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Music Mastery Practice Tips Newsletter, Issue 2

August 2008

As August comes to a close and Labor Day weekend is upon us, it is time for my monthly newsletter. This has been quite a busy month for me, as I am beginning a new teaching job at the Center for Performing and Fine Arts, a unique offering of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School. So far, the week of new teacher training has been great, and the school year begins next week.

Recommendation of the Month

book cover
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is one of the books I read that had an immediate impact on my everyday life. Actually, I bought the book on audio CDs and listened to it during my long commute to work. My first experience of finding "the Now" and freeing myself from the near-constant stream of inner-dialogue came while listening to these recordings. Concepts from this book in conjunction with other readings has profoundly reshaped my relationship to everything.

Today's Practice Tip: Learn to Recognize Diminishing Returns

Anyone who had done any amount of practicing knows that towards the end of a long session, there is a threshhold of frustration with a passage of music. The session doesn't even need to be long to reach a level of frustration with a difficult passage. If you've been focused on that passage with no distractions for as little as five minutes, it is possible to reach a frustration level.

That level of frustration tends to diminish your ability to make progress. It is a downward spiral that leads to quitting in frustration. This is what educators call 'diminishing returns'. The higher the frustration level grows, the less progress is made. The less progress made, the higher the frustration level grows.

The most important thing about diminishing returns is to be able to step back and recognize it when it is happening. The frustration comes because you are resisting what is currently happening. Your lack of success at performing the passage of music accurately is not accepted, because you desire to master it so you can move on to something else. When you really think about it, getting frustrated with what IS is really rather silly. Getting frustrated about it doesn't change your ability to play it - it actually reduces your chances of performing it on the next attempt. It really comes down to a lack of patience on your part - patience with your own ability to make the neural connections necessary to perform the music accurately.

When you realize you are into that frustration cycle, you basically have two choices:

  1. You can attempt the passage again with a modification of some kind - usually slowing the tempo down dramatically or chunking the passage into smaller groupings of notes will be effective.
  2. You can take a break. This actually in many cases is the best solution.

When you take a break and get your mind onto something else, you often will experience an interesting phenomenon: when you attempt the troublesome passage again, you may find that you play it better than ever on your first attempt. This occurs because you basically "got out of your own way" and allowed the neurology to work for you. After that initial success, you may find that subsequent attempts are not quite as successful, but the frustration block should be diminished, allowing you to proceed.

Once again, it is our own mind's inner commentary that inhibits our growth. We are and always will be our own worst enemies. Patience is a key factor in the process - particularly patience with one's own body. Giving the body enough repetitions of the patterns will yield the results - the question becomes how long you're willing to wait to get those results.

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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