Practice Music as the Crow Flies

Practicing as the Crow Flies–with Attention to Detail

crow2How long does it take to get to mastery level of a skill? Is it the same if it’s fiddle or juggling? How soon and straight can you fly there like a crow?

There was reference in many of the blogs I read, just a while back, to 10,000 hours of practice required. A book that was on the New York Times best seller list a few years ago cites this.

The book is The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. It refers the story of 10,000 hours to master a skill citing the psychologist, Anders Ericsson. he devoted his professional lifetime to studying this phenomenon. It’s not just an urban legend anymore.

So where do you find the time? I don’t have the answer to that. Except, you have to give up something you are now doing, and put in the time. Hard news.

The Biochemistry of Learning

Daniel Coyle says that greatness is not born, it’s grown. Brain biochemistry involving myelin explains how this is so.

As we learn a new action, and as we repeat a new action for better control, we are building myelin around the nerve sheath. This build up of myelin allows the nerve pathway to transmit signals faster and more often.

From there Coyle explores high achievers, hot beds of talent development, and world class coaches.He cites the string music camp Meadowmount as an example.

The book has changed the way I practice and the way I teach. It raised the frequency of certain focused techniques I use to learn music. It made me lead students through certain kinds of drill more often than I used to.

To generalize this as a philosophy of learning, doing “deep practice,” as Coyle calls it, is not about doing something the easy way. Not about the path of least resistance. Those sheaths are already well developed.

Putting good focus and concentration in a way that almost struggles with the material is what builds new pathways, new myelin wrapped conduits.

My experience with deep fiddle practice has revealed the ultimate in drilling down to the smallest constraint ht prevents me from playing a passage well.

The Crow Sees the Detail

As the crow flies means straight to the goal. And while the crow is flying it sees many details. If it needs to attend to a detail it will pause in its journey to do that.

It hears the errant note. Yes one pesky note can throw off a passage, and therefore, an entire tune, since the passage is repeated every time you go through the tune. Some tunes will repeat a passage four times every once through the tune.

I first noticed this while playing the B part of Tam Lin an octave up in third position. Coming from the high D on the E string, the part sounded solid until I got to the cadence, or resolution. Suddenly it was mushy and unclear.

The problem turned out to be one renegade note, the C on the D string in third position. It was not clear and consistent, nor reliably in tune.

When you discover a single recalcitrant note like this, there is a simple practice technique to fix the problem. Play the shy note with long bows and listen closely to the sound. Get very well acquainted with the note, how it sounds, what it feels like. Make sure it’s in tune.

Then approach the note from another note and be sure that you get the note sounding just the same, in tune, with the same feel of the note in your hand.

For the icing on the cake you can tweak it a little bit sharp and flat, just to hear the sound and feel what your hand experiences. Now, you are definitely wrapping myelin around that note. With a little time and effort it becomes one of your good notes.

Here’s an interesting side note on playing long tones. I heard this story from Pauline Oliveros. When she was teaching in California, in her earlier days, she and Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick experimented with playing very long notes. Maybe they were not the very first musicians to do this. But, they did it a lot as a musical study.

The ironic benefit was, as Pauline Oliveros told me, she could play faster, with greater accuracy than before.

It’s deep practice, deep hearing, deep kinesthesia. There is another article that goes into more detail about Daniel Coyles description of Deep Practice here.

Now, let’s go wrap some myelin!