Learn Your Instrument, Not Just Pieces — Part 2

This post is offered as a follow up to my earlier post entitled “Learn Your Instrument, Not Just Pieces”. In my initial article I did what we often like to do when we think we have something important to say — I told everyone why they’re wrong about something and all the ways that that wrong-ness is manifesting itself. In the case of my initial post I lamented the tendency we have as musicians to put our focus on learning specific pieces rather than learning what it really means to play and eventually master our instrument. What I didn’t offer in my initial post, due to lack of space and time, was anything remotely close to an actual solution. So that’s what this offering is about.

I’ll touch on three different approaches below.

Varied Practice. I’m borrowing this term and the research behind it from the book, Make it Stick — The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Allow me to first give my wholehearted endorsement of the book. It’s researched and written by cognitive scientists and dispels many myths about what effective learning looks like.

Now buckle your seatbelts friends because what I’m about to tell you is scary.   

Many (dare I say most) musicians I know (myself included) default to what researchers call massed practice. Massed practice is what intuitively feels right to us when trying to master a specific skill. It’s the repeated, focused practice of one specific thing over and over and over. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s what you most likely did in the practice room today. And what you’ll most likely do tomorrow, unfortunately.

Massed practice does yield some immediate results and makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something in the moment. But it doesn’t yield what the authors of Make it Stick call durable learning — that deep learning that indeed, is much more difficult, but also produces “better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility” (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014, p. 47).

Stay with me. I want you take in this next example from Chapter 3 of the book. It’s a real doozy. Brown et al. (2014) offer the following scenario:

A group of eight-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class. Half of the kids tossed into a bucket three feet away. The other half mixed it up by tossing into buckets two feet and four feet away. After twelve weeks of this they were all tested on tossing into a three-foot bucket. The kids who did the best by far were those who’d practiced on two- and four-foot buckets but never on three-foot buckets. (p. 46)

Stop. If you just glanced over that example without really paying attention, then go back and read it again. 

When I first read this a couple of years ago I just about fell out of my chair. How do you think we, as musicians, would approach the above scenario, were we asked to engage the exercise? Intuitively speaking, if the challenge were to master throwing a beanbag into a bucket three feet away then rest assured my massed practice musician mind would engage in the following manner. "Ok, I'll simply practice throwing the beanbag into the bucket that is three feet away for eight hours every day for the next twelve weeks. Because, ya know, practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." But it turns out that the path to deep, durable learning is counter-intuitive, much to our collective chagrin.

Let me apply this more specifically to music. Varied practice can look something like this. Whatever you’re working on you should do with all possible stickings, in all dynamic areas, at all tempos, with all phrasing possibilities, while standing on your head, with the lights out, in sub-zero temperatures, etc. You get the point. And all of these approaches should be interleaved during your practice session and not massed. We’re trying to strengthen the whole-ness of a thing by practicing around it, within it, outside it, and inside it. All the ways. My challenge to myself and my students when practicing anything is to think of every possible way that a thing could conceivably be done and get good at all of them. The beauty of this, of course, is that the possibilities are endless.

Here are some real world examples for the percussionists out there.

As an undergrad I remember being encouraged to practice Porgy and Bess ‘swung’ as opposed to straight. I thought it a bit silly at the time, but ok, why not. It was challenging and took a little while to get good at. The spaces between notes felt a lot different (because they were) and that made me look at and approach this very familiar excerpt in very different ways. Varied practice 101. I just didn’t know I was engaging it that way at the time.

Or what about Lt. Kije and Sheherazade? Or maybe you’re working on Delecluse 1 or Bach. Sure, you’re certainly going to develop your signature way of playing it (ie. preferred stickings, phrasings, dynamic nuances, tempos, beating spots on the head or bar, and so on). But when developing it in the practice room don’t just aim at that one specific version over and over and over. Develop your preferred stickings in Lt. Kije, then re-learn it with the exact opposite stickings. Lock in your dynamic regions in Sheherazade mvmt. 3, then blow them open and do something radically different. Push where you’ve decided to pull and pull where you’ve decided to push in your Bach Gigue.

