Practicing Music: Understanding The Difference Between Routine And Process

There is a topic that seems to be finding its way into the books and blogs of several well-respected musicians and music teachers these days. It is about the importance of paying attention to the quality of process as you practice your instrument.

I’m pleased with this trend, and am in complete agreement with it.

In the Alexander Technique, we have a jargon term that we use, called “the means-whereby”. In essence, this is a principle which asserts, that, if you pay attention to the quality of how you do something (the “means”, i.e., your process), you’ll get the best results (to paraphrase F.M. Alexander, “the end will take care of itself”).

My experience, both as Alexander Technique teacher/student, and as a musician, has shown this to be true. Without fail.

Now, mind you, I’m not talking about your practice “routine” here. I’m talking about what you do with yourself as you implement your routine.

Many musicians who come to me for help do so, in part, because they’ve developed a process within their carefully planned practice routine that is counterproductive (if not downright harmful!) As they work with their instrument, they’re so focused on gaining the desired result (sound, technical demand, reading, etc.) that they’ve lost sight of what they’re doing with themselves as they strive to achieve these results. This often leads to a variety of troubles: from inconsistent and unpredictable results, to worsening technique (and coordination),  to chronic pain and injury.

Yet, most of these musicians, after experiencing these negative outcomes, still think they need to find some kind of new, magical routine to solve their problems.

Your routine is a series of prescribed activities (exercises, etudes, etc.) that you carry out (in single or multiple practice sessions) aimed at improving your playing skills: tone production, scales, arpeggios, articulation, ear-training, repertoire, technical etudes, sight-reading, etc.

Your process is how you think as you work on these components of your routine (and how that thinking impacts what you do).

Truth be told, virtually everyone (including you, most likely) has a process that they adhere to as they practice and play music. The question is: Is your process constructive or not?

Counterproductive Thinking Habits

It’s not unusual for me to encounter a student whose carefully calculated, and faithfully executed practice routine (though once a reliable source of improvement) has seemed to become mysteriously ineffective. Whenever this is the case, I ask lots of questions. Not about routine and pedagogy, so much, but about thinking.

What I usually discover is a thinking process, gradually developed over the years, which has been making the routine inefficient (at best) and counterproductive (at worst).

In the simplest sense, it is a type of thinking that has become rigid, narrow, and over-focused on the mechanical details of playing, at the expense of the auditory/expressive component. The bigger picture, as it were.

The student is trying to hit his/her target (the desired result) with an ever-increasing sense of fear, tension, and over-efforting. I can easily see this manifested into bodily gestures as I observe them engage in their routine: stiff necks, narrowed shoulders, fluttering eyes, noisy breathing, etc.

What I’m seeing is their thinking.

When I ask them about what they think of whenever they play a particular exercise, the answer is never vague. They have a very specific “focus” in mind, a very specific intention. (This is part of their process.)

But it is this “focus” that has divided their attention, cutting themselves off from what they sense in their bodies, the feel of the sound inside their instrument,  as well as to what they hear. And this divided attention is what’s rendering their practice routine ineffective.

As I ask more questions, I typically find that there was once a time when their thinking wasn’t so rigid and contractile as they practiced. There was once a time when their thinking was more flexible and responsive, and less anticipatory and anxious.

My job is to help them get their thinking back on track. I start doing this by helping them to become more self-aware, and then to help them soften and expand their attention as they play. In short, I help them to improve their process.

Improve Your Process

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you practice that will help you establish a more constructive process:

  • Notice how you react-What do you do as you prepare to play an exercise? Where do your thoughts go? What happens in your body? Do you contract? Tighten your neck and shoulders? Lock your knees? What happens to your breathing? Where do your eyes go? See if you can play with even a bit less of this unnecessary tension, and you’ll likely be surprised by the results.
  • Give yourself permission to stop-Get comfortable with stopping, whether in the middle of an exercise or the middle of a phrase. In fact, make it a point to stop more than you normally do. Not only can you use the pause to redirect your thinking, but also, by having an active willingness to stop, you’ll keep some of your excess tension in check.
  • Balance the internal and the external-It is easy to become too focused on what something feels like at the expense of what it sounds like and vice versa. There is a dance between what you imagine (your aural impression), what you sense in your body, and what you hear. Let that dance be flexible, dynamic and responsive.
  • Aim toward easy-Don’t make the exercise itself your target. Make playing it with efficiency be your goal. Think of reducing effort wherever and whenever possible. (This ties into my first bullet point, above.)
  • Aim toward flexible-In body and in thought. Rather than narrowing your focus, see if you can gradually expand your consciousness to integrate what you sense, think, and hear.
  • Always play with clear intentions-Never practice anything mindlessly. There is never any benefit in doing so, but can be some harm. If you find your thinking slipping away as you start and exercise, STOP. Reaffirm your aim and intention with whatever you’re working on, then continue when you’re clear and ready.
  • Reassess regularly-Not only your process, but each detail of your routine. Be willing to question, modify, or even throw out completely a particular exercise if it doesn’t seem to be fruitful.

So if you’d like to  take your practicing to a new level, it might not be that you need a new routine. Maybe just an improved process.

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