Practice – Q. + A.

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by Bill Cahn – member of NEXUS

The form in which we ask our questions will determine the answers we get. To put it more broadly: all the knowledge we ever have is a result of questions. Indeed, it is commonplace among scientists that they do not see nature as it is, but only through the questions they put to it. I should go further: we do not see anything as it is except through the questions we put to it. And there is a larger point even than this: since questions are the most important intellectual tool we have, is it not incredible that the art and science of question-asking is not systematically taught?’
(Neil Postman)

Let me get one thing straight right away – I don’t really like to practice. Practice (as it is usually understood in music – a mindless, repetitive exercise) is a very poor substitute for music-making. OK, that’s a negative statement. The positive side is that music-making, especially with others, is just about the most fulfilling pursuit I can think of, and practice (the process of attaining ‘flow’) is normally a part of achieving that fulfillment. My ideal scenario is to seek maximum efficiency in practicing, so that enough practice occurs in order to realize the music-making in performance, but not any more practice than is necessary to accomplish that end.

By ‘music-making’ I mean that ‘state of being’ in performance when listening and the
resulting expression are deep, immediate, effortless, and without thought – ‘in the zone’, ‘at one with the music’, etc. One paradox is that in order to achieve a state of ‘flow’ in performance – without the distractions of thought – the earlier preparatory process sometimes requires a lot of thinking.

The main points about practicing in this short essay are:
1) good practicing involves asking good questions of one’s self, and then coming up
with good answers, and
2) efficiency in practicing involves asking the right questions at the right time in
the process of internalizing the music – learning about the relationships
between the printed page (or in the case of aural music, the style, structure,
etc.) and one’s own motions, emotions, intuitions, and inner truths.

Starting with the second point, here are three progressive areas of focus in the preparation process – learning the notes (details), organizing the learned notes into coherent phrases/sections (big picture), and developing a sense of spontaneity in presentation. Now, addressing the first point: by asking (and answering) appropriate questions in each area of focus, it is possible to achieve a degree of efficiency in getting from ‘now’ to where one ultimately wants to be in performance.

For beginning students, it the teacher who usually raises appropriate questions and helps in finding answers. As a student progresses to an intermediate level, the teacher may provide regular opportunities and encouragement for the student to raise and answer appropriate questions. An advanced student is one who is able to routinely raise and answer appropriate questions unaided (but perhaps with non-judgmental observation) by a teacher/facilitator.
In practice sessions, one goal of the student is ultimately to become a self teacher, or
more accurately, a self-sufficient learner. The ancient technique of posing questions and then seeking answers can be a powerful tool in achieving that goal.

Here is a short list of typical questions to be asked in the process of preparation. This list is only a sampling and is by no means complete. One’s answer(s) to any question can lead to more questions.

Learning the notes
Beginning Student:
1. What is the goal of this practice session?
2. What are the right notes? tempos? dynamics? tone?
3. How do the right notes sound? feel?
4. Are muscles relaxed? Is there tension anywhere?
5. Which stick/mallet (L or R) is most efficient for each note?
6. What was heard? noticed?
7. What was liked/disliked about what was heard?
8. What can be done to change what was disliked?
Intermediate Student:
All of the above, plus –
9. What sound of the instrument is desired?
10. Does the instrument sound as desired?
11. Is the instrument ‘in tune’?
12. What thoughts were present (or not) while playing?
Advanced Student
All of the above, plus –
13. Has the desired result been achieved?
14. What questions have not yet been asked?
15. Is it time to move on to the next stage?

Organizing the learned notes into phrases/sections
Beginning Student:
1. What is the goal of this practice session?
2. What note/phrase/structure patterns are noticed?
3. Are muscles relaxed? Is there tension anywhere?
4. What was heard? noticed?
5. What can be done to change what was disliked?
Intermediate Student:
All of the above, plus –
6. What are the elements that make/unify each phrase/section?
7. What is the rhythmic/dynamic/tonal shape of each phrase/section?
Advanced Student:
All of the above, plus –
8. What resources are available to provide a sense of the standard performance practices for this music? Where can these resources be accessed?

Developing a sense of spontaneity in presentation
Beginning Student:
1. What is the goal of this practice session?
2. Is there another way to perform this music? Which is preferred? Why?
Intermediate Student:
All of the above, plus –
3. How many different ways can this music be performed/presented?
4. What should be communicated to the listener/audience in this performance?
Advanced Student:
All of the above, plus –
5. How can feedback from the listener/audience be obtained? evaluated?

© 2001 William L. Cahn
8740 Wesley Road, Bloomfield, NY 14469 USA

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