The practice of music, vocal and instrumental has long been an activity engaging innovative and disciplined minds. In keeping with the demands of higher learning, there has evolved a rich vein of pedagogies and methodologies for the practitioner. The success of these differing schools of teaching across the broad spectrum of orchestral instruments is fully mirrored in the establishment of youth orchestras, Australia wide, performing in this country and on the international stage. Acquisition of the skills required to perform at this level come from practice methods passed on from teacher to teacher, institutional and private. Perhaps then there is a need to address the concept, practice methods, to become more aware of the processes demonstrated in practice methodology. Researching methodologies gives an opportunity to appraise existing methods and discover new ways to advance the effectiveness of practice from grounds to consequences in outcomes.
For comparison, one of the more common approaches to practice is that of rote and repetition, the premise being if you repeat the passage often enough the sought finger placements will be rendered ‘automatic’. Rote and repetition can and does produce the desired results, but not always. However, the cost can be significant with the onset of boredom and frustration. The flaw in the rote and repetition approach is that the use of the brain, as a primary source of activity, may be consciously or subliminally deficient. Removing the brain from the process of practice is to risk rendering the outcome mindless.
That is, we are forfeiting the awesome potential of the brain to send messages through the body at around the speed of 100 m/s. Advancing from the risk of mindlessness to the potential of 100 m/s is an equation worthy of serious thoughts in the preparation of music. However, access to this potential of the brain is not a ‘given’ and available to every aspirant. Other factors such as ability, commitment and desire, come into the equation and are persuasive to outcomes. No doubt, these prerequisites are acceptable to serious students and come with the price of competency and skill. Deceptively simple, the pathway for access to brain driven practice is encapsulated in the locution: “Every note needs a message”.
This is a very exciting piece of information and will form the basis of the method posited for competency, fluency and accuracy. Messages are not confined to notes alone and are obviously required for other facets of the reproduction of music. Poor delivery of messages is particularly punishing in the performance of music: You get ‘one bite of the cherry at performance’. Whatever messages you send, are, a split second later, part of history, and not recoverable.
All of the three pillars of music, technique, rhythm and rhythm patterns, and sound production, require high quality messages. Messages involve embedding the brain with all the relevant information to bring about an accurate and fluent rendition of the selected material. The embedding process needs to be the basis for practice sessions so that future recalls can be successful through the indubitability of the calling (practice). You cannot retrieve that which has not been embedded for recall. The preponderance on the importance of messages is to acknowledge that instruments, musical or otherwise, are demonstrators. Using an instrument as a learning device would be at best problematic. That is not to say that instruments cannot be learned from, a very different proposition.
Analogy is an excellent way in which to ‘make the point’ of a concept. To that end, we may now draw an analogy with ‘saying’ or verbalizing the alphabet in order to experience our capacity for accuracy and fluency, simple and yet illuminating as to the ability of our brain to recall the call. However, more importantly, this simple exercise reveals the pathway to accessing the 100 m/s potential of the brain. Revealed in the difference between saying the alphabet from A to Z, and then from Z to A, the difference is familiarity. The sharp contrast in fluency, accuracy and speed involving the identical 26 letters is due to the level of familiarity of A to Z and lack thereof from Z to A. Regular ‘ sayings’ of the same 26 letters from Z to A would soon exhibit the same competency as from A to Z. Here is a fine example of ‘embedding the brain’ with the designated material for recall and the desired outcomes for competency and confidence in recall. By applying this concept to the preparation of music, we are mentally equipped to access the awesome potential of the brain in the performance of music. Practice methods should aim at embedding the brain with material nominated for future recall. Returning to the alphabet analogy, it is worth acknowledging that we say the alphabet and not play it.
You cannot embed an instrument for recall. Instruments can be learned ‘from’ rather than learned ‘on’ simply because their fundamental design is for demonstrating not learning. That is, exercise commonly referred to as ‘finger exercises’ are in fact, brain exercises carried out by the fingers. Musical instruments are designed to demonstrate the messages sent to them by the brain and those messages need to be representative of the material set out for demonstration in the musical context.
We can now confidently assert that the playing of a wrong note, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, is attributable to wrong messages being relayed to the instrument, or perhaps, in the extreme case, none at all.
There needs to be special attention to the variance in the origin of sound on the differing class of instruments, fixed pitch, strings, woodwind and brass. These variants demand particular knowledge for the acquisition of skills peculiar to their sound origins.
Underpinning this essay is the underestimated and understated facilitative qualities of familiarity. On the larger picture, familiarity is an essential ingredient in all our lives from the unknown to the familiar. Perhaps we could spend a moment to reflect on the aphorism espoused some time ago by George Bernard Shaw.
“He who can, does.
He who cannot, teaches”.
Such a terse statement leaves room for debate and in some way, this essay may offer a refutation, of sorts, to Mr Shaw’s assertion on the grounds that he who does also needed to learn how to do.