The awe-inspiring violin playing in the film The Red Violin, which I watched recently, has piqued my curiosity about how violin soloists practice, memorize complex pieces, and learn to recover from mistakes and deal with performance anxiety. Violinists’ playing techniques are completely different from guitarists’, of course, but the overall principles of practicing to reach such an extreme level of expertise– particularly the mental aspects — can surely transfer across musical domains.
One theme that runs through much of what I’ve been reading is the importance of metacognition (basically, thinking about thinking) and visualization for attaining peak musical performance. So when I embarked on my slow practice experiment, I paid close attention to my thoughts and feelings to see what I could learn. Here are some of my observations about the mental challenges of slow practice.
It’s easy to get impatient and be tempted to increase speed too quickly. Sticking to my strict program of one minute’s perfection, one click at a time took heroic effort. Knowing that it paid off, however, should make it easier next time.
There is much research indicating that directing negative thoughts towards ourselves is a great way to commit self-sabotage, and that we can gain much from engaging in positive self-talk and visualization. This may sound a bit too new-agey and wishy-washy for some, but research has shown that our thoughts and mindset can make a huge difference in how we approach tasks and whether or not we succeed.
It’s easy to lapse into negative thinking when practicing slowly, e.g., “I’m only playing at 80 bpm — I’ll NEVER reach 180!” I had to repeatedly turn my thoughts in a positive direction, imagining what it would be like when I could play faster, telling myself that it was possible with practice and that perseverance and patience were the only way to get there. It made a huge difference, and was a big part of why I was able to fight off the temptation to try to increase speed too soon.
Concentration and breaks
One of the main benefits of slow practice is that you can concentrate hard on various micro-aspects of your technique. But it can be tough to maintain concentration during an extended practice session. Apparently, classical musicians often take frequent short breaks during their extended practice sessions. I tried this approach, and found that taking a 5–10 minute break when my concentration was flagging was really helpful.
The importance of privacy
One of my greatest mental barriers to getting quality practice is my fear of annoying others with my endless repetition of scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises. I have found that the ONLY way for me to do any extended practice is to ensure that I have complete privacy so that nobody will hear me. Even if the others in my surroundings repeatedly assure me that they don’t mind hearing me practice, it still bothers ME. I just can’t relax if somebody is listening.
My first slow practice sessions took place when I was home alone. I remember thinking several times that I could never have practiced like that if someone had been listening. I would have been preoccupied with worries about bugging them with my widdling and clicking metronome.
If you also feel inhibited by people listening to you practice, you owe it to yourself to arrange a private space for yourself where you can tap, alternate pick or sweep to your heart’s content without feeling as if you are annoying others.
Thumbs up for metacognition
This short experiment has convinced me that it is useful to reflect on how you are thinking and feeling when practicing and playing. My guess is that it’s also beneficial to reflect on your thoughts ABOUT practicing in general, particularly if you tend to procrastinate about getting regular practice. Procrastination has been a big problem for me for a long time, and I know that tons of people share this wretched affliction. So as I learn to overcome it I’ll be sharing what I learn here.