Yes, it’s hard. You’ll feel bad. It takes a lot longer. And you’ll probably want to go back to your right-hand-lead, quarter note = 110, the-dynamic-is-this-and-only-this version and “just do it the way I’m going to do it in the audition or performance”. And if all you’re after is surface-level, quick learning of a hyper-specific thing, then knock yourself out. But all you’re doing is learning a passage or a piece. You’re not really learning the whole-ness of what it means to play your instrument.

Here, again, from Brown et al. (2014):

The basic idea is that varied practice—like tossing your beanbags into baskets at mixed distances—improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another. You develop a broader understanding of the relationships between different conditions and the movements required to succeed in them; you discern context better and develop a more flexible “movement vocabulary”—different movements for different situations. (p. 51)

It’s as if they wrote this for musicians, right? Varied practice “improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another” (Brown et al. 2014, p. 51). You’re not just learning pieces, excerpts, or études anymore, you’re actually learning all the possible ways to play your instrument. You’re learning to “develop a broader understanding of the relationships between different conditions and the movements required to succeed in them” (Brown et al. 2014, p. 51). And while the beanbag example is focused on practicing and learning motor skills, the very same processes yield the same positive cognitive learning results. In fact, that’s mostly what the book is about.

Improvise. Freeze — if you just had the thought “I don’t play jazz. I’ll skip this point and head on down to the end of the post,” please don’t. Wake up. Improvisation isn’t specific to jazz.

You/me/we/all of us need to spend time with our instrument without music on the stand in front of us. In fact, get rid of the music stand altogether. It’s a temptation. You’ll casually rest a sheet of exercises up there and before you know it you’re staring fixedly at them, unable to tear your gaze away.

We have a need for direction when we practice and this direction most often comes in the form of written material. Many times, this material determines your practice session for you instead of you making those decisions. Don’t get me wrong. We need written exercises, études, pieces, etc. They can be effective tools. But they can also become a crutch, inhibiting the full development of our musicianship. We default to them. They own us. And our development is at the mercy of the ink on the page.

The purpose of this post is not to teach the fundamentals of improvisation. It’s simply to say you need to do it and you need to do it every single practice session.

Fearful? Don’t know where to start?

Relax and try this. After a solid warm up and before you start in on learning whatever étude or piece you’re working on, set the music stand aside and simply play. Engage the idea of that word play. Have fun. Keep it light. Keep it easy. Choose a simple rhythmic and/or melodic motive and musically chew on it awhile. See where it takes you. Don’t be self-conscious. Don’t worry about what your colleagues and friends standing outside your practice room door are thinking about you. Live through you instrument for awhile, without outside direction or mandate. Just you and your instrument.

“I think that’s goofy and I feel weird doing it and all I want to do is play my piece,” you might say. . .

Ok, I’ll meet you in the middle. Try this. Improvise in the style of the piece you’re playing. Working on some Bach, a little Delecluse, Xenakis, that Despacito arrangement you’re so excited about? Excellent. Put the written music aside and improvise within the style of that piece BUT WITHOUT PLAYING THE PIECE.

“But I have the piece memorized so I can’t really put it aside,” you object. . .

Yes you can. You just have to do so mentally. It’s hard. Every fiber in your brain and body will want to just play the piece. But don’t. Play something like it instead. Use the harmonic structure and rhythmic vocabulary from your Bach Allemande to play something similar. Use the tempo and joyous rhythmic vitality of the opening of Xenakis’s Rebonds B to play something similarly joyous and groovy. Play down your lovely lead sheet from your Despacito arrangement but then improvise over the form for a good, long while.

Again, let me say, this is challenging stuff. But to quote my good friends from Make it Stick, “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful” (Brown et al. 2014, p. 3).

