Oct 18, 2017

Practice, practice, practice

Music education in university, my perspective is from the USA, involves the development of a well rounded musician. The curriculum includes courses in education, performance, theory, history, composition, and more. It is well known that music performance is one of the most celebrated art-form throughout history and cultures. What is not well known is how many hours and mental effort it takes to become a successful musician. Although some may become proficient enough with only playing by ear and copying others this experience is limited, restricts the musician to only certain performances, and is not the goal of a well rounded musician. Most of a musician's preparation entails practicing alone for long periods of hours. Practice routines are usually developed with a teacher who assesses the level of performance and provides constructive feedback each step of the way. These routines are subject to change on a constant basis for many kinds of reasons and are designed to challenge the musician's current level of performance. There is no one-size-fits-all practice routine, but in general practicing is the best method for the musician to master the instrument, learn how theory and harmony apply to practice, learn music interpretation, and much more. Musician can record their own practice, public performance, or lessons listen back and critique themselves. It is important to note that what the musician plays for the public is only the tip of the iceberg of the work put into a performance.

In order to better learn what musicians do to prepare for a performance one needs to understand what they do during practice. Musicians know this and are always looking for ways to improve their practice routines in order to attain the next level of performance. Some of these new routines may add, modify, or even challenge old habits in the musician's tool-kit. Practicing is never ending. When asked why he continued to practice in his late years Pablo Casals said "because I think I'm making progress." (Quote Investigator, 2014) In his book, The History of Jazz (1997), Ted Gioia describes John Coltrane's approach toward practicing as "a practice-room fanatic, obsessed with constantly improving and expanding his skills." These are only two examples, but it is a well-known "fact" that improvement is attained via practicing not public performance. Practice routines are not derived from public performance alone, they are conscientiously designed towards improving the musician's all-around skills, including comprehension.

As musicians improve on their skills and comprehension so does music as a field. Classical music is usually used as an umbrella term that encompasses different periods of Western music. Jazz is also a term used to designate a music which has gone through different developmental. I am sure a scientific explanation can state the reasons why and how music evolves as its practice and performance are based not on a selected few musicians behind closed doors, but on a field open to the public, a practice based on theoretical and practical understanding, and open to criticism. This approach has a lot in common with the scientific attitude. These days with the help of the Internet musicians are posting their practice routines, theoretical analysis, public performances, and much more on the World Wide Web. Here is a great video by saxophonist Ted Nash, from Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, explaining how he develops his practice routine,

Over his long career the psychologist Anders Ericsson has studied expertise development in different domains including music and medicine. Ericsson found common characteristics in practice routines, not to be confused with everyday work or generic practice, that help with expertise development among top performers. He called this deliberate practice. He along with co-author Robert Pool published these characteristics in their new book Peak (2016). Some of these characteristics include:

  • It is conducted alone.
  • Requires help from a teacher or coach.
  • It is outside of one's comfort zone.
  • Requires maximal effort.
  • Generally not enjoyable.
  • It has well-defined, specific goals.
  • Requires full attention and conscious action.
  • Requires feedback, especially in early stages.
  • Development of self-monitoring.
  • Development of high quality mental representations.
  • It builds on or modifies prior skills.

It may seem counterintuitive how much work it takes in attaining expertise, especially in an artistic field where common knowledge is that it's all about intuition and expression. If it's not obvious by now deliberate practice also requires you to slow down and work on areas prone for mistakes. It is also a long arduous process that never ends. If interested in learning more about how musicians practice ask a top musician who also educates others, see them perform live, go to a master class or watch a few on YouTube, read a university curriculum and see what it entails. The required mental effort for top performance might surprise you.

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan