Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Are You in a Musical Slump?

Did someone declare last week "Musical Slump" week? Several of my students showed up complaining of frustration and confusion in their practice. After working so hard on holiday repetoire some of them are unsure about what they want to play now. For whatever reason, they don't know where to focus their attention.

"I don't seem to know what I'm doing anymore."
"I've lost track of my goal."
"I'm frustrated."
"I'm not having fun."

Does this sound familiar? I know it sounds familiar to me. I suspect that everyone finds themselves in 'the doldrums' from time to time. What must we do to maintain our enthusiasm?

Think about the vocabulary we use. We 'play' our instruments. Play is supposed to be 'fun', right? So, how do we keep the fun in our play? What is it that makes playing the hammered dulcimer fun, anyway?

FUN is a multifaceted thing, and the definition of what is 'fun' will vary from individual to individual. To me, I have the most fun when these two things are in place:
  1. The ability to play something with confidence and freedom.
  2. The knowledge that I am making progress.
The "something" might be a simple melody or a challenging rhythmic backup. It might be a highly arranged solo performance piece or a fiddle tune jammed at contra dance tempo.  The crazy thing is, most players have fun doing a lot of different things AND are constantly raising the bar.

Trouble is, the hammered dulcimer seems deceptively simple to play. True, it is relatively easy to hammer out a melody line. In reality, though, mastering the instrument is a complicated process and can not be rushed. A student of the hammered dulcimer must be able to see the big picture, then be able to break it down into a bunch of micro skills. These skills must be internalized, typically by repetition ad nauseam. You'll know you've internalized a skill when you can use it consistently and automatically. Once internalized, these skills become the foundation from which more complex skills are derived. And then you're really on your way.

This process requires persistence. It requires careful observation and critical listening. It requires delayed gratification. It requires regular, efficient, and effective practice. So here we are, back to the practicing thing, and trying to figure out how to remain happy, calm, and sane while we're doing it for the long haul.

Here are some suggestions that come to mind today:

  • Daily practice is important. It's better to have short daily practice sessions than to skip days.
  • Avoid marathon sessions ... mental and physical fatigue can initiate a downward spiral, leaving you tired and frustrated. Plus, you could actually hurt yourself.
  • Make your practice specific. Decide on concrete goals. Write them down.
  • Record yourself playing, then listen to it critically. Write down what you hear. Make corrections.
  • Keep a practice journal. I highly recommend writing things down!
  • Practice at practice tempo, i.e. the speed at which nothing can go wrong. If you never play errors, you'll never learn mistakes.
  • Make a game of it. Reward yourself. Eat chocolate if you must.
  • Play the music you like. Life is too short to practice something you don't care about.
  • Turn difficult sections of tunes into custom-made exercises.
  • Tired and frustrated? Stop what you're doing. Play something you like, something you've already mastered. Then give yourself permission to quit for the day. Come back to the challenge when you're rested and refreshed.
  • Make a gig for yourself. Your practice will become more meaningful.
  • Find a music buddy. It will make you more accountable and require different skills.
  • Listen to all kinds of music. Look for different versions of the music you like to play. The internet has opened up all kinds of possibilities for this.

Recommended reading for more on this topic ... an article by John Blasquez of Singingwood Music, San Francisco, CA How to get to Carnegie Hall --- Practice, practice, practice?

Practice should contain some hard work and diligent repetition, but it should also be fun. Be kind to yourself and have fun!

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