Trainer, Scientist or Communicator?
We bring many things with us to the practice room. Our instrument, a stand, some music, a tuner, our lucky practice bunny named Chet (or is that just me?). These physical items play specific roles in helping us improve. We routinely shift between them to help us with the task at hand. If we’re working on rhythm, we use the metronome, for pitch, the tuner. We don’t even think about it. We just know which tool we need to solve whatever musical challenge we face.
We also bring a variety of other things with us, which we carry between our ears. Our mood, attitude, fears and invisible friends (again, just me?) color our experience once the door is closed. During practice, those “between the ears” items often rule the day in determining how much we get done. If we become more aware, we can assign them roles and learn to use them as effectively and routinely as we use a tuner or a pencil.
There are three specific roles we can use to help guide our practice. We can be a coach, scientist or communicator. If we embrace these roles and let them each do their job, they will help lead us to where we want to go.
At the gym, a good trainer can help set goals, track our progress and push us to achieve levels of performance we didn’t think possible. They also usually wear tight fitting clothes and call everybody “Sport” or “Chief” but I digress.
In our role as musical trainer, we first need to establish our goals. Physical goals (articulation speed and clarity, controlled open stroke rolls, cleaner transition over the break), musical goals (consistent rhythm, more accurate pitch, sight reading) and specific musical goals (solos, ensemble music, etudes) will each need thought, care and attention.
Once we have the goals in place, we need a way to track our progress. I usually just write my goals in a notebook or right on the music itself. Use whichever system works best for you. You may want to try a few different methods, a notebook, your smart phone, a computer document. You can also try telling your goals to your invisible friend but they can be unreliable, so be careful.
Now that we know our goals and have a way to track them, it’s time to hit the weight room. This is where the trainer pushes us to do a few more reps, strive for better form and consistency and cajoles us into continuing even though we’d rather hit the snack bar. When you’re in the role of trainer, show no mercy! These are your goals. Your progress is at stake. Now, drop and give me twenty!
Scientists take in information, make hypotheses and change factors to see what effects they have. In your practice sessions, thinking like a scientist means assessing your performance, comparing it to some ideal and making a plan to get yourself to that ideal by changing something.
If you are working on a solo, you first have to identify which problems are giving you trouble. Once you know that, you can assess the “problem with the problem” (PWP). The PWP might be physical (tricky fingering), conceptual (unfamiliar style) or musical (reading the wrong rhythms). The scientist in you will determine which is the most likely candidate and will get to work designing experiments.
It suggests such things as altering the tempo, the rhythm, the pitches, the octave, the volume, etc. It changes one thing at a time and measures whether the “experiment” was a success. If so, the experiment continues, if not, you scrap it and head in another direction. The experiments continue until the passage is solved. Or until you pen breaks and you get ink flowing out the bottom of your pocket protector.
Communication is why we play music in the first place. An athlete spends time in the gym and runs drills in practice is so they can play the game. The “game” for us is musical expression. This is where we get to say what we think an feel through our instrument. Just make sure you wash your hands first.
The trainer got us ready for the challenge and the scientist helped us solve the problems we faced. Let’s thank them and tell them to take a break. They make a really cute couple, don’t you think?
As communicator, we face both the easiest and most difficult challenge since it is the one which makes us most vulnerable. To communicate a musical idea means we have to know what we want to say and have the courage to say it.
Our role here is really very simple. What do we want to say? How do we think this piece or passage should go? We must remember to be brave and say what we think. No one will have said this exactly like we will. What we have to say is as valid as any that have come before or will come after.
Our musical opinions are our most valuable possessions as artists. No one can take them from us. They are the reason the first musicians used sound to express themselves and they are the reason we head back to the practice room day after day.
The trainer, scientist and communicator can be your best friends, your allies in progress. You bring them with you every time you enter the practice room. Use them! Your invisible friend and Chet the practice bunny will thank you!