Friday, June 15, 2012

The Weight Room: Summertime is practice time

If you're a junior high or high school music student, it's time for a little heart to heart. Your music teacher absolutely hates the summer break. I don't mean that they aren't looking forward to some vacation time or a chance to work on some other interests. But they absolutely hate the fact that they just spent nine months getting you to a certain point, and you're going to spend the next three months letting a good portion of that progress go to waste.

Sound harsh? It'll get worse. Trust me.

Let's talk physical fitness for a second. Take an average person and put them in a daily training regiment and diet geared toward, say, strength training. If they follow the program on most days of the week, they will make progress toward the goal of gaining strength. If they don't follow the program, they simply don't make progress, right? Wrong.

In actuality, if you're not following the program you're not just failing to make progress, you're actually losing what progress you've made. This is the way the body functions, and it's absolutely the way that music - or any other - skills function, as well.*

Another way to think about it is to imagine a hot air balloon. The balloon has a burner that heats the air inside the balloon. As the air gets hotter, the balloon rises, but as soon as the burner is turned off and the air begins to cool, the balloon starts to fall.

You're either rising or falling. There is no standing still. And once you've fallen, even a little bit, the next bit of energy expended isn't to help you make progress. It's just to get you back to where you were. In the music world, this is called, "maintenance practice." This is the minimum amount and type of practice required simply to keep you from losing the skills you have.

Jascha Heifetz, the legendary violinist, once said, "If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it."

So, with that thought in mind, let's talk about some ways to keep moving forward even when school isn't in session.

First things first. You just have to do it. What's the hardest thing about going to the gym? Going to the gym! Once you get there, it's not a big stretch to complete a workout. The same is true with practice. Once you've got your instrument, music books and pencil out and you're prepared to practice, it's almost impossible not to practice. In the words of the immortal Mary Poppins, "Well begun is half done."

Next, set some goals. Instead of saying, "I'll practice one hour per day," say, "This week I'll get all twelve major scales memorized." And that can be part of a larger goal, like, "Before school starts again, I'll have all the major and minor scales and arpeggios memorized - two octaves - and be able to play through them with a metronome in under four minutes." Now, that's a bunch of goals tied together in one sentence, but you get the idea. Talk about what you'll do, not how much time you'll spend.

Finally, spend more time. And in this case, I really mean spend. Think of it like money (even though it's far more valuable). When you spend a dollar, you expect a certain value back from it, and you only have so many dollars, so you have to spend them carefully and make sure that you're getting value back from your investment. Instead of thinking, "I have to practice for an hour today," say, "I can only give myself an hour of practice time today, so I'm going to get as much out of it as I can."

It's your music, and it's your life. Get everything out if it that you can, and don't waste your opportunities! If nothing else, give yourself the best chance you can. It's up to you.

Happy practicing!

*Because of how my body functions, I absolutely have to spend some time stretching everyday. If I do, I become more flexible. If I don't, I get less flexible, and thus, more prone to injury. There are examples of this concept all over the place, so why do we think it would be any different with music skills?

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