I’ve been reflecting lately on how the structure and quality of my saxophone practice has evolved over the years since discovering the Alexander Technique. I think every serious musician can look back and notice the change in process and approach to their practice routine. Much of this evolution takes place because of edification (refining or eliminating ineffective efforts) , some of it because of change in perceived need (taking on new musical challenges, styles, interests, etc.)
Though the particulars of my practice continue to change to serve my ever emerging aesthetic impulses, the biggest change in my practice has been in approach. In any given amount of practice time, I’m simply playing less than I used to. Way less.
So what am I doing (if not playing) when I practice? I’m taking time to really think about what I’m doing.
This manifests itself in the following ways:
I stop much more frequently than I used to. This is key to all my improvement. I do this to give myself a chance to process what I’m doing, and to make sure that I am doing what I think I’m doing. By always allowing myself to stop at any point in my practice (mid-note, mid-phrase, mid-exercise, or?) I keep myself in a constant state of receptive fluidity and flexibility. It gives me a sense that I am always in control of what I’m doing. That I’m acting out of choice, and not simply habit.
I listen carefully to what I’m hearing in relation to what I’m thinking. It’s easy to get stuck into either hearing yourself at the expense of not noticing what’s going on in your body, or paying too much attention to what’s going on in (usually) one part of your body at the expense of not really hearing yourself. The idea is to integrate what you hear with what you sense in your body as a whole, integrated process. For me this means to always “observe my thinking” as I listen to the music I’m making. What am I thinking when I play well? When I’m not playing so well? Am I doing what I think I’m doing?
I rehearse things mentally before I play them. There are huge gains to be made by just taking a moment to mentally rehearse something before playing it. It gives me a chance to experience the thought process necessary to best produce the music. I can pre-bulid the neuromuscular pattern without any habits of tension that I might bring into the actual execution of the music. This becomes a natural process in thinking that I bring into all my performance and practice.
I rest much more. In a one-hour time period, I will probably take 3 or 4 mini-breaks (1 to 4 minutes) completely away from my instrument. I seem to do this every 10 to 15 minutes. If I’m practicing multiple hours in a row, I’ll also take a 5 to 10 minute break every hour to lie down in constructive rest. Besides helping my avoid injury and strain, it keeps me feeling receptive and present (fresh!) for the entire practice period. I’m able to really absorb things much more effectively this way.
Some of the smaller details of my approach show up as things like: really listening to the metronome to internalize the tempo before I start playing; pausing between key changes when I’m working out a particular scale or arpeggio pattern; taking time to imagine my pitch before I play my long tones or overtones; stopping completely between one exercise and the next to check in with myself and redirect my efforts and intentions.
Less playing, more thinking. Time well spent.
When a musician comes to me for Alexander lessons, I always want to observe his or her practice process. So during one lesson I’ll ask them to just practice they way they normally would for about 15 or 20 minutes as I observe without interrupting them.
What I usually see is nonstop playing, divided thinking, and escalating effort. If it’s a string player there usually isn’t even a pause. If it’s a wind instrumentalist there is usually lots of gasping going on as they jump right back into the fray over and over again, each time with ever increasing tension. (Keep in mind that many of these students have come to me because of chronic pain from playing their instruments.)
So one of the first things I get them to do is to learn how to stop (not always an easy thing for some). Once they’ve learned how to stop, they can learn when to stop. And this starts the process of positive, lasting change. Not just in the area of pain and tension management, but aesthetically as well. They learn to really hear themselves deeply as they play, and connect what they hear with their entire selves, body, mind and spirit. They replace habit with choice.
So how do you practice? How much do you pause to think, to really listen, to really understand what you are doing with yourself as you play your instrument? Do you feel exhausted, or exhilarated after a typical practice session? How much silence is there during a one-hour practice period?
I know that it might seem counterintuitive to stop so much during your practice, but that’s the beauty of it. It takes you out of the real time demands of performance to give a chance to think, to notice, to assess, to, well…practice.
Research has shown that to learn something, it is not simply a matter of how many times the thing is repeated so much as the quality of attention used to practice the thing. Perhaps this is why many of the great virtuosi practice less than many of us might think.
I remember reading about the great trumpet virtuoso, Rafael Mendez. In an interview, towards the end of his still brilliant playing career, the interviewer asked, “Do you still practice 5 to 6 hour a day?” He answered, “No, I only practice half that amount these days, but I really listen to myself.” Playing less, thinking more.