Music Mastery Practice Tips Newsletter, Issue 1

July 2008

Here it is, the inaugural issue of my newsletter. Most of the people on my subscription list are family and friends at this point, so to you I say "hello!"

Off on Vacation

First, a housekeeping note - I will be away on vacation from July 26 until August 9. I will have limited (if any) internet access, so things will be quiet on my website for a while. I'll be interested to see how many visitors I get while I'm gone and how much email is waiting for me when I return...

Recommendation of the Month

Evolve Your Brain by Dr. Joe Dispenza
Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind by Dr. Joe Dispenza is a great read by one of the talking heads in the movie What the Bleep Do We Know. As a chiropractic doctor, Joe became interested in the brain's ability to rewire itself through focused attention when he suffered a severe spinal injury. Using the science he discusses in this book, he was able to heal himself through intention and knowledge when other doctors said he would never walk again.At the end of the book, he gives a practical approach to mental rehearsal. Get a copy here.

Today's Practice Tip: "Unstack Your Music" to Focus on a Performance Problem

When playing a difficult passage of music (which means any passage that you can't play fluently), it is best to break down the passage and deal with one element at a time. "Unstacking your music" means to remove layers of complexity in the music so you can focus one one specific aspect of the music and improve it. First, if the passage is lengthy, focus on only two to four measures at a time. Work on those measures, then move to the next set of measures before playing the entire passage again.

Begin by focusing on playing the correct pitches. Difficulty with this is nearly always an issue of fine motor skill coordination. The goal is to play the correct fingerings in the correct order multiple times until the finger patterns have been mapped neurologically (muscle memory established). The great thing about this is that you can take away all other variables while you are doing it. Do not attempt to perform the pitches in time. In fact, changing the rhythm and playing only groupings of notes (two at a time, three at a time) is extremely effective. You are still performing the correct sequence of muscle movements no matter what the rhythmic grouping is, so you are strengthening the neural patterns for this passage. In addition to traditional repetition, mental rehearsal is an excellent technique for building a neuronet for the pitch sequence.

After you have mapped the pitch sequence to an acceptable level of accuracy, add back in the written rhythm. Most people can read the rhythm and have an idea of what the rhtyhm is supposed to sound like. They simply need to perform the rhythm with the newly established pitch sequence. If you aren't sure of what the rhythm sounds like, you'll have to break it down, perhaps writing in counts or putting in tick marks where beats occur. If you struggle playing the rhythm correctly, an activity I call "Twiddling" may help.

"Twiddling" for Rhythm Learning

Twiddling is playing the written rhythms on any pitch you choose. I find it most effective to alternate between two adjacent notes, such as C and D. Playing the rhythm on one pitch alone can become confusing. The idea is to spend as little of your brain's bandwidth on the fingerings so you can focus more resources on performing the rhythm correctly. Once you have successfully twiddled the rhythm several times, try playing it with the pitches as written.

Once you have the rhythm firmly in your mind and under your fingers, it's time to get out the metronome and get consistent. This is also the point to add in accents, dynamics, and phrasing. Unstacking all the variables in a passage of music and then restacking them is an effective way of getting to the details of the music and developing a successful, consistent performance.

This newsletter (c) 2008 Thomas J. West. If you wish to reprint this article on another website or offline, please contact the copyright holder before using.

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