Music Mastery Practice Tips Newsletter, Issue 5

December 2008

Happy High Holidays to all of you. May 2009 be a year that brings us each closer to knowing true love, peace, and harmony in everything we are.

Recommendation of the Month

book cover
The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green is essential reading for anyone who studies any kind of musical instrument. After the success of his first book entitled The Inner Game of Tennis, Green applied his approaches to the study of a musical instrument and produced similar results. His book is designed to help musicians overcome obstacles, help improve concentration, and reduce nervousness, allowing them to reach new levels of performing excellence and musical artistry.

December Highlights

The following articles were the most widely-read on %site% in the month of December:

Pitch Development: Exercising your "inner ear": "I can't carry a tune in a bucket" is a common expression of those who consider themselves unmusical. Having a "tin ear" is another common description. It is certainly true that individuals possess varying levels of aptitude in regards to their musical intelligence, however, just like mathematic or linguistic intelligence, every person can take their aptitude level as a starting point and work to build stronger skills in that area... Read more

Neurology Applied: How Science is Bringing Music Instruction Back to Expressive Development: You have between your ears the most advanced processor ever seen. With the advent of MRI, CaT scans, and now PET scans, neurologists have made amazing discoveries in just how amazing the human brain really is. Their research gives us clearer and clearer pictures of how the human brain assimilates new knowledge, practices that knowledge, and is amazingly flexible and pliable in its application. Read more

But It's Too Hard! The Myth of Difficulty: How many times in your life have you heard someone say, "I can't do it. This is too hard!"? It is practically the battle cry of any struggling student in any subject area. It is the mantra of those who were raised in a culture where success and failure continue to be taken personally. When I inevitably have a student tell me that a song they are striving to play on their musical instrument is too hard, I always give them the perspective that "hard" and "easy" are completely subjective terms relative to one's level of experience with any given task. Read more

Are First Act Musical Instruments Worth the Low Price? - An Investigative Report: At this time of year, many families are renting musical instruments for their child to begin study in their school band or orchestra. Because First Act instruments are sold in bulk retail and toy stores, they naturally get the label of being "toy instruments" and not for serious music students. Most music teachers I know scoff at them, calling them "instrument-shaped objects". But, is this really the case? Are these quality instruments that are just marketed differently? Read more

Musical Atrophy: What Happens When You Don't Practice Your Musical Instrument: With the holidays approaching, most of us get a few days off from busy jobs to spend time with family. Students are off duty from school for an extra weekend this year, most not going back until January 5th. During that break, only the most dedicated music students will even touch their instrument, let alone get some productive practice time in. What happens to your playing skills, if anything, when you take 12 days off? Read more

Today's Practice Tip: Sharpen the Saw

To master a musical instrument, one must put the bulk of their time and energy into simply playing the instrument. The neural connections needed to perform the motor skills necessary require repetition to become consistently useable. "Just Do It" is not only the slogan of Nike but can also be the slogan of musicians everywhere.

There comes a time however when the effectiveness of repetition begins to wane. These are times when it is prudent to return to the knowledge-acquisition phase of the learning process. When we feel like we have reached a plateau in our study, a possible next step is to "sharpen the saw"

Sharpening the Saw

Imagine you are using a saw to chop down a tree. It is a large tree, and you're only using a hand saw, so it is going to take you a long time and a lot of labor to fell the tree. You work away at it and make a fair amount of progress, but part way through your efforts seem to produce less and less progress in getting through the trunk. At this juncture, you can either choose to keep the flow of labor moving or you can stop your labor and take time to sharpen the teeth of your saw. With a newly sharpened saw blade, you return to work to find that you make much more progress with the same amount of effort you gave before stopping.

In this analogy, sharpening the saw is likened to stopping our regular practice routine and taking some time to either:

  1. Return to fundamentals of playing or fundamentals of musicianship, or...
  2. Learn something completely new about your instrument or about music.

Usually when there is a passage of music that a musician can not conquer no matter how much practice has been invested, the obstacle can be traced back to basic concepts of mechanics (embouchure, breath support, finger position, bowing, stick grip, soft pallate lifting, etc.) or basic concepts of musicianship (pitch matching, internalization of pulse). Reviewing these concepts or even learning something new about them can produce amazing results in a short time.

Learning something new about music can also broaden your horizons and help you to make connections to your performance that you were simply unaware of before. In my own personal study, I am in the process of becoming a proficient violin player. When I work on violin, I bring all of my experience to bear from all of my other musical study, including all wind instruments, percussion, and vocal music. In turn, the concepts I'm learning about violin are providing me insights into music instruction, pedagogy, composition, and repertoire that I simply did not possess before.

Making Known the Unknown

Not only does learning something new improve your musical practice, but it can also prolong your life. Scientific study of Alzheimer's Disease patients has shown that Alzheimer's symptoms were significantly reduced when patients engaged in acquiring new knowledge and building new skills. An article in Time Magazine describes how these studies have produced significant measureable improvements for many patients [LINK].

I believe that part of our purpose for being here is to learn. Learning should continue indefinitely, and it is in this learning that we have the fuel to not only experience new things, but also to develop wisdom and understanding.

So, stop your normal routine every once in a while and "sharpen your saw." The results will surprise you. Happy New Year.

Until next time,


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