Deep Music Practice

Deep Practice in Music

Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code came out in 2009 and got some well deserved attention. The book’s tag line was “Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.” He grounded that assertion in a wealth of real world detail and neuro-biology.

Writing about learning music, he had a chapter on “Deep Practice.” Three facets form the deep practice triad. They are, slightly paraphrasing,

  1. Chunking
  2. Attentive repetition
  3. Sensing the results.


Second Sunday Session at the Witches Brew

Chunking Up or Down

Coyle writes about chunking up. There is also a chunking down.

I’ve heard the success philosopher, Brian Tracy, say, “By the yard it’s hard. By the inch it’s a cinch.” And the organizational maven, Richard Allen urges us to immediately start any task that can be done in less than two minutes. That’s chunking down.

What is a chunk in music practice? It’s a manageable aggregate of data. It could be as little as two or three notes. When the chunk is only one note it’s a unit or unitary chunk. That’s what beginners deal with in music, individual notes.

They play a note, then go to the next note and play that. When the student begins to put two notes together conceptually as a chunk, they start to move ahead in their ability. This would be an example of chunking up.

Before you can chunk up you have to chunk down. Even as simple a tune as Twinkle Little Star will be chunked down to individual notes to begin with. Perhaps the most natural chunk up will be the first two notes, both on the open A. Just a down bow and an up bow, that will be the first chunk up they can get their minds around. I’ve witnessed this in the teaching studio.

The next level of chunking would be a ‘figure.’ That’s typically several notes that make a coherent fragment of music. The next level might be the phrase. That’s a melodic line that sounds complete. It’s comparable to what a singer would sing before taking a breath to sing the next phrase.

Each level of chunk may have its own practice technique. We chunk on up until we have chunked the entire piece of music.

Attentive Repetition

“Repetition is the mother of skill.”

“Repetition is the mother of memory.”

Repetition may have even more offspring. I credit Tony Robbins with the first aphorism.

Maybe you, like me, have heard both. If memory is a category of skill then the first really covers the second.

Music teachers advocate repetition. I wrote a blog piece about the repetition of three times being the Gold Standard in music practice. There are also ways of enhancing repetition.

The best technique I’ve learned did not show up until I was in college. I don’t know if Ivan Galamian is the original source, but his Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching has as good an exposition as I’ve seen. The technique uses certain recurring rhythms to facilitate quick movement between two notes, sometimes three.

This practice, to touch on The Talent Code again, helps build the nerve pathways in the brain and strengthen the myelin coating. I usually introduce this to my fiddle students by the time they are close to intermediate level. Blackberry Blossom is the tune I use for this.

Feeling or Sensing the Result

Do we easily hear what comes from our violin as the desired result or not? If something is off we need to be able to hear it quickly and easily.

Yesterday I was demonstrating for a six year old student the sound of an in tune and out of tune unison. I wanted her to hear the difference waves when the unison is out of tune. When I put the unison out of tune she reacted instantly as though a bad smell had entered the room.

That’s how sensitive we need to be. But we must overcome the habit of making a face or body gesture of disgust.

It’s tempting for a student to saw away and only hear what they heard on a recording, ignoring the actual sound. I did that for years. It doesn’t help you learn how to play well.

It’s a learned skill, sensing the resulting sounds immediately and accurately.

The three factors: chunking, attentive repetition and sensing results work together. You select a chunk and play it repetitively, listening carefully. Then move on to the next chunk. That’s deep practice.

You can’t put this on autopilot. You must do this yourself.

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