Reversing Old Presumptions

There is a common presumption that learning a piece of music is processed in this order:

1.  The mind tries to understand what’s going on through analysis, reading, listening to the teacher.
2.  The hands are told by the brain what to do so they can practice and learn their job.
3.  The ears serve as audience and judge to see how it comes out.
More and more, I have come to realize that this presumption only creates frustration.  For example, some people have trouble being asked to play a note if they do not understand why or how it fits into what they’re working on.  Others might go over a phrase of music several times successfully, and then look up and say that they don’t know how to play it.  A fiddler may play several notes of a musical phrase and have their fingers poised correctly for the next note, but feel they can’t play it because they don’t “know” what comes next.

Some need to read the music and feel confused if asked to play even a few notes in a row without reading them.  Others may be in a class which is playing a phrase of music around them, and even though the teacher has just described how to start playing it, they balk because they don’t “know” what to do.

What is going on here?  Maybe that presumed order of learning music is not actually how it works.  Maybe there is a mismatch between expectations and reality.

Here’s how I think the process actually works:

Continue reading Reversing Old Presumptions

Mind Over Muscle, or Muscle Over Mind?

Muscles are worse than teenagers — you can’t tell them what to do.  All we can really do is remind them to do something they already know.  If you think you can tell your arm or hand or finger to suddenly behave differently, you are likely to be disappointed.  This is why reading about hand positions or finger movements, and understanding them intellectually, is not enough to learn how to do them. 

Even if you do know what to do, as you add more tasks, combining bowings and fingerings, the brain simply can’t keep up unless you have muscle memory working for you.  It’s kind of like trying to speak while spelling out in your mind every letter of every word you’re saying!  You just can’t do this without slowing the whole operation down to a snail’s pace.

The technique videos on this site are geared toward remedying this problem, by providing simple isolated exercises that allow your muscles to learn movements that make playing much easier.

You can also making the physical learning easier by customizing your movements to your own experiences.  For example, Continue reading Mind Over Muscle, or Muscle Over Mind?

Physicality: Preventing Injury When Learning Fiddle

Practicing and performing music is a very physical activity.  In spite of all the mental and emotional exertion that goes into it, we must always remember how physical it is.

Below are some thoughts about how to play and learn in a healthy way so you can prevent physical injury from playing music, and here’s a website link that can give you lots hand painof information about this subject, including practical tips, anatomical information, and a list of excellent books.
Continue reading Physicality: Preventing Injury When Learning Fiddle

Music Is Time

I once had a beginning student named Harry, who was 72 years old.  He did quite well, generally, but one day I heard him playing a tune all wrong.

The tune had the rhythm of quarter, eighth, eighth, repeated four times.  Then there were two quarter notes and a run of eighths.
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He had played this tune fine before, but that day, he played all the notes straight through as eighth notes–da da da da da da.  At that moment he was reading the tune and completely ignoring the written rhythms.

I said, “Harry, what are you doing?  You know this tune.  See the quarter notes, and the eighth notes?”

Said Harry, “I didn’t want to waste time.”
Continue reading Music Is Time

Body mapping – Keeping mind and body on the same page!

A colleague once loaned me a book about what’s called “body mapping” for musicians.  Even browsing through it revealed some fascinating information about learning fiddle.

vitruvian-man-leonardo-da-vinciDid you know posture is not about having a straight back?  Or that your hand doesn’t rotate around the middle finger?  Did you know your arm requires the use of four joints, not three?

Below, I’ll outline answers to these questions.  These are just a few of countless interesting and important points about how our body actually works, versus how we might imagine it works.

Here’s an example:  When we play violin, our left hand is not parallel to the fingerboard — the palm faces in the direction of the left shoulder.  Those who imagine their left hand to be parallel to the fingerboard are thinking of a body map that doesn’t match reality.  They are likely to have a hard time playing notes in tune, because they imagine they have to separate their fingers sideways, when in fact they only need to straighten and bend their fingers.  You can see what I mean by placing two fingers on a string and sliding the 2d finger up and down the string — you are just straightening and bending that finger.  Those who map this out wrongly in their head may instead make awkward hand or wrist adjustments to compensate for the imagined difficulty.

Another common imagined difficulty has to do with how the right arm actually moves, as opposed to how some imagine it moves.  There’s a technique video (#9 in Group 1) that addresses both the fingering and this bowing problem with some awareness exercises that can help you bow and finger more efficiently, and sound better.

