In one of my guitar classes today I gave the students the following instructions:
“Put your guitars down. Find a small section of one piece of music that you are working on. I will set the timer at 15 minutes, and for that period of time I want you to study your music. You may use visualization, soft vocalization (solfege) and/or Aim Directed Movement. At the end of the 15 minutes pick up your instruments and begin to practice playing what you have been silently practicing. You’ll have 15 minutes to complete that second part.”
You will notice that the first thing I had the students do was put their guitars down. This is essential, because if you are trying to practice mentally with the instrument in your hands, you will almost definitely begin to play before you are mentally prepared. Remember, learning is mental. There is no such thing as muscle memory. What we think of as muscle memory is really plain old every day memorization of physical movements which are so deeply embedded that they can be executed with no conscious thought process or mental effort. But your brain is still in control.
The next thing that you will notice from the instructions was “find a small section of music.” This should be central to your practicing at all times. Not necessarily that the section is small, but that you have deliberately chosen something very specific to practice. To say “I’m practicing the Bach Prelude” is far too general. Far better would be to say, “I’m practicing the 36 measures that I find are technically challenging”, or “I’m going to work on the places in the Villa-Lobos where the dynamics change,” or even, “I’m going to practice the fast runs in the piece.” This process gives your practice a specific goal, without which you are simply repeating large sections of music mindlessly. I think of this as “Targeted Practice”. I target one aspect of the piece and work it thoughtfully and systematically.
Now, while my students were indulging in this form of practice, I was doing something that educators refer to as modeling. That is, I demonstrated the activity that I wanted them to replicate. Put differently, I did exactly what they were doing while they were doing it in front of them so that they could see what it should look like. This of course had a huge benefit to me, because it meant that I was getting in some very productive practice time myself!
So my specific target today was Koshkin’s “Merlin’s Dream”, measures 46 through 76. It’s a section that I’m not completely comfortable with from a technical standpoint. So I spent 15 minutes running it mentally, one hand at a time, while “listening” to it in my head. I tried fingering it on my arm and playing through it mentally without any hand movement. At 15 minutes, I instructed the students to pick up their instruments, and to practice playing for the next 15 minutes what they had been working on. I did likewise. Needless to say, I found the technical aspect of the music much easier, and I was able to clean up the few remaining difficulties rather easily within the allotted time. All of the students found the same result, although some of them may have been a bit more surprised at the result than I was.
My next task for later today will be to spend 15 minutes singing the same section mentally focusing on the dynamics, articulations, accents, and phrasing in order to get a clear picture of what I want it to sound like, then I’ll spend another 15 minutes practicing those interpretive aspects. Ultimately, the goal is that by day’s end I will have mastered these 40 measures.