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Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: It’s a Small Thing (or How to Practice, part 6)

I have written several articles already that discuss various aspects of the mysterious art of practicing. You can read these articles here:
At some point in our musical development, I notice a curious phenomenon, usually about eighth or ninth grade and upward, with a heavier concentration occurring around tenth grade. I notice tendencies toward inertia. A student comes to his or her lesson without having marked the practice handbook, even though the student did indeed practice. The student just did not record the practice, despite the fact that it would have taken the student perhaps 10 seconds at the most to make a notation in the practice record. Or the student continues to make the same fingering or bowing error and cannot bring himself to make an appropriate notation in the music.

I usually hear the same excuse too, that the student did not have or could not find a pencil. Well, I find that the best way to eliminate excuses is to take care of the complaint immediately. I maintain a box of pencils ready to dole out to those students who suffer from pencil paucity. The following week though the excuse might be a variant, such as the student mislaid the pencil or it was inconvenient to use.

The real problem is inertia. You remember learning about inertia in physics? Inertia was the tendency of an object to resist a change in its state of motion. If the object were at rest, the tendency is for the object to remain at rest. If the object is moving, then the tendency is to remain moving unless another object or force upsets that motion.

So it is with practicing, but are we in motion or at rest? Somehow I believe that we can argue that both are occurring, which may explain why it is so difficult to pick up a pencil. On the one hand, we are playing, practicing, moving our bow and fingers; we are in motion. We would have to exert effort to stop what we are doing in order to then pick up a pencil and make a note. On the other hand, we are in a state of rest, in the zone, or on a different plane in our thinking, and it is difficult to wake us up out of that state and exert effort to pick up a pencil and think about something else.

One way I have of combating this pencil issue or the inertia of remaining in a particular state is to periodically stop and have my student mark something here and there on the student’s music. Maybe it is to cross off a completed etude and to circle and date the next etude in the lineup. Or perhaps it is to add a note to complete the student’s scale chart. I come up with as many opportunities as I can to invite the student to pick up and use the pencil. I do this so that the student can practice the habit of picking up and using a pencil. The student is also practicing the habit of combating inertia as well.

I usually take a few minutes to discuss this issue in a conversation. I have many conversations with my young charges about practicing, and in some cases, with my adult students as well. I believe that we can learn much from each other about this illusive idea. My conversation about practicing as it relates to using a pencil is about how to exercise the small thing of discipline.

I believe that our discipline “muscle” can be strengthened by our devising various tasks that call upon us to exercise discipline. I do not believe that every task of discipline practice needs to be a monumental effort. In weight lifting, a bodybuilder might use a heavy weight for a fewer number of repetitions of the exercise and derive a muscle building benefit. Another person might lift a small hand weight for a larger number of repetitions and also build up muscle.

Disciplining ourselves to do small tasks, such as to record items in the practice handbook, make notations in the music, or to pick up a pencil for any reason while we are practicing, will help to strengthen our discipline ability. By teaching ourselves and practicing these small things, we can then be ready to handle the bigger things.

If you would like to read the previous articles that I wrote about practicing, you can find them at:
His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. – Matthew 25:21 (NIV)

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