Practice is a process that converts unstructured information into useful and actionable knowledge. The quicker and more thoroughly our brains are able to access this actionable knowledge, the better our performances become. This requires slow, thoughtful, and deliberate practice. Repetition, more specifically, correct repetition is vitally important to our learning process. Making mistakes early in the practice process is equally important. Through this trial-and-error process, we learn to eliminate the actions that are not useful to our performance and hone in on the actions that will help us perform at our best. Learning to play an instrument well requires much the same learning process as learning to speak or learning to walk and requires the same “childlike” self-awareness and a non-judgmental attitude of the early results. When children learn to walk, for example, they certainly are not immediate experts. They first are required to realize that they are, in fact mobile (awareness). Then they must learn to crawl, then to stand, and then to keep their balance while standing. After much trial-and-error, failing, and retrying, children finally master those early skills. Only then are they ready to learn to walk, which requires even more patience, failing, retrying, and consistent practice. This process takes time to learn and even more time to see sustainable results. Thus, musical practice requires our focused attention, active engagement, error feedback, and daily rehearsal. While “what” we practice is important, the “how” we are practicing is far more important than which material we choose to practice.
The time to prepare for next year’s All-Region/All-State Auditions is now.
Playing an instrument well requires procedural learning, meaning a simple acquisition of knowledge (what to do and how it works - declarative learning) is not enough to be a successful performer. In order for a successful performance to occur, we must demonstrate and apply our knowledge which, while performing requires skills and actions inaccessible to our conscious recollection. In procedural learning, our knowledge and memory are demonstrated through performance.
Why is this important and how does it relate to next year’s All-State audition?
In order for a successful performance or audition to occur, correct repetition of the skills and activities required for playing an instrument is necessary through deliberate practice. Successful music performance involves many perceptual, cognitive, and motor processes. The goal of practice is then to coordinate these processes in the context of artistic expression, combining the many individual elements of motor control (skills) to create seemingly effortless actions that, over time, become increasingly assimilated into musical sounds and phrases. Put simply, solid and repeated execution of the basic fundamentals is necessary for performance success. During the stress of a performance or an audition, there isn’t time, or available brain power to consciously think about all the different skills necessary to play an instrument. These skills must be deliberately practiced to a point of automation (these processes must occur automatically, outside of our direct conscious control).
How we learn: The four stages of competence (Four stages of learning)
Before talking about the musical skills necessary for success, let’s begin by taking a look at how we learn or become competent in any new skill.
The four stages of competence suggest that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence (1). As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill (2), then consciously use it (3). Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence (4).
The four stages are:
1. Unconscious incompetence (No practice or practicing at the last minute)
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
2. Conscious incompetence (Practicing simply to play through rather than thoughtful, deliberate practice)
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
3. Conscious competence (Practice shows improvement, however, the skills are not yet automated)
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
4. Unconscious competence (Needed for successful performance)
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. Musically speaking, this is important because when performance skills become “automated,” it allows our conscious mind to focus on making music rather than “how to make sound.”
Now let’s examine the musical skills necessary for performance success.
What are the basic fundamentals?
1. SOUND - A resonant and flexible sound (includes being able to control the full range of the instrument, good intonation, a command of all dynamic ranges, and adapting one’s sound for different types of music).
2. TIME - A solid sense of rhythm (includes understanding and application of basic rhythms as well as the ability to keep good time).
3. TECHNIQUE - An even and controlled technique.
4. ARTISTRY - The ability to understand and demonstrate good musicianship (a combination of knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity).
While it is important that each of these skills are developed to the best of our current ability, realize that while making music, none of them function independently of the others. They are all equally necessary in order to have a successful performance. It’s also important to realize that while making music, we should place all of our conscious attention on just that, making music, and not on these individual skills. Now we begin to see the importance of the earlier discussion of procedural learning and the four stages of competence. The individual skills necessary for performance need to be practiced to the point of automation so that while performing, our conscious attention can be placed on presenting the best musical product and each of us has to pass through the four stages of competence before successful, artistic performance can occur.
Successful musical performance also requires us to be independently responsible for our practice time. Don’t wait for a private teacher or band director to tell you what to practice. They can certainly point us in the right direction and help narrow our focus, but the overall “big picture” responsibility lies within each of us. If you’re not sure what to practice, refer back to the fundamental skills. There is always work to be done and maintenance required on sound, time, technique, and artistry. It’s also important to realize that we must practice consistently and daily, much in the same manner as athletes. Performing requires us to not only be prepared musically, but there are also physical requirements for which we must be prepared. We must be “in shape” for performances and if we are practicing daily, the physical demands of performance can be more easily managed. While practicing, it’s important that we design our sessions for maximum benefit. Because of the physical requirements, we need to rest often while we practice. Our embouchure needs rest in order to recover, the same as any other muscles in our body. It’s also important to give our brain a period of rest in order to process and store the information we just learned or reviewed. I would recommend practicing in ten-to-fifteen-minute increments then resting for five to ten minutes, alternating between these periods of activity and rest. As we gain experience and strength, we are able to practice in longer increments, but still require periods of rest in order to recover and stay fresh both mentally and physically.
Benjamin Fairfield – February 18, 2021