the process of visualizing a polar bear take up? Or doing arithmetic? Or playing a scale? How is it possible that a problem that once contained an overwhelming amount of information (like counting to 10 or saying the whole alphabet when we were a toddler) can become utterly trivial? In other words, if conscious attention is a strictly limited resource, how do we get smarter, solve bigger problems, play better music?

Well, it turns out that the size of a “bit” of information is flexible. We perform a wonderful trick that cognitive scientists call “chunking,” where we combine bits to make bigger bits, which of course shrinks problems down by making more information available at the same cost to our focus.

For example, I can tell you I’m thinking of a big, white, furry, four-legged creature that lives in the Arctic circle and hunts seals. If you don’t know what a polar bear is, you’ve got a very fuzzy picture in your head. If you’ve heard of and seen polar bears,  I can just tell you to think of a polar bear and all that you can recall about them comes bubbling up to the surface of your mind. All words are like this, markers that point to images and meaning- countless “bits” of information are made ready at hand with a single phrase.

Another example,of course, is a scale. If asked, most of you can recall all the notes in a C major scale. If you know the series of intervals that make up a major scale (another “chunk”) you could easily tell me all the notes of a major scale starting on ANY note. The concept of a “scale” is like an anchor for a bunch of other “bits” that makes them readily available, close to the “surface” of the mind, and you can then string them through your conscious attention and tell me about them, one by one.

You can imagine, of course, that this goes very far in both directions. We can unpack any word in a sentence and find many more words and images which tell us that first word’s meaning, and we can even start breaking those words down into letters and asking what exactly those mean, chopping up everything into tinier and tinier bits. Conversely, we can connect many bits together to weave large concepts- letters into words, words into definitions of other words, into sentences, paragraphs, themes, and books, a single one of which can serve as a sort of mnemonic for numerous ideas.

Thinking things to death

You are now breathing manually.

Did breathing just get harder? A friend in high school used to troll us with that line occasionally, and it really is a trip, because you never think about breathing- you just do it, and when you start thinking about it, it gets weird. What muscle do you use to breathe? Is it even a muscular action? What do you think about, in order to breathe correctly? What does it even mean to breathe “correctly”? I feel like I’m suffocating just writing this.

That’s just one example, but you can think of dozens if you want to quite easily. Just think of anything you do “automatically”- tying your shoe, driving, free throws, dribbling, walking. (By the way, please do not trip yourself up like this while actually driving. This is also one reason why driving under the influence is a terrible idea- an altered state of mind might draw your attention to things that would normally be automatic and make you much more likely to lose control of the car. Just don’t do it, kids.)

You may notice, of course, that most of the things I just listed are things we learned how to do, things that we practiced, step by step, thinking about each one and connecting it to the others until we didn’t have to think about it any more and the process became automatic.

What’s the deal here?

It seems as though trying to think about something you usually just do is a bit like taking the engine out of a car for a closer look- you might learn about how the overall system works, but the system itself won’t be running as long as you’re messing around with just one of it’s parts. You’ve got to put it back under the hood and let it do it’s thing if you want to drive anywhere. That said, sometimes it’s necessary to take things apart to make them work better.

What was practicing, again?

Thinking about this view of our memory, we can view practice process of making bigger and bigger “chunks,” of thinking about each facet of a musical puzzle until it becomes something we can just do.

We go from “play this note, then that one, then that one…” to “play that scale” or “play that passage,” then maybe we realize there’s more to music than notes and figure out that we have to “play this passage, but when you go from here to here be aware you’re going flat.” And then with practice, that becomes automatic, and it just becomes “play this passage” again.

And so as we practice (assuming we’re practicing well) we fold dozens or even hundreds of actions into a simple mental chunk like “the dogfight in The Washington Post” or “shooting a free throw.”

The conscious becomes unconscious.

Thinking vs. doing, again

Earlier, the unconscious became conscious- implicit knowledge was passed to our conscious attention, to working memory.

