A Simple Way to Build Consistency

We’ve all had that passage that seems to defy taming.  The one that fuels never-ending frustration and even, at times, rage.

You break it down, slow it down, and repeat it until you can play it twenty times in a row.  You work it back up to tempo and nail it another twenty times. You even put it back into context, and practice it to death that way, and everything seems to be in working order.  But the next day, it seems to go back to where it was before you started: you crack the note, fumble the transition, or run out of air before the end of the phrase.

Or you’ll be in the middle of a performance when it rears its ugly head.   As you approach the section your muscles begin to tense in dread.  You focus on your self-talk: I’ve practiced this a hundred times, you think, a thousand. Surely I’ll get it right when it counts the most.  But you don’t really believe yourself, and when the moment comes your positive self-talk seems more like a denial of reality: you will screw this up, every time.

What’s going on here?  Are you really doomed to failure?  Are you lacking basic talent?  Should you have practiced that section two thousand times?

No, no no.  What you’re dealing with is skill fragility, and the solution is simple: refocus your practice to build skill resilience.  You can fix this.

A basic tenet of neuroscience says that neurons that fire together, wire together.  Pavlov rang a bell, then gave his dogs some food.  Bell, food. Bell, food. Bell, food.  Eventually the association caused the dogs to salivate.  

The cause of the salivation wasn’t actually the bell, though.  The bell caused a cluster of bell-ringing neurons to fire; the smell of food caused a different cluster of neurons to fire (and send instructions to salivate); and a group of pattern recognition neurons began to predict: if bell, then food.

When we practice, what we’re actually doing is constructing predictions and sets of specific instructions in our neurons.  Our brains are much better than dogs’ at recognizing complex auditory structures (music), so with repetition we can predict not only what note comes next, but exactly how much physical effort we need to exert in order to hit it with the right inflection, volume, air speed, etc. to create accuracy and the best musical effect.

When we first begin to practice a passage, there are only a few neurons wired together.  Pavlov’s dogs again: bell, food.  Not a lot required.

But what if Pavlov only wanted his dogs to only salivate at a certain pitch, say A=440?  That’s a more complex task, and it requires a greater number of neurons: first, to recognize a range of notes where a reward might be forthcoming, and later, to refine that range of notes to make it more exact.  

This process of honing away false positives is skill refinement.  It is a large part of what we do as musicians.  'A' doesn’t always go straight to 'B', despite the number of times we’ve played that scale; sometimes it goes to 'D', or 'G'.  We use context and pattern recognition to quickly tell us where we’re going next.

And that’s where we can run into problems.  Skill fragility is basically a problem of over-contextualizing a passage.  We get very good at the passage after we’ve run through twenty repetitions, or in this particular practice room, or under some other very specific set of conditions.

Skill resilience is the opposite.  We want to be able to perform in a wide variety of contexts: the first time we hit the passage or the seventeenth, whether we’re nervous or relaxed, tired or fresh, at a slightly faster tempo or a slightly slower one.

The solution is probably obvious to you now: you need to fire the neurons in a wide variety of situations.  Intersperse the passage between each of your technical exercises.  If you can transpose, play it in a number of different keys.  Play it fast, play it slow.  Vary the rhythm.  Vary the articulation.  Play it from memory, play it off the page.  Play it facing each of the four corners of the room, sitting down, standing up.  Play it after a slow section, and then after a fast section.  Play it loud, play it soft.  Play it happily, play it angrily.  Play it alone, in front of an imaginary audience, in front of a friend, and in public.

The more you change the context, the more associations you’ll have and the easier the passage will become.

And the next time you tell yourself I’ve practiced this a hundred times, a thousand. Surely I’ll get it right when it counts the most, you’ll finally be able to trust that it’s true.


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