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Dealing with Habitual Mistakes

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Something that all musicians have to cope with, whether in their individual practice or working with ensembles, is fixing passages that 'always go wrong' (sometimes with the addendum, 'however much we practise them'). There are two issues to deal with here, neither of which can be fixed in isolation:

  • the ingrained pattern of actions that routinely pull the music off-piste
  • the negative emotional response associated with this moment - what Oliver Burkeman has called the 'psychological flinch', or 'ugh response'.

Now, you might think that the second of these would provide the motivation to find a new pattern of actions, since negative experiences typically act as aversion therapy. But in fact, the 'ugh' tends to perpetuate the problem, as we shy away from thinking about it too hard. We metaphorically stick our fingers in our ears, close our eyes and bundle through to the other side, where we emerge feeling relieved to have survived the tricky bit, but retain no actual memory of what happened.

In effect, the thought, 'Oh dear, this is the bit where I always stumble,' has become part of the ingrained pattern of actions itself. So, we take the passage out of context, and apply various practice strategies to establish a new pattern of actions to keep the music on-piste. Then, the moment we put it back into context, the 'ugh' response pops up in our head as we approach the passage, and acts like a railway signalman setting the points to divert us down the old, habitual path instead of our down our new, shiny tracks that would get it right.

And this of course just reinforces the belief that, 'However much I practise it, I just can't get it right,' as it effectively attaches the 'ugh' response to the new set of practice tactics.

As a pianist, one of the things I learned from studying Alexander Technique is that part of the 'ugh' response, for me, is a pulling-in of a particular muscle in my right thigh. When I am working on the approach to a problem passage, I have learned to 'listen out' for my right knee twitching inwards as this muscle contracts to identify the 'ugh' point - which can be anything from a beat to several bars before the actual audible mistake. I can then focus on that place with slow practice, giving explicit attention to the frame/set-up of my playing rather than what's going on at the business end of my fingers.

Now, some of the things you learn in individual practice directly inform your rehearsal technique for working with groups. This specific insight isn't one of them.

But something else I've observed while going through this process might help. As you take a passage apart in various ways to re-work it, many of them are within your grasp. You need to pay attention, but you can do them. Which is reasonable enough - the bits where habitual errors occur are rarely primarily about technical difficulty. These practice tactics will lay good new tracks, but they won't help set the points to get them included in the journey.

If you keep going and find a practice tactic that should be just as doable, but in fact proves nigh-on impossible at first attempt, you're onto something. Whose body is this? you ask, and why can't I control or coordinate any of its appendages??

This is the practice tactic that will fix your problem. What's going on here is that you are forging an entirely new relationship with the material, setting up patterns of action from scratch. And these patterns do not include the ingrained emotional twitches that have proved so self-defeating.

The key therefore is not in any specific rehearsal technique, but in finding that technique that completely reconfigures your conception - both cognitive and physical - with the music. The magic bullet is contextual.

And this is why we should rejoice in rehearsal when reach those times when it feels like everyone's brains have fallen out. This is the moment to smile and keep at it, and we will all emerge out the other side of the exercise as better musicians.

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