But remember that that implicit knowledge came in the form of  a chunk, which could be broken down into various parts, none of which when taken alone would completely represent the concept that was drawn into the conscious mind. That chunk can also be enriched by conscious thought to represent even more information. But the conscious mind is not holding that information when the concept comes to mind- it’s just holding the concept, which serves as an anchor for all the real information down underneath, a bit like the strings on a puppet. And like the puppeteer, you (or the “you” that you are conscious of) do not precisely control everything that happens- you use concepts to direct the general flow of thought or action.

This suggests thinking and doing as the interplay of conscious and unconscious- words, names, concepts, cues, are all just anchors for the conscious mind to vast stores of information that are just beneath the surface. However, that information is below the surface– consciously, we just think something like, “alright, time to play this passage” and then do it without any further need to think about what we are doing- in fact, thinking about what we’re doing would screw us up!

So when we hear someone play beautifully, we can now see that they have taken the time to think carefully about each facet of their performance, weaving them into a concept of action that they can do almost as easily as though they were tying their shoe or driving to the store. We can also assume that if we asked what they were thinking about, we’d get a sort of vague, empty  answer- because they know (and now we know) that if they thought about what they were doing, they’d screw up! And of course, there are philosophies that refer to an “empty” mind as one of the necessary conditions of pure action.

This is the idea of “getting out of your own way”- of relinquishing your idea of control to gain freedom by trusting the part of your brain that “you” (as we often identify ourselves with the contents of our conscious mind) can sense conceptually, but never fully grasp.

TL;DR II

Being good at things is fun. Here’s how to get good (two versions):

Version 1 (Acknowledging complexity):

  1. Look at whatever you’re doing as a puzzle. People that seem to be “better” than you are those who have discovered a way of fitting the pieces together.
  2. Identify every individual element of the puzzle that you can. Maybe write them all down, so it’s easier to remember.
  3. Think carefully about each part of the puzzle- find the points of contact between each of them. You’re looking to see how the pieces fit together.
  4. Set a goal for the next time you do the thing. Write it down. This goal is hopefully the solution to the puzzle.
  5. When you go to do the thing, just do it. You don’t need to think any more. Pay attention to what you’re doing (being attentive is different than thinking). Forget your goal, too- you can come back to it later (that’s why you wrote it down).
  6. After you’re done doing the thing, think back on it. What did you notice? Did you accomplish your goal? Does that seem to have solved the puzzle?
  7. If you accomplished your goal and all seems right, you’ve solved this puzzle. Now look again, and you’ll see that the puzzle you just solved is just a piece of an even bigger puzzle. If you accomplished your goal but things are still off, there are a a couple possible problems: maybe your goal was not the solution to this puzzle, or it was the solution to this puzzle but you didn’t realize that this puzzle was just part of a bigger puzzle. Either way, repeat from step 2 with new goal or old.

Version 2 (Ultra simplified, and paraphrased from some book):

  1. Pick a target. (Think carefully)
  2. Reach for it. (Stop thinking, JUST DO IT)
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the point you reached. (Think carefully again)
  4. Repeat.

Practice, pt. I (for everyone at BHS, and high school music students everywhere)

We’re going to think about something you’ve heard plenty about already, but I’ll do my best to put a different spin on it and perhaps help you understand it in a different way than you have in the past. It is the ever-present and ever-misunderstood concept of practice.

“You HAVE to practice!” is one of the most commonly uttered phrases from the mouth of just about every music teacher on the planet, intoned with varying degrees of kindness or exasperation depending on their personality, mood, and the degree of stubbornness with which a given student might ignore this responsibility.

Let me first clear up this statement a little bit by saying that you don’t HAVE to practice, which is probably obvious to most of you. You won’t die of lack of music practice (though some of us feel as though we might). It won’t affect the grand scheme of your life- you’ll have plenty of opportunities to live a fulfilling life and become more or less self-actualized. You might fail band, but failing a class isn’t the end of the world.

It’s more accurate (and important) to say that if you don’t practice, you probably won’t have very much fun with music. Think about it- if we’re both bad at something and have no sense that we’re improving, it’s very hard to enjoy ourselves.

Adding insult to injury, you’ll have a negative impact the experience of your bandmates. This is kind of unique to music- someone in the next row over failing a math test doesn’t affect your experience of math class much, but the person behind you playing out of tune in band can really mess up your day (or month, if they do it with enough consistency).