One book on this subject is called What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body, by Barbara Conable.  A number of related books can be found at this link.

As to those body questions I mentioned–Do you think your back should be straight?  I have seen people walk around as if their spine is a pole, and seem to feel this is healthy, but according to the book mentioned above, your spine actually needs curvature and flexibility, and if you try to make your back super straight, you actually put weight and stress on the rear of the spine, where the nerves are, rather than on the weight-bearing side of the spine (its front side).  One thing that gives you good posture is the balancing of your head, which involves the ability to move your head in all directions, and yet always be able to come back to the balancing place.  You don’t want your head fixed in a rigid, “correct” place.

As the the rotation of the hand, it’s interesting to note that the hand does not rotate around the middle finger.  In fact, because of the way the forearm twists, the axis of rotation is around the little finger.  If you imagine your hand rotates around a different part of your hand, then you might be straining something.

Lately in teaching fiddle, I’ve found it interesting and helpful to point out that the bow arm uses four joints, not three.  We know about the wrist, elbow and shoulder, but might not stop to consider that the shoulder can’t lift without using the joint where the collarbone connects just below your chin.  It’s a joint we never need for playing the fiddle!  If you do use it, whether on left or right, you’re likely to strain some muscles.

This “mapping” of the body can be a tremendous help in playing in a more relaxed way, which translates into being able to play better and for longer periods of time without strain.

© Ed Pearlman 2015

Is Stagefright Learned?

It’s natural to feel nervous energy when performing.  We know that in performance, nothing is guaranteed, and that’s part of what makes it exciting and fascinating.

But nervous energy is different from performance fear, stagefrightwhich we usually call “stagefright.”  Stagefright seems to happen when performers focus mostly on their weaknesses instead of their strengths.  They worry about what people might think, whether they’ll get through a tricky spot, or whether some unforeseen problem will throw them off.  They might even feel unsure if they’re “deserving” of being out on stage.

In other words, people with stagefright are thinking about themselves, not about the music.

My theory is that stagefright is learned, and can be unlearned.  Often I see advice to people about special tricks Continue reading Is Stagefright Learned?

Good and Bad Perfectionists

Perfectionists are everywhere.  In fact, without them, not very much would get done well!

But there are good and bad perfectionists.  Neither is ever satisfied — for the good ones, this is because they always find something to improve.  For the bad ones, it’s because they always find a mistake to fix.
This difference in approach is very real, and in music, it has a noticeable impact on how people learn, how they perform, and how they play with others.

It’s not so hard to turn a bad perfectionist into a good one.  The “cure” became clear to me when I heard about a theater game taught by an improvisation instructor.

One of the stumbling blocks for bad perfectionists is that, while they may believe that “practice makes perfect”, they often don’t know which things need to be perfected, or how, or when.  As mentioned in the previous article, cognitive scientists have found that “learners are very poor judges of when they’re learning well.”  If students’ priorities are not on target, judging themselves harshly may only be getting in their own way.

Jack, for example, was so wrapped up in getting every note right that he didn’t stop to realize how weak his bowing was.  We focused on making his sound more confident, on bowing to match the timing of the tune, on finding the right ratio of bow speed and pressure to make a clear sound, and Jack made a lot of progress.

I complimented him on this progress and encouraged him to keep it up and pay attention to it when he played.  But all he could do was frown and look at me as if I was crazy.  He pointed out each of the notes he’d missed, especially one of them that had been way out of tune.  I explained why his new bowing skill made all the notes sound much better and more in time, even the notes that weren’t perfect.  He looked askew at me as if I was either deaf, or lying in order to make him feel better.

This was when we talked about the improv exercise.  Here’s how it worked:  Continue reading Good and Bad Perfectionists

Turning Music Learning on Its Head

A ten-year study of learning, published a year ago, came up with some surprising conclusions that, for some music students and teachers, might turn music learning on its head.   One is that drilling a passage of music over and over is not the way to master it.
It turns out that working in a focused way on one thing yields results, but they’re only temporary.  One example is the way someone might cram for a test and get by, but then forget most of the material soon after.  But it applies to learning music or any other subject as well.

A couple of other strategies work much better than single-task practice, if the goal is mastery and long-term results.  One way is Continue reading Turning Music Learning on Its Head