Practice Abyss

During a performance, what are we thinking about? I thought about this a lot, because I would often get nervous and start getting into my own head about what the audience or judges or whoever were thinking about. So I had to train myself to not engage negative thoughts during a performance, but that wasn't enough for me. I decided to not only monitor my brain during performance, but during regular practice as well and this led to some really good things, and some not so good. Starting with the good, the act of monitoring the thoughts that go on in your head is somewhat alike to meditating. You choose a focal point and as other thoughts arise, you can choose to engage them, or not. So, as I play 12 scales in 32 different ways, maybe I'll start thinking about who to text or whether or not I should drink water or root beer. Practicing this type of focus was extremely helpful during practice and during performance, so I figured, why think about just one thing?

Now, when I am thinking about this, I am using an extreme amount of energy to keep my focus on whatever is going on right at that moment. I finally got the hang of it around the time I took the Cleveland Orchestra audition. During the semi-final round, two former instructors and a well respected entrepreneur were on the panel, and the screen was down, so I had a lot of potential thoughts that could arise from this situation. I managed to keep my thoughts only on the music in front of me, even while interacting with the panel when instructed to do something, and I was exhausted afterwards. I literally fell asleep in the lounge right after the round was over. So what am I actually thinking?

1) Time: keeping focus on the space between the notes, so that nothing rushes or drags (is too close together or too far apart). Instead of thinking about a beat of time, that stops immediately after it's counted, thinking of space gives more length to the time, so that everything connects. If I could put it visually, instead of seeing   (+      +      +      +)   I would see    (+_____+_____+_____+_____).

2) Lengths: even though percussion often has short sounds and notes associated to it, the notes on the page all have specific lengths to them. Basically, thinking about everything as legato as possible, except when instructions arise for anything else, helps connect directly with your time, and your execution of articulations. This helps me stay engaged with what I just played and anticipate what's to come.

3) Movement: This is what helped the most in between pieces and moving around instruments. By connecting with the movements of the body, I make sure that I am not over exerting, or over/under doing any motion as I play. I stay as fluid as possible, making sure that I do not stop a movement before or after it starts, until the last note has completely sounded. And even when I have hit the last note, I cannot stop thinking about my body, because I have to pick up a new set of mallets, move to another instrument, and prepare to play another piece that's completely different! So, I stay engaged with the movement of my body throughout that process, which means, I stay engaged with my body the entire time I'm on stage (specifically during auditions). You can see why I was exhausted after the Cleveland audition. 

4) Rhythm/Melody: For percussionists rhythmic integrity is the biggest test of our skill and maturity as musicians. Phrases are really hard to create when the rhythm isn't right, and everyone can tell when a drummer isn't grooving. Similarly, it's hard to play Bach when the notes either don't connect to create the phrase, or are out of tune. In both cases, I literally sing either the rhythms or melody in my head, or commonly called "inner ear", as if my brain was creating the sound that my hands were making. This worked for two reasons, I think: one, it keeps me engaged by focusing on each note separately, and two, by focusing on each note separately, you can monitor everything about that note (pitch, quality, how the body felt during that note, length, articulation, color, relationship to the previous and future note). 

5) Sound: This one is more general. Each space we play in will effect our playing in one way or another. Generally, our ears, brain and body are smart enough to adjust to these differences in space and sound reactions without us having to "think" about it. So, I let the sound that I hear guide me and let go of anything else. This is probably the most vulnerable of the list because you literally are not doing anything but listening to your sound consistency and projection. Is it clear enough in the hall? Does the color change during the piece? How soft/loud is too soft/loud for the hall? All of these hypothetical questions are never "answered" but adjusted to. The catch with this one is that it tends to lend itself to a desire to drag the tempo, which is why I couple it with either one or two other numbers. Here's where the bad outcome arises, for me.

