Practicing Music: Balancing Subtraction And Addition

To improve and grow as a musician, you have to practice with very specific aims in mind. When you’re practicing effectively, you’re doing either one or two things:

  1. You’re unlearning habits that interfere with your ability to play better.
  2. You’re learning new ideas, skills, information, repertoire, patterns, etc., to expand what you are able to do.

So in essence, you’re subtracting (unlearning) or adding (learning). Learning to balance your efforts so you’re working on both is key to your progress.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I always give subtraction top priority. All the musicians that come to me for help do so because they have movement and postural habits that are creating problems for them as they play their instrument. They need to learn how to subtract these habits, so they can play with greater ease, efficiency and precision.

As a saxophonist, I spend a good percentage of my practice time specifically devoted to keeping my habits in check.

Today, for example,  I spent a period of time consciously preventing myself from tightening my neck and jaw as I played scales into the altissimo register. When I’m able to stop myself from indulging in this excess tension, my sound is so much more clear, round and warm (not always an easy thing for saxophone altissimo).

In Alexander Technique jargon, we call this kind of conscious prevention inhibition. It is this inhibition, this conscious subtraction of habit, that has helped me improve more than anything else.

In fact, I would say that most issues involving instrumental pedagogy are best addressed with subtraction. Stop doing the thing that’s causing the problem, and you’re “half way home”, as F.M. Alexander would say.

Of course, if all you do is work on subtracting habits, you’ll deprive yourself the opportunity to expand in other areas. To grow as an artist, you also need to add things (see number 2 above). You need a nice mix of both.

As a teacher, I’ve encountered musicians who are out of balance with their practice routine in this regard.

I’ve worked with jazz guitarists who were so concerned with adding repertoire, learning licks, transcribing solos, etc., that they were completely out of touch with how sloppy their technique and time had become through all the excess, unconscious tension they created in themselves as they play.

When I get them to become aware of their habits, and get them to address them (subtraction) through practice, they are pleased with how nicely all their newfound knowledge and skills integrate into beautiful, expressive music.

But I’ve also seen the reverse of this imbalance. For example, I’ve worked with brass players who spend so much time on “habit control” (especially with embouchure), that they get kind of stuck in their progress. Stuck, not only because they’re doing nothing to increase their ears, repertoire, etc., but also, because they’ve become so obsessed with controlling their habits that they’ve grown stiff (physically, emotionally and mentally) in their playing.

With these students, it’s been a matter of teaching them how to better approach their subtraction process so they’re not trying for absolute perfection. And then getting them to gradually step into the unknown by learning some new musical material.

So aim for striking a balance between these two aspects of  your practice. Strive to be clear about cause and effect. If you keep adding to what you do, but find yourself sounding worse (time, tone, intonation, articulation, control), remember that unless you get those habits of misdirected tension under control, you’ll just amplify bad results. You may have more notes you can play, but with far less beauty.

I recommend doing these five things:

  1. Write down, in great detail, the short term and long term goals you aim to achieve through practice.
  2. Make a list of the things you’ll have to do in your practice to reach your goals.
  3. Determine which of these things you’ll practice are subtractive or additive by definition, and mark then on your list accordingly using a plus mark for addition (+), and a minus mark (-) for subtraction.
  4. Keep a practice log everyday, again putting plus or minus marks next to each thing you practice.
  5. Reassess regularly to see how you might need to change the balance of pluses and minuses to continue on toward your goals.

And just to emphasize again, always begin each practice session with subtraction. Ask yourself, “What do I need to stop doing to play better?” Start with this everyday, then enjoy all the new things you’ll study and learn.




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