Monday, November 24, 2014

Check those Vitals!

Whether in an audition or a jury, you may be presented with sight-reading.  Usually you are given a few seconds to look over the music. Especially if you are nervous, you may have trouble thinking clearly and making the most of these precious seconds.

What does a paramedic do when arriving on the scene?
Check if the patient is breathing.  
Check the if the patient is conscious/responsive.
Check for a pulse.

That kind of thing...

Actually, here's an actual EMT checklist but hopefully you get the idea.

What should a performer do when 'arriving on the scene' of a new sight-reading?

Check the key signature.
Check the time signature.
Check the tempo.
Notice the opening notes and the dynamic.

How long should this take?  With practice, 2-3 seconds should do the trick.
Let's look at the list a bit more:
Check the key signature.
Actually THINK about what the key signature MEANS.  Scan the music for the first note you are likely to miss (usually the last sharp or flat).
For example:
You should immediately look through the music for any C-flats.  Really think about the actual slide position.  Focus!  

Check the time signature.
If you see 6/8, what note will equal the beat, the 8th or the dotted quarter??  Does the time signature change?

Check the tempo.
Hear this tempo in your mind. Hear the first few notes in your head at the right speed.  Know what the words mean.  Which is faster Andante or Moderato?

Notice the opening notes and the dynamic.
Not only should you notice the opening notes, you can probably "flash memorize" them in your mind.  I will sometimes have students try to play the beginning of their sight-reading from memory after having only looked at it for a few seconds.  At first they are shocked when I ask them to do this, but you would be surprised at how many  notes they can actually process and memorize.  I like this trick because it forces them to actually play the music in their minds.

Amazingly, you can train yourself to do this in roughly ten seconds.  If you have 30 seconds total to look over a sight-reading example, you can use the remaining seconds to look for tricky section and play them in your mind.

Just like a paramedic, you have a limited amount of time to check those vitals.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Duel of the Habits / Growing a Mighty Oak

As we learn, we build habits.
Some help us play better.
Some hinder us.

When we try to learn a new habit (ie "Break an Old Habit"), there is, essentially a battle going on in our minds.  The new habit (an alternate position or keeping the throat relaxed) is like a young plant that needs constant nourishment and love.

Without constant, nourishing vigilance, the old habit will reassert itself.  When our attention is full, dealing with musical complexity, that's when the dominant habit, lurking in the background, can take over again.I wrote about something similar in an older blog post: Taliban Habits.

We want our new habit to grow into a mighty oak!

In order to do that, we need CONSTANT VIGILANCE

While the new habit grows, we have to make sure the old habit doesn't rise up and reassert itself.  This, I think, is one of the great benefits of playing simple tunes or exercises.  It frees up our brains to make sure the new habit grows.

Otherwise, that precious little sapling gets cut down by Darth Maul!

(or something like that...I know it's a mixed metaphor)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Stop the Presses!!


Suppose you are playing through a piece and you make a mistake. What do you do?

Stop and fix it right away?
Keep going?

Well, unless you are in "Play Through without Stopping" mode, there is evidence that you should bring everything to a screeching halt and fix it right away.

That's like the old movie cliche in which a late-breaking story causes someone to shout, "Stop the Presses!"  because they have to change the paper to reflect the story.

Of course, this causes a disruption and, if you're practicing, it requires a lot of patience to stop and fix things frequently.  In the BulletProof Musician blog, I read about a study at the University of Texas-Austin in which pianists were given an unknown passage to learn and observed as they practiced it.

In this list of 8 things the better performers did, notice these two items (originally #4 and #5 on their list):
  1. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
  2. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.
It didn't seem to matter how much time was spent practicing the passage.  The key element was this: the percentage of correct runs.  As the blog states:
"The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes." 

They stopped right away, maybe even before the mistake and methodically fixed it.

Here's the whole blog post (it's a good one):

When you goof....

  • STOP

Otherwise, you are training yourself to goof.

What does that take?  Let's all say those magic words together:
Patience and Persistance

In an era when things move faster and faster; when people click away if a web page doesn't load in seconds, the human mind still moves at the same speed and we learn in the same way.

If you stumble, someone in your mind should shout, "Stop the presses. Let's get this thing fixed and fixed now."

Sometime the best practice sessions are the ones in which you don't seem to cover that much material.