I saw, in a forum post, a mildly disturbing phrase: “They are mindless exercises but they do the job.”
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a thinker. I think a lot about music and practicing. Writing here has only reinforced my sometimes dangerous thinking habit.
So, I have to ask, is mindless technical practice really worth it? If you’re not paying attention to something can you really hope to improve it?
I think the answer to both questions is no. I spent (wasted) a fair amount of time in undergrad on ridiculous technical routines meant to make me into some super virtuoso. I would go into the routine on day one with fire and passion–I’d pay attention to everything. By day three, my attention was no longer on the technical exercises. I was thinking about dinner. Or something.
Practicing should never be mindless. To expect virtuosity or technical facility from mindless playing of exercises is a less than intelligent idea.
So What Do We Do?
A large part of the Suzuki method of instruction, from my understanding, has nothing to do with music. Developing an appropriate attention span in a student is one of it’s priorities from the start. For working with young students that means finding ways to capture their attention for progressively longer periods of time.
We can take a lesson away from that. Technique practice is something that really requires extreme mental focus – we have to concentrate on every movement. The goal is to use technique practice time to make perfect movements in simplified exercises. If you can’t focus that intensely for your entire technical routine, break it up. Spend 10 minutes here or there doing technique.
I take a similar approach. I like to alternating things in my own technical practice. I might spend 10 minutes doing arpeggios, then switch gears to slurs or something else. If I find myself loosing focus, I acknowledge that my mind is wandering then gently put it back on track.
Getting stressed about a wandering mind is not the solution. Simply observe what’s happening and push yourself back to focus. This is a useful performance technique as well. When you find yourself on stage thinking about what kind of drinks you’re going to get after the concert, acknowledge that your mind has strayed and gently refocus.
The goal is to find a balance between your ability to focus intensely and the needs of a technical routine – to avoid mindless repetition in favor of mindful observance and careful correction.
I like your perspective on mindless technique and concentration. I’d like to add that though technique alone doesn’t make a performance good, neither does musicality alone! What you need is a balance of the two. Technique that compliments musical maturity is the most desirable. Nobody will argue that in order to play pieces requires the precise coordination of both fine motor skills as well as intense mental involvement.
Musicians are athletes of a sort need to train their muscles too!
I’ve been through the whole – ‘practice for practice sake’ thing and have wasted I suspect hundreds of hours of practice time over the years ‘going through the motions’. The points you make apply equally to all areas of practice, if we do them mindlessly (as is all too often the case) then much of the time is wasted.