In his second book, FM Alexander quoted a student who said “I am always coming up against things that I know I can do, and yet when it comes to the point, I can’t do them.” And dismissing it as an attack of ‘nerves’ doesn’t really do the problem justice, because it doesn’t help us discover the root cause of the stress, and therefore an effective solution.
Uncomfortably for teachers and students, Alexander firmly lays the blame at the way we learn. He says that we “practise on the wrong lines, so that our successful experiences are few and our unsuccessful experiences many.” *
Reading this passage put me in mind of a recent blog post that mirrored my own experience as a musician and performer.
Piano teacher Dan Severino wrote a blog post about his experience of evaluating his success in trying to teach students how to practice. He asked some of his students to practice just as if they were at home, so he could give them tips and pointers on how to improve.
They didn’t use any of his tips or practice drills. Severino says: “To my surprise most students practiced the same way. They would play one piece and then go on to the next piece until they played all their pieces. A couple of the students would play through the piece a couple times; but always the same way — from beginning to end.”
That could be a description of me as a kid. When I was a young recorder player, I didn’t know how to practice. I would play a piece either until the end or until I got to a tricky bit and made a mistake. I would possibly repeat the tricky bit a few times - rarely more slowly, rarely improving - and then just play the whole piece again.
It was bad practice. It didn’t help me to build up confidence from successful experiences. It taught me instead where the scary bits were in the pieces I played, so that I would spend all my performance time dreading their approach. Small wonder I failed to get them right!
So how can we avoid ‘choking’? Well, according to Alexander, one key element is practice. By changing the way we practice, we can build up for ourselves a succession of small successes that give us confidence. But to do that, we can’t just play the piece through and feel like we’re done. Here are some ideas I’ve been trying recently:
How many more different ideas or tips do you have that have helped you change the way you practice? Has it helped you feel more confident on stage? Tell me about it in the comments!
* FM Alexnder, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat edition, p.340.