Sunday, February 24, 2013

Filing Skills into Your Subconscious Storage

Thank you to the many people who've been reading my blogs. The large readership has encouraged me to write more about things that help in developing one's piano skills.

I received a message from a friend who was surprised at how quickly I've developed in eight years from beginner to a becoming a paid (though mediocre) jazz pianist.  And frankly, after asking my friend about his daily practice plan, I don't see how anyone can be surprised. Those who develop quickly (like me) have no special skills other than methodical planning and discipline. When followed development is huge and is noticeable in large chunks of time (like every 6 months),

Dear friend, in asking your question, and in my asking about your practice plan, you can see how different our activities are. You start the session playing scales. Then you go play a series of tunes from the Real Book. Then you worked on playing tunes with two handed voicings. Then you played what your teacher asked you to do with shell voicings which was "Don't Blame Me".

Now what's wrong with this picture? What is missing is that none of your practice has any goals. Especially specific ones. Let's start with scales. I practice scales daily too. But it isn't important that I practice all scales. I do it with a specific objective. In my case, I speed it up a tad, then I listen for unevenness. At this stage of my playing, some of this is really subtle and frankly it requires a lot of focus now to hear the unevenness. But a beginner's ears are even worse. After a daily habit of plunking down a pattern of keystrokes, you may not realize unless someone else (like a teacher) points out that some notes may be played faster than others. So this is my constant task. Look for problems.

Next let's move on to the playing from the Real Book. This is even more vague. What is the objective? Picking out the chords and voicing it perfectly? Are you pausing? Do you have to watch your fingers lay out the voicings? If so, then it's TOO FAST. If you are pausing, you have just practiced PAUSING. You have just semi-permanently embedded a very bad pattern in your playing which you know have to undo for many many months.

The next thing you did was play "Don't Blame Me". Your teacher said play this with a metronome. Now I ought to emphasize that it's not so simple as saying "Play with a Metronome". This really should be translated to: Play it PERFECTLY with a metronome. And if you can't, SLOW IT DOWN UNTIL YOU DO.

Let's simplify all these in simple goals. First, it is not essential to practice the same issue for hours. Your objective should be to play it perfectly FIVE TIMES. Why 5 times? Well, that's what I learned from my teacher (world class jazz pianist). In the absence of any scientific alternative, I'll take that. It's not that easy to play something perfectly 5 times. If you make a mistake, the count goes back to zero. If you keep making a mistake, then slow it down. And then maybe the next day you do the same thing and increase the tempo up a tad.

I recently was doubtful myself of this technique because I was learning a very difficult "head" from the tune Inner Urge. It has this sequence of sixteenths that is played as fast as Chopin Etude 10/1 and involves several arpeggios including an A arpeggio. It seemed hopeless and impossible. But with patience, I was able to play it after a month (with some errors) and getting easier now. I just played it today and I'm now up to tempos exceeding 10/1. I don't have to work on it much. I just have to do it everyday. I don't even play the whole head. I just focus on the problem arpeggios and again the goal is to play it perfectly 5 times. Slowly at first and gradually speeding it up.

Again it has to be done PERFECTLY. It doesn't matter what the tempo is. 

What is the objective? As I know now, learning an instrument is about filing the knowledge or skill into subconscious storage. Doing something perfectly allows your mind to file the knowledge away for retrieval in automated mode. Those who have no practice strategy have not built any automated routines in their subconscious knowledge bank. Thus, every attempt to play requires too much conscious thought, and with a little stage fright and distraction, the performance will fail.

A professional musician is able to play with little effort. Why? Because his conscious mind is not focused on "voicings", "fingerings", "evenness", etc. He can just pay attention to the music and can alter the performance more for expression. In jazz, this allows more time to be "musical" when creating melodic lines. Now, I'm too early of a jazz pianist to be too successful at the musical side but I can tell from recordings that suddenly my solos are not so random anymore. It's still hit or miss but certainly it has changed. That's because, I have more brain power available when playing. I don't have to think about what my fingers are doing for the most part. Those have all been filed away.

So, my friend, what skills are  you filing in your Subconscious Storage?

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I enjoyed reading this and was inspired to practice more intelligently. Keep up the good work!

    Chris Schopmeyer