Practicing better by plugging leaks

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While the Suzuki method focuses on consistent, rather than rapid progress, it’s definitely more enjoyable to play better and to progress. Recently I ran across a pair of articles[1],[2] that dealt with how professionals and amateurs differ in their approach to their discipline; and it’s applicable to how to play better.

Think of this analogy. There’s a tub that we want to fill; so we turn on the tap. Only the tub isn’t filling as quickly as we hoped. So we open the tap a little more. Now the tub is filling up a little faster, but again, not as fast as we expected. Why not? Maybe the water level isn’t rising as expected because there’s a leak. As we’re putting in water, some of it is draining out at the same time. So we have a choice, we could fix the leak or try to overwhelm it by turning the tap more.

Becoming better at what one does is not unlike this analogy. Until we plug the leaks, it’s impossible to completely fill the tub. Likewise, we can continue to pile on more repertoire and more events to prepare for; but until we fix the “leaks” in our practice program, progress is slower and success is delayed. People who have studied the difference between professional and amateur athletes notice a difference between how games are won or lost. Professional athletes have very closely-matched technique; so they win by winning points. Amateurs have highly variable technique and may not even be aware of their deficits.[3] When amateur athletes face one another, it’s less a game of winning points than of not losing points. The amateur game goes to the athlete who makes the fewest blunders. The process of becoming a professional involves, in part, the filtering out of these glaring deficiencies in technique - filtering out the “leaks” in their game.

Since our children with whom we practice are all at an amateur stage of development, they’re not only constantly learning new techniques, but should be “plugging the leaks” in the technique they’re already covered. What are some of the leaks we can plug in practice? Or as David Cain puts it, “the holes where all the success leaks out.” Since I practice with a violin student, I think about it in terms of string technique, but it should be easy to extend this to any instrument.

  • Not focusing on tone. So much beauty “leaks out” by not focusing on all the variables that work together to make good tone - bow hold, posture, relaxing the bow arm into the string, drawing a straight bow.
  • Not counting It’s easy to get sloppy with rhythm. Conversely, being picky about counting accurately is an easy way to plug one leak in playing. Hint: the metronome is your friend!
  • Not playing what’s on the page. In his excellent essay “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, a meditation on a life of piano lessons, concert pianist Jeremy Denk notes that: “Ninety per cent of a teacher’s job is directing students to read what’s plainly on the page.” The composer or editor thought this section should be forte? So, play it forte. A hint here: Suzuki kids memorize music quickly; but they should still refer back to the music because the memorization process isn’t 100% complete and accurate.
  • Not striving to improve intonation Accurate pitch is a moving target, but fortunately, string instruments have a built-in “cheat.” Constantly focusing on the resonant pitches up and down the instrument whenever they present themselves is an excellent way to plug this leak in technique.

Of course, we practice partners have our own “leaks” to plug:

  • Not having a plan - the most impactful change we can make in our own technique is to have a plan. It needn’t be detailed or sophisticated; the practice plan just has to address what’s needed to make some progress for the week.
  • Not being consistent - Practicing every single day may be unnecessarily obsessive; but being consistent about the habit is not. Progress is in large part a function of time-on-task. When we’ve had remodeling projects at our house, it goes faster when the workers show up and do the work. Imagine that!
  • Not focusing on the teacher’s goals - This is an easy leak to fix. The teacher brings an enormous wealth of playing and pedagogical experience to the studio. Plus you pay them! Why not take advantage of that? Not sure of the goals? Ask!
  • Not making it enjoyable - Learning to play an instrument is hard. Why make it harder by causing it to be drudgery?

Progress is a balance between “turning on the tap” and “plugging the leaks.” In a way, this is the essence of good review practice. Thinking about practice in this way can help our kids progress faster with more robust technique.

References


  1. The Hole Where All the Success Leaks Out - this article by David Cain, who writes at Raptitude is an excellent summary of the idea here. You can improve by adding new knowledge and skills; or you can improve by systematically filter out glaring deficits. Guess where amateurs derive the most benefit?

  2. - Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance - Amateur tennis players win by making fewer unforced errors. Professionals win by strategic shots.

  3. This is the so-called Dunning-Krueger effect which is a cognitive bias in which a person of low ability falsely assesses his ability as higher than it is because he lacks sufficient context in a particular domain to apply any meta-cognitive skills.