Leading Your Group: The Way You Practice

It is a simple idea that your mental state affects your actions. When you start a task, your mood, your attitude toward that task, and the various things floating around in your head, will all influence how you approach that task. Some tasks are ingrained habits, like brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes. Your biggest decision for a habitual task is just to do it; once the decision is made you can go on autopilot. Non-habitual tasks require constant concentration and an act of will to see the task through. These are more challenging, but also are the accomplishments that help you grow.

Music practice involves both approaches, habitual tasks and tasks requiring constant concentration. On a good day, practicing is fun, invigorating, and time seems to fly by. On a bad day, practicing is frustrating, exhausting, and time seems to creep by like an injured snail. That’s just the way it is, because your mental state goes through changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. Wouldn’t it be great if you could control your mental state all the time, just tell yourself to be happy, positive and full of energy, no matter what drudgery awaited you, no matter what problems you had to deal with? Some people are that way. They just take a deep breath, shrug off their worries, and greet the day with a smile. Those people can be very irritating for the rest of us.

But even if you can’t control your mental state, can’t just decide to be in a good mood, you can be aware of your mental state. You can accept who you are, and what is going on inside your head. You don’t have to avoid it, excuse it, or try to change it. But if you notice it, pay attention to it, you can understand it better, and this will actually make you a better musician. Here’s why: Your mental state is a complicated mixture of all your experiences. You carry your past around with you all the time, the distant past all the way to the very recent past. Your habits, hopes, fears, accomplishments and failures, are all hanging out in your head. These aren’t just things, facts, sitting there like old photographs or books you read one summer. They are actively part of you, and they affect how you play music. In a sense they are your team, your scout troop, your ragtag band of misfit commandos, and you are the group leader.

So while it is a simple idea that your mental state affects your actions, it is not so simple to understand the many components of your mental state, and how they combine to influence the tasks that your body carries out in the physical realm. But it helps if you think of all the parts of you as a team: Your body, your mind, your reflexes, your memories, all these things come together in the act of making music, in the moment when sound replaces silence.

This self-awareness doesn’t have to be a complicated process. It exists in the moment, and it is a matter of just paying attention to yourself. Always remember that the goal, the task, is just to play music. The goal isn’t to be perfect. The goal isn’t to “do it right.” And the goal certainly isn’t to be like anyone else. Just try to play the music, and notice what your team is doing when that happens. Paying attention to yourself, your mental state as you practice music, can lead to better musicianship and maybe even more self-awareness in other parts of your life.

Here are a few examples I have found in my own practice habits and those of my students:

Fumbling Fingers. You try to play a particular phrase of written music and your fingers keep missing the notes. It’s not that hard, you understand the music, you should be able to do it, and yet you keep fumbling. Stupid fingers! Why won’t you play it right?!

Obviously, there is a breakdown in the line of communication from eyes to brain to fingers. Your fingers are notifying you of this snafu. Don’t get angry at your fingers; they are just telling you that they aren’t getting the information they need. Is the information coming too fast, is it garbled?

The first thing I do in this kind of situation is to slow down. If you are playing a new phrase, your fingers may not have developed the muscle memory for that phrase. Find the tempo where your fingers can play the phrase in a relaxed way, without tension. Why were you playing the phrase faster than this? Maybe that’s how you heard it, maybe you thought “that’s how it is supposed to go.” Try hearing it at the slower tempo where your fingers can play it. Get your ear, mind and fingers working as a team. Keep track of that smooth synchronized feeling when the team works together. Then you can gradually increase the tempo without losing that feeling.

The problem may not just be about muscle memory. One of my students tends to be ruled by his ear. He plays what his ear remembers, even if it is not written on the page. His fingers fumble because they are being told one thing by the eye and another by the ear. What comes out is a garbled mixture of both. For a long time he didn’t know why his fingers fumbled. He thought the music was too difficult for him, but really he was trying to play two different things at the same time. I had him play the phrase with his eyes closed, and it came out perfectly, the way his ear remembered it. Then I had him play it slowly from the written part and he could play that version as well. He realized that when he tried to play the part at tempo, his eyes would lag behind and his ears would take over. The team would stop working together and chaos ensued. Once he consciously realized this, it was easier for his ears to hear both versions and to choose the written version, coordinating with his eyes.

Another student tends to be ruled by his eyes, and his eyes wander. Whatever he sees, he tends to play, even if it’s an ant walking across the top of the page. Rationally, he knows that the ant isn’t part of the music, yet his eyes tell his brain to focus on the ant, his brain tells his fingers “Play ant!” and his fingers fumble around looking for the ant button on the clarinet (there are so many buttons and holes, one of ‘em must be the ant button). Why do his eyes do this? Why do they sabotage the team?

When he tries to force his eyes to focus on the notes, he is prone to more mistakes, not less. His eyes can’t let go of that ant (or whatever distraction is on the page; a smudge, a chord symbol above the staff, an irregular space caused by the music notation software). But if he stops, takes the time to consciously examine whatever is distracting him, understand why it is there, then he can move on, and play the music. Sometimes, if you just acknowledge that something is distracting you, it will stop distracting you.

It really does help to think of yourself as a group leader. As individuals we think we should have it together, that we function as rational beings. But there is always a bunch of stuff going on inside us, and rational, focused and efficient action is often more of a dream than a reality. You have to start with where you are at and build from there. Yelling at yourself, setting unrealistic goals, doesn’t help. You can achieve your goals, but you can’t rush towards them.

If you take this approach with yourself, leading the team of body and mind as you practice, you will become a better leader when you play with others. There are definite correlations between the way an individual approaches music and the way a group of musicians approaches music. Both respond to the demands music places on them. If you are sensitive to what is going on within yourself when you practice, you will learn a lot more than you may at first realize.