Efficient Practice

April 18, 2011

Over many years of teaching, I have learned that the biggest challenges students face have to do with developing efficient practice techniques and learning how to be open and responsive while performing. My teaching at The University of North Florida and privately has taught me that these issues should be of the highest priority and be the foundation for musical growth and creativity.  Both challenges have been present for virtually every student I have taught.

The Proper Approach

Practicing incorrectly creates a major hurdle in the student’s ability to improve his/her playing. Before a student begins to play an exercise, he/she should tap the rhythm of the exercise and then sing the exercise effortlessly. If this first step is missed, the brain might not be fully engaged. When playing the exercise, the student should sing at the same time. Wind players can sing the exercise and play silently; just fingering the instrument.

Playing/singing the exercise incorrectly establishes the flawed exercise as the norm, even though the student may consciously know that the exercise is not correct. The brain may not make the same distinction, just as a computer will not show an error message if the phrase ‘2+2= 7’ is inputted. The computer simply accepts the information, whether it is correct or not. By repeating an exercise incorrectly, the brain interprets the incorrect exercise as being correct. With many repetitions, correct or incorrect, neurological pathways are formed and the information is solidified. Students experience this in other ways as well— for example, if a tune’s melody is learned and repeated incorrectly, it can be difficult to fix the error unless many repetitions are done to override and replace the incorrect information.

The solution to this challenge is very simply to practice as perfectly as possible – find the tempo, even if it is incredibly slow, at which no mistakes are made. If a student cannot play the exercise perfectly even at a very slow tempo, he or she can try to play/sing a small part of the exercise, make sure it is correct, and then repeat it several times until it is second nature. The additional part of the exercise can then be added on, and the entire exercise can then be practiced.

After too few repetitions, a student may desire to increase the tempo. However, he/she may not be the best judge about whether the exercise has been mastered. What I use to assess this is to have the student repeat the exercise, error-free for a minimum of 10-15 repetitions. If mistakes occur, the exercise has not been mastered and needs to be slowed down or simplified,for example, the student should play only the first part of the exercise, as mentioned above. The student can also tap the rhythm of the exercise again, resulting in the rhythm becoming assimilated both mentally and physically. Many repetitions are necessary to create ease and mastery of the exercise at a given tempo. Once the exercise can be played perfectly and effortlessly, the student can increase the tempo (maybe 10 beats on the metronome). Thanks to Kenny Werner for this technique (i.e. the exercise is either ‘too fast or too much.’)

Another issue is “stopping and starting,” which students often do to correct a mistake. If this is allowed during practice, a message is sent to the brain that it is an acceptable way of playing, even though the student may consciously know that it is not. When a student allows this to happen when practicing a tune, his/her brain accepts this as being correct. In a performance environment stopping and starting isn’t acceptable; yet if a student is accustomed to doing it in practice, tension will result as there is no mechanism in place for quick recovery after a mistake. Students need to practice tunes without stopping and starting, and if a mistake is made, the student should recover as quickly as possible, but the form of the tune should continue, regardless. If the student reacts to the mistake, it will only delay his/her coming back to the correct place in the tune. Tapping the melody of the tune, as mentioned above, can be helpful with breaking the habit. Not allowing the students to stop and start replicates a live performance situation, in which the student would need to regain his/her bearings and resume playing.

Learning to be Open and Responsive

So often, students become absorbed in playing what they know – the material they have practiced and assimilated. That does not guarantee that they will be ‘in the space’ that will allow them to respond to what is happening in the moment. Getting into the flow of being in a creative mind-space can be practiced. I have often asked my students to intentionally leave more space when they are practicing and playing in a group setting, allowing an opportunity for the other players to interact with them. I have observed them practicing this correctly, but when in a performance situation, they revert back to their old way of playing.

There is a certain comfort that students feel when they focus only on what they are playing, rather than what is happening in the group. There is a deeper creative space that the students can reach when they let go of ‘the known’ and wait and listen. I have tried techniques such as having the soloist trade two-measure phrases with the drummer, which creates a call and response scenario. However, this interaction is often lost in a live performance situation, as the students will revert back to their old habits. Recently, I tried something new. I asked the students to think about music differently: space is the main focus and the notes played are secondary. In other words, I suggested they wait until they felt like playing something— even if it meant that many measures went by without them playing a note. By doing this, the students became more comfortable with space and started to feel freer with the music. During the time that they were not playing, I believe that their minds were unconsciously preparing for the next phrase, even though they reported that they were simply experiencing the space. They were able to let go of the need to be playing non-stop phrases without leaving any breathing room. This created a new musical experience, in which the students relaxed, listened to what was happening in the band and waited for the next phrase to come to them.

This exercise takes an extreme approach in order to create more comfort with space, which in turn allows for greater freedom. If this is the foundation for the practice of improvisation, it is my belief that it will be easier for the students to access deeper creativity. By ‘getting in the space,’ the students may choose to play spaciously or more densely, but there will be an underlying feeling of openness and flexibility.
These practices are a small sampling of techniques that I have found to be indispensable for furthering students’ ability to become efficient in their practice and responsive to the multitude of directions and shapes that can manifest in improvised music.

Pianist, composer, arranger Lynne Arriale is assistant professor of Jazz Piano and director of Small Ensembles at the University of North Florida. She is also a sought after clinician and private instructor for notable music schools at all levels and private students the world over. Throughout her 20 year career, she has toured internationally, playing most major festivals, and recently performed two “Jazz Meets Symphony” concerts in Johannesburg and Durban for The Jazz Foundation of South Africa. Arriale has recorded twelve critically acclaimed CD’s as a leader; the most current being Nuance (featuring Randy Brecker, George Mraz and Anthony Pinciotti) and Convergence (featuring Bill McHenry, Omer Avital and Anthony Pinciotti), due for release February, 2011 on Motema Music.

 

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