Both sides of the brain

About practising part 1: Murray McLachlan discovers how both sides of our brain contribute to our practising the piano.

Part 1: Current blog
Part 2
: Micro practice >
Part 3: Internalisation & working away from the instrument >
Part 4: How to begin? >

We should never forget just how hard and lonely practising can be. It can be daunting for anyone to be left for significant periods of time on their own to work on their playing and repertoire.

‘I like playing, but I dislike practising’ is a sad refrain not uncommonly heard from even advanced players who find it challenging to concentrate on refining and improving their playing but enjoy running through their repertoire.  

This is perhaps especially true for the youngest, least experienced players. Though some children are fortunate enough in their early stages of learning to have parental support through extended practise sessions, the practicalities of musical preparation mean that many fledgling players will be left to their own devices when they are assigned music to prepare and refine on a weekly basis between lessons.

Though it is essential that we all learn how to cope, indeed love, the process of practising on our own, it can of course take many years to successfully develop the concentration necessary for full success.  

In fact, concentration is only one of the reasons why practising can be challenging. Frustrations occur for many other reasons too but tend to be most acute when it just seems too challenging to make immediate progress.

What to do when a fingering does not work, and the next lesson is several days off? How can intonation be improved on an angular intervallic leap at the end of that first phrase?

Perhaps worst of all is the scenario when everything seems to be in order, but the music just does not seem to lift itself off the page. How to find magic and inspiration on your own? 

Loneliness and lack of direction can lead to feelings of resentment and a sense that practising is not a pleasurable activity. In percentage terms, the overwhelming majority of musicians spend far more time in the practice studio working than in the concert hall performing.

If they are unhappy for the majority of their practice hours, then they are unhappy for most of their time as musicians- and that is clearly unacceptable.

The good news is that practising can be deeply pleasurable. It can and should bring intense satisfaction and a great sense of fulfillment, confidence, and empowerment.

Claudio Arrau once commented that ‘it is beautiful to practise’.

Once harnessed and developed, practice becomes a vibrant, healthy, and positive – possibly the most important part, of every musician’s life. Teachers and mentors play a crucial role in guiding young players towards more fulfilling, effective practise.

Conscientious pedagogy commonly emphasises the need for efficiency, goals, aims, and objectives. practising must be honed, toned, and disciplined for maximum effectiveness. Time management is often stressed, with encouragement for pupils to make regular entries made into practice diaries.

 

Because practice is so crucial for progress many excellent books have been written on practising that stress organisational ‘left brain’ qualities as the essentials.

Check out Jenny Macmillan’s thorough and comprehensive ‘Successful Practising: A Handbook for Pupils, Parents and Music Teachers’. 

Available from the publisher.

This is an excellent example of the sensible and systematic approach to practicing that can be so helpful as students strive towards mastery of discipline on a daily basis. Her advice is immediate, to the point and invaluable.

Additionally, there are numerous exercise-type workbooks for daily practise control too, such as ‘My Practice Book (The perfect diary for pupils of ANY instrument!) and ‘Music Practice Diary’.

Order, targets, and logic are prioritised. Waste not want not: Woe betide fledgling players who dare to doodle or ‘muck around’ for any of their precious scheduled practice time!  

Whilst I applaud the encouragement of organisation in preparation, I have often worried that the spontaneous element in music, equally important for progress, is in danger of being neglected.

As we strive towards excellence through cultivated discipline in practicing, we risk forgetting the fact that we ‘play’ an instrument rather than ‘work’ it! Traditionally the right side of the brain is associated with creativity and a more intuitive, playful approach. ‘Right brain’ attributes unquestionably can lead naturally towards flow, peak experience, and eureka moments. 

Being mindful and going with the flow makes for a more relaxed, contrasted aesthetic from more conventional left-brained practice regimes. Playful practice will often include lots of vocalisation, as well as experimentation with colours, touches, musical shaping, and voicings. Repetitions of figurations can be made without consideration for the clock.

 

Madeline Bruser details this right-brained approach most convincingly in her splendid The Art of Practicing, which emphasises the need for self-awareness, singing, noticing the visceral effect of sounds, practising away from the instrument and relaxation – both physically and mentally.

This mindfulness-based approach allows our ears and heart to open so that we can connect to our instrument, the music, and our audience as full-bodied artists and human beings.

Available from the publisher.

Her outstanding work complements perfectly the more orthodox left-brained organisational approach normally adopted in practice guides, and it is still a volume that I benefit from regularly returning to nearly two decades after first reading it. Her website www.artofpracticing.com continues with updates and news of her ongoing work.

But I have long felt that there was a need for single study book that presents both sides of practice in equal measure. Is it possible to outline a universal approach that simultaneously embraces the creative and the organisational, that could comprehensively survey the spectrum that is practice technique in its full glory?

How to Practise Music

Happily, Andrew Eales has provided a huge step towards just that in his new pocket-sized 80-page booklet from Hal Leonard entitled ‘How to Practise Music’.

Designed as a multi-purpose guide for all musicians, it is organised, thorough and comprehensive… but also clear on the psychological factors that play their part in practising.

In conversation Andrew was clear about the balance in his approach:

Available on Musicroom.com

‘In the book I recommend two types of practice session: the finite, structured regular discipline, but also the timeless, infinite “deep dive” where we let curiosity take us where it will, and learn to be more playful in our approach, without necessarily having a structure’.

Photo: Andrew Eales

From the very first pages there is a sensitive awareness of practice pitfalls that can all to easily mar development: ‘However strong our impetus for music-making, the self-rigour of the practice room can potentially steal our joy and rob us of our potential’.

The book is clearly laid out in fifty sections and makes use of bullet points to clearly summarise the key points in each section. The seven broad ‘How to’ chapters sensitively balance emotional and practical considerations in tandem.

It is as though the worlds of Madeline Bruser and Jenny Macmillan have merged into a concentrated synthesis which players, teachers and even parents can take up and make their own. Why do we practise? How to Plan? How to warm up, practice core skills, pieces…

How to practise mindfully and how to practice playing. The book is saturated with excellent practical advice on considerations such as the environment in which you do your daily practice, the quality of your instrument… and even considers the role of your neighbours!

There are sections on using backing tracks and the metronome as well as on improvisation authenticity, memorising and getting ready to perform. There is excellent advice on warming up, stretching, and breathing as well as consideration of how to practice not only repertoire but also scales, studies and exercises.

Andrew’s book unquestionably considers in equal measure the organisational and creative aspects of practising most persuasively. The presentation and style is lucid and practical.  

This is not a florid, pictorial production. Rather, it cuts to the chase, fits neatly into your jacket pocket and will be of invaluable use to an enormous number of practicing musicians.

Words on the final page are most reassuring:

‘I have no doubt that it was through my playful ‘messing around’ that I learnt my most enduring skills. Not only this, but it is through play that my intrinsic love of music grew and became the driving force of my life’.

Though the importance of concentrated practice cannot be over-emphasised, we can all take heart from remembering that random experimentation and improvisation also has its special place in musical development.

Time out from rigorous musical organisation can and indeed should be put to positive, creative use. Afterwards the return to focused work on repertoire will be all the more assertive and controlled.

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