Contextualize. I speak a little Spanish. Just enough to get me into trouble. Kind of like many of you young marimba players out there. You play some marimba, but really just enough to get yourselves into trouble. Let’s put a pin in this and I’ll come back to it in a sec.

To wrap this admittedly lengthy blog post up I’d like to encourage you to contextualize your music-making as much as possible. And really all I mean by that is to perform and perform a lot.

An interesting thing happens every time we perform. We mess up. Things don’t go as planned. We don’t play up to our full ability or potential. And that’s usually because the variables of performance (or of an audition), as much as we try to anticipate them and condition ourselves for them ahead of time, can’t be fully controlled in the moment of live performance.

So what are we left with in those moments — when your memory fails you, when your mind becomes distracted? It’s really quite simple. You’ve either only prepared to play your piece in the exact way you plan to play it OR you’ve acquired a deeper, more durable (and therefore, more flexible) knowledge of what it means to play your instrument. If it’s the latter, then your memory slip or your distracted mind is nothing more than a blip on the radar of an otherwise exhilarating performance. If it’s the former, then all bets are off.

I’ll leave you with an anecdote and an analogy.

The anecdote is a personal one. The Meehan/ Perkins Duo was playing a concert at Georgia State University in Atlanta many moons ago. Doug and I decided to open our show with Nagoya Marimbas by Steve Reich. This was to be my first performance of Nagoya (Doug, on the other hand, had played it for years). I was somewhat nervous to have my first go at the piece and the jitters were hitting me pretty hard as the top of the show approached. But hey man, I’m a pro, so we strutted ourselves out on stage, took a quick bow, and turned to face our instruments. And it was in that moment that I forgot all of the notes that Steve Reich wrote. Really. All of them.

And I did a strange thing. I slowly walked toward the marimba and started touching the bars, as if wanting the marimba to communicate to me, saying “hey, dummy, start on this note and then go to that other one.” But the marimba wasn’t having it. I touched a lot of bars and none of them ever said, “pick me, pick me, I'm the one!”

So I mentally closed my eyes, leaned on all the hours of varied practice I had put in, successfully retrieved the correct rhythm of the beginning of the piece (at least I had that), and took the plunge. And for the first 10-15 seconds I improvised my way through the muck until I emerged, on the rails, with the correct note pattern in the correct order. Doug, my stalwart companion, just watched quizzically until I had righted the ship and then we were off to tackle the rest of the piece.

And guess what. It was fine. I contextualized my training and practice into performance. I worked through an issue. And because I know how to play the marimba (and clearly NOT Nagoya Marimbas), the rest of the performance came off without a hitch.

And finally, the analogy. 

Back to my Spanish speaking. I’ve had enough years of study that I can pronounce the Spanish language fairly well. I can read it fairly well. Give me the written language and I can recite it in a way that native speakers might think, “oh, the gringo knows what he’s doing.” But take me off script and my fairly competent rendering of the language goes out the window. This has manifested itself time and time again during trips to Europe and Mexico and even throughout my state of Texas. I ask a perfectly phrased and nuanced question in Spanish to someone but what they respond with causes me to more or less black out and immediately default to incomprehensible hand gestures.

Why? Because I’ve practiced the pronunciation and delivery of very specific words and very specific phrases over and over and over. But I haven’t contextualized any of them. I haven’t improvised with any of them. The words and phrases might sound good on the surface, but they are devoid of meaning. 

I’ve learned the piece, but not the instrument. I know just enough to get myself into trouble.

Brown et al. (2014) write, “Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.” Too many of us are in the business of acquiring and possessing ready knowledge but lack the conceptual understanding of how to use it. In the end, we’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

Learn your instrument, not just pieces.

Todd Meehan is the founder of Liquidrum. He currently serves as the Associate Professor of Percussion and Division Director of Instrumental Studies at the Baylor University School of Music. Todd has performed as one half of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo since 2006 and was a founding member of So Percussion.