I think I start to understand this practice thing. First though, confession time. Practice will never be one of my favorite things. Even when I was practicing for many hours in the day, I could think of maybe ten things I would rather be doing with my time. I guess that means I am a bad musician. I think I am O.K. with this. When I was much younger, playing modern bassoon, practicing was simple. I would identify the hard phrases and practice them over and over again. Working with a metronome. Slowly, as slow as I could stand. Tick, tick, tick. Move the metronome a single click faster. Tick, tick, tick. Move the metronome a single click faster. I started my musical life with a analog metronome, the one where you couldn't move it a single click faster, one would have to choose between 72 and 76 clicks. I eventually upgraded, so that I could do what I had always wanted to do, move the metronome upwards, literally one click at a time.Oh the wizardry. With this method, my technique got really good. Well, my technique in the practice room got really good.
This overemphasis on technique, with too much metronome work, left me open to a lot of tension surrounding these phrases and an inflexibility in performance that left me open to strange technical mistakes. Technical mistakes that are considered unacceptable in today's concept of a good performance. I started to get bored in my practice sessions. I wouldn't practice a piece of music unless it had hard technical passages. Musicality has always been easy to me, and so it was never something I practiced. I was doing what I thought good musicians do in a practice room, but it wasn't working for me. I started to burn out. I would then not prepare enough and I would make more mistakes. More tension. You see where this is going.
Recently I started working with an Alexander Technique teacher. I have had teachers use some basic tenants of the technique in my studies, and I have taken workshops, but I have never studied, or taken lessons, or whatever it is that one does when working with an Alexander Technique teacher. The lessons are very different than what I thought they would be. I assumed that we would work quite a bit on how I play, but I haven’t even brought my bassoon to a lesson yet. It has been a lot of standing and sitting, walking around the room, and laying down. I start to understand the basic concept of sitting and standing. It is amazing how much space can exist between your butt and the chair, after you have been guided into a standing position and are now told to sit. The space between the two seems so far away, so insurmountable, that nothing I can do will unite chair and butt cheeks. But the teacher turns my head, guides my back, and somehow I make it back down.
It is amazing that we are so terrible at using our own bodies, that the simple act of sitting and standing is so complicated that the majority of us don’t seem to know how to do it. I guess that is part of the magic of the western world. My son and I are working on the same things at the moment. He is much better at it than I am. Granted he can’t yet get from a sitting to a standing position without the aid of a couch or chair to pull up on, so I still have that advantage.
Alexander Technique lessons are a bit like meditating. We do all this subtle work, and then it is all thrown away the moment that I need to reach down to get my bag to pay my teacher. However, I am starting to be more aware of how I hold myself, and where I hold the tension. A primary problem for me is that I try to use my shoulders for just about everything, from climbing up stairs (note, shoulders are not helpful. I try not, like my son, to crawl up stairs) from walking fast, to practicing. Which is ironic, because I have spent a lot of time in my life trying to breathe correctly, and here I find that I am trying so hard to breathe correctly that I am straining my shoulders in the process. So with these lessons I am trying to bring the lessons into my practice.
With a more relaxed method of practice, I am learning what motivates me in my practice sessions. I was talking to a friend of mine about practice, and they felt their practice was an opportunity to improve on a daily basis. This use to be a motivator for me, but it is no longer. I have discovered that expression is the most important thing for me in my performance life, and so I am learning how to tie this into my daily practice. Finding a more rounded method, a more integrated method is, for me, important.
Removing the tension is part of this exploration. This allows me to bring additional focus to the intellectual and emotional aspects. De emphasizing the purely technical, aka the fast parts, and focusing more on articulation variety, the style of the piece, the rhetoric of a piece brings new meaning to me. Starting a piece and thinking about what the composer wants to say with the piece, and what I want to say with the piece is an important piece to practice puzzle. This refocus, less on the technical aspects, and more on the expression, is also helping me release some of the tension regarding "hard parts." If I have an overall concept of what I am saying, then all notes are equally important. A mistake doesn't take away from the overall effect. Of course, too many mistakes does take away from the overall effect, but I am finding a better place to play with more focus on expression.
Keeping this concept in mind as a kind of guide in my practice, with the additional help from Alexander Technique, has really helped in alleviating some of my burnout, and helps me become a better musician. What would be the point of practicing something over and over again, if we don't understand the broader idea of what is being said? Practicing technique is important, but we need to keep in mind, and we need to teach our students, why we practice technical phrases. We are more then just machines spitting out the same phrases over and over again, we are humans expressing ourselves through the platform of musical performance.