So, skimping on practice is likely to rob your musical experience of almost any pleasure that could be associated with playing your instrument- both on intra- and interpersonal fronts.

If that’s understood, only two options really make sense- either develop a habit of practicing, or quit and pursue other interests. Really consider the second option! If you aren’t willing to put in around 20 minutes a day outside class, you are probably not going to contribute or gain much from being involved in music. There’s no shame in admitting that some things are not for you at this moment in your life.

Now, onto the other misunderstanding, and this is the big one. What constitutes practice? I could easily write a whole book on this (and others already have) but because I know you’re all busy, I’ll keep it brief by outlining a general principle of how your brain works.

Think about learning for a second. What does it mean to have learned something? One way of putting it is that concepts and facts you’ve studied can be easily recalled from memory (say, to write an essay on an AP test, or to hit a jump shot). This is an oversimplification, but it’s not a huge stretch to say that a great deal of learning within any discipline involves a considerable amount of memorization- and this  goes double for physical disciplines like music and sports, where no amount of explanation can make you completely understand how to shoot a free throw or play a certain passage. Your body has to remember patterns of movement- “muscle memory.”

Most of us practice by saying “I’m going to work on this note, this passage, this phrase, so and so many times, until I get it right.” As it turns out, this is no way to remember anything. Repetition does not help encode memories. It’s spaced repetition that does the job. Memories become stronger when we attempt to retrieve them. In other words, the way to learn most anything is to get it, then let yourself forget, then remember. At first, you’ll struggle, but it will get easier and easier each day.

This, among other reasons, is why shorter daily practice periods (or multiple short practice periods in the same day, if you’re practicing a lot) are far more effective (especially for the less experienced among you) than longer sessions on one day. It’s the spaced-out attempts to retrieve patterns of thought and movement that have faded from conscious, short-term memory that ingrains those patterns deep into your mind and body, freeing you to think more conceptually about music rather than worrying about note accuracy, articulation, and intonation. Playing is exponentially more fun when you reach that stage.

For those of you who already practice consistently, but have been hitting a wall, understanding this feature of the brain could point to path forward. For those of you who think they can get away without practicing and somehow learn to play, this should be a reality check. For those of you who are loathe to practice for fear that you might not get better, you’re probably scared of nothing- but there’s only one way to find out for sure! I cannot recommend any less than five days a week of practice, even for people who aren’t terribly serious. It’s the only way to find out what kind of musician you might be.

In the future, I’ll go over more ways to make the most of your practice time and enjoy yourself playing music, but I want to make sure that this makes sense first, because if this doesn’t stick, nothing else Carolyn or I can tell you will really matter much at all- without practice, we’ll go nowhere fast.

Do you have questions? Concerns? Fire away! Comment or email me at ethanheyenga@gmail.com, or come to me before or after class and ask- I’m here to help, however I can.

And if the little tidbit about the way in which we learn was of interest to you or you wonder if I’m just making stuff up, I pulled it from this book about cognitive science.

See you all next time!

-Ethan

 

Class Notes: Introduction

It’s March in 2017, and if you’re a music student at Brookline High School you’ve probably gotten used to seeing me around. I’ve been hanging out listening and offering help wherever I can for the past six months, and it’s mostly been a lot of fun.

One thing has been a bit of a drag, though. School days are pretty fast paced. Having gone to music school, I’ve been spoiled by two- and four-hour rehearsal blocks with five- or six-man groups. Just listening to you guys is enough information to sort, let alone finding something to say to all of you that might be helpful.

I walk out of class every Thursday and write two or three pages of notes on things we could try, but rarely feel as though I have time to try any of them out with you. You’re an extremely diverse group of personalities and skillsets. There’s not a one size fits all solution for each of you- you all would benefit from individual time and attention on different things.

This is my first attempt at a solution. I’ll post my notes here, in short written forms that will take no more than five or ten minutes to read. They’ll be titled and labeled according to whom I’m speaking to (sections of the woodwinds in concert band, MCA, MCJ etc) and you can take a look and ask any specific questions you have via the comments section, email, or at school.

I hope you’ll find some of the ideas and impressions I share here to be useful.

-Ethan