Performance practice: Quite often, performance practice refers to techniques that are implied, and not written or notated.

dictionary.onmusic.org/terms/2568-performance_practice

 

Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, "grace" metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, "Why don’t you say what you mean?" We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections — whether from diffidence or some other instinct.

Robert Frost

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ENGAGING IN PERFORMANCE PRACTICE

"First we learn; then we master; finally, we surrender ourselves

and disappear into action itself."

This form of practice is a state of mindfulness at a very high level. Time opens up so that the music is measured not in minutes, but in moments.

 

In this state the artist is operating with more space for creation, observation and reaction. The clock is not the only truth, and not every experience can be measured by its ticking.

During the 20th Century many musicians began to explore new ways of playing works from the time of Bach and Mozart. Instead of relying upon the practices common to the music of their own modern time, they wondered if they could recreate the sounds of long-dead musicians by playing music as it might have originally been heard.

 

Since there were no recordings from the 17th and 18th Centuries, the musicians were left to their own devices to figure out how to recreate the sounds from this now-silent era. They consulted everything that might provide clues to that lost world. An old painting might show musicians performing in a certain way that solved one of the many, many issues that such detective work might entail. Piece by piece they assembled small parts of an enormous puzzle. They read old treatises that described the manner of playing the music and helped musicians codify the practices of their own time. Although they might have been intended for a young musician of two or three hundred years ago, they provided clues for modern musicians to imitate the old practices and rediscover those qualities of sound.

 

Collectively this research reinvigorated the old music to sound fresh and new again. It was like looking through a blurry window. Although you couldn’t see everything, you COULD get an idea of what it might have been like on the other side of the glass, and then try to recreate a similar world over here.

We practice mindfully because the manner in which we practice is mimicked in performance. Imperfection practiced over and over again results in poor performance. The inverse is equally true. Time, repetition, quality of the modeling for the brain to learn all add up.

When faced with challenges beyond our personal experiences, we must experiment. At first we may be clumsy, but as we continue we gain skills and expressive power. We learn to trust in our new knowledge and to act on that trust.

 

Now consider another type of practice: How we practice to perform a challenging task. The purpose of such practice is to make what could be unfamiliar and difficult into something that is comfortable and easy. At its most basic level, we practice in order to rewire the brain. We smooth the neural pathways, making tasks easier and faster until they flow without effort. We practice because that is they way we learn.

 

Recent brain research can watch the brain’s activities in real time. Knowledge of neurochemistry reveals the changes taking place in the brain. When we learn, we physically change. As we practice we repeat patterns and the brain’s changes make it easier to replicate the desired actions.

 

We practice mindfully because the manner in which we practice is mimicked in performance. Many a coach has extolled the value of “perfect practice.” From this perspective we gain a new view of performance practice. Time, repetition, quality of the modeling for the brain to learn all add up.

Stress complicates learning strategies and, performance. Relax and simplify.

 

The learning environment and interior mental states influence practice. To work in ideal settings we remove distractions and simplify the learning.

 

One of the great illusions of the modern era is the belief that we can multi-task or skip steps. The brain does one thing at a time. The person who is multi-tasking is simply switching from one thing to another. This practice complicates the brain’s learning and adds stress even as the new material is being assimilated. The brain develops through sequential practice.  While there are highly effective methods for great artists to assimilate new knowledge, all the steps are necessary to completely and deeply learn what is at hand.

 

Musicians also practice as a defense against getting nervous and failing in the moment of greatest tension. They may drive their practice beyond usual limits. Musicians sometimes practice a passage dozens of times flawlessly before moving on to the next phrase. Even one mistake begins the count again at the beginning. Practice takes place in layers. Rest time between practice sessions is as important as the practice itself. Rest is a part of learning.

Performance of difficult tasks requires appropriate preparation. Relying on repetition and adequate time to rest between practice sessions lowers performance anxieties to manageable levels. Practicing for performance requires flawless modeling – even if the modeling takes place in sections, or at slower speeds of execution. Adequate time is essential for deep learning. Rest between practice sessions is equally important. This process requires a pace that matches the capabilities of the learner. It cannot be rushed.

 

Beyond the physical elements of practice, intention is a key element of success. We place our mind in states that predict what will happen in the future. Levels of concentration rise to create performance conditions long before there is a public to see our work.  This is a kind of mindset that already puts the musician in the state of performance, even as the reality is still one of rehearsal and preparation. It does not wait for the concert in order to be fully present.

The musicians must look about to see what the rest of the group is doing.
 
Learning what to listen for - and what to ignore - is essential to ensemble success.

This form of practice is a state of mindfulness at a very high level. Time opens up so that the music is measured not in minutes, but in moments. Indeed just a few notes can seem to last a very “long” time, because the mind is so present to every part of each note, and the way of listening is also remarkably free from the tyranny of the ticking clock – replaced by a sense of time as being fluid in nature. In this state the artist is operating with more space for creation, observation and reaction. The clock is not the only truth, and not every experience can be measured by its ticking.

 

This complete presence invites many more possibilities into the space of our music making. Rather than simply concentrating on the “right way to play” or on the proper execution of the passage in question, the musician can devote himself to expressing nuances of meaning. We leave the world of execution and enter the state of communion. We have learned to play the notes so that we can transcend them.

Without attending to distractions, we hear more, imagine more, feel more, and become aware of more, and it is not uncommon for the mind flood with reactions.
 
Gradually, the brain develops new capacities, and what may have overwhelmed us early in this process  becomes quite normal over time.

We become present through intention. As we increase our concentration levels, the brain resists before it agrees to submit itself to this type of focus. At first our experience of emotions may become more extreme as our interior map increases its terrain.

 

When we engage in this kind of practice we might find initially that we tire more easily. For all the intensity of practicing “normally” in the past, this new level of concentration can be, at first, exhausting.  At first such presence is fatiguing to the point of frequent failure. We may not be able to sustain this awareness for very long as the mind wanders and rebels from such extended levels of presence.

 

Without attending to distractions, we may discover that we hear more, imagine more, feel more, and become aware of more, and it is not uncommon for the mind to flood with reactions. However, gradually the brain develops new capacities with persistence, and what may have overwhelmed us early in this process becomes quite normal over time.

The highest practice is presence itself. Distinctions between rehearsal and performance become irrelevant. We see the whole even as we attend to the parts. We embrace improvisation and begin to play. 

This level of practice asks us to attend to the unfolding moment: Music as Zen; Zen as music. We allow intuition to enter as a driver for action. We trust our intentions because they spring from a place of wisdom. Connections are no longer limited to small regions, but to the unfolding whole.

 

Strangely, it is at this point that the ego relents and inner talk quiets down. The work on concentration quiets the mind and almost mystically, we disappear into skillful action. To become conscious of “me” at this level is to take the focus off of the music being made. We become aware of everything and there isn’t enough space for inner chatter. We play, and that is enough. In the end, all that is left is the art making itself.

 

First we learn; then we master; finally, we surrender ourselves and disappear into action itself.

©2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved

No part pf this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.

℗ 2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved 

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