If you know the story of the movie "Inception", one of the main plot threads is the necessity to differentiate the dream world from the real world. For me, discovering these type of ways to think about music and playing was a Godsend and incredibly exhilarating and enticing. I'd practice for hours on end with no breaks, just to see how long my mind could withstand being in that head space. I'd over rehearse, trying to hear every ounce of space between notes, or examining the colors between left hand and right hand notes on xylophone one at a time. Eventually, this did not leave the practice room. I'd examine how I was picking up a cup, whether or not I was engaged the entire time between it leaving the table to touching my mouth....Yea, it got really out of hand. It was like entering an endless void. I think, with anything, going to that extreme is dangerous, because once you come out, you probably will realize you can't go that far again. If you do, you'll have to go deeper in in order to have the same feeling, and who knows if you'll come out next time. I attribute this to a person like Glen Gould or Bobby Fischer (just watch any documentary on either of them and you'll see what I mean). Luckily, I did arise from this void of internal thought, and can manage it effectively. I promise I'm not analyzing my posture and connection to the keyboard as I type this blog, promise! 

In any case, thinking about a couple of those points will keep your mind occupied, so occupied that you won't have time to think about anything else. And whenever something does cross your mind, you always have a backup item to put your focus on. It is not an escape from your thoughts or the realities of the current moment, but simply an objective manager of them. If your sound isn't consistent, you will notice, and then you can fix it instead of attaching a subjective thought to it (my sound isn't consistent, I suck, I'll never win anything). It takes time to, essentially, relearn how to think, but doing a little everyday goes a long way.

Start with something simple, like scales. Find what's easy to listen for, let's say pitch, and really engage your mind to that. Is each pitch accurate to the one before and the one after? Then, focus on a less easy thing, maybe time? Is each note still in tune, but now in time with the previous and future note? Keep going until the most difficult item is easier to hear, for me it's the tuning of pitches above C7 and below G2, and hearing sixteenths at quarter note at below 30 and above 218. Slow practice is a good exercise for this, because you can work on small sections with these things in mind, so that when they are in tempo, you've already heard what they "should" sound like. It does take time, and a lot of brain power, so don't try to do too much too soon. Go at your pace, and eventually you will get the hang of it and you'll even discover which ones work better for you in different circumstances.

I hope this gives you some insight to why at one point I said I practiced 18 hours a day. Thinking like this, it's hard not to reach that time, or longer if you forgo sleep (please don't). Nowadays, I try to get a solid six hours in, and if I feel like continuing, I will, but I don't try to if I don't feel like it. I also do not encourage guilt tripping yourself into practicing. If you are tired, rest, but also know when you are actually tired, or being lazy. It's more about being mindful about listening to your body and mind. If your practice isn't productive, take a short break. If you've been practicing 4 hours with no break, you will probably over kill any chops you have. Just be smart about how you practice and it will be more productive. 

I'll end with this. The last audition I went for, I practiced everyday, and I mean everyday, for 7 months straight, and then I doubled the amount of my practice the last two months before. I had basically cut off any communication during those last 2 months, except for a handful of people. I went really deep into the void, and was only digging deeper. Little did I know that a really good friend of mine was in the hospital recuperating from something he almost died from 3 months prior. When I did see him I apologized for not texting him. He said, "It's ok, I know you're busy." Needless to say, that really hit me hard, and I decided to never let myself get to that sort of place of isolation ever again. Hopefully, my experience in the void gives you tools that will help your development as a musician, but also discourages you from going too far in the process. With that, I cautiously say, Happy practicing. 

"Focus on the process, not the product that the process was meant to achieve. It's a paradox. When you focus on the process, the desired product takes care of itself with fluid ease. When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process. The reason for this is not hard to understand. When you focus your mind on the present moment, on the process of what you are doing right now, you are always where you want to be and where you should be. All your energy goes into what you are doing. However, when you focus your mind on where you want to end up, you are never where you are, and you exhaust your energy with unrelated thoughts instead of putting it into what you are doing. In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal. If we don't give up our attachment to the goal, we cannot be in the present because we are thinking about something that hasn't occurred yet: the goal"- Thomas M. Sterner