Nov. 19, 2017

Practicing and Memorizing, Part V

(con't from Part IV)
It's mathematics (photo).
Organ music is so compelling, its 700 years of literature, its forms, its aspects, and its history, are so vast, and the desire to play it can be so overwhelming, that it would take several lifetimes to learn to play every piece and master every facet of every phase of every national and historic school that beckons us.
It would take more than one lifetime just to sight read it once through.
We also have to expect that on some days our practice time will be extremely limited.
Therefore to get anywhere with it in any area that interests us we have to develop a mission ... a plan for how we're going to spend that precious time of ours so that the world and all of its distractions and interruptions will not succeed in steam rollering it out of existence.
If we can only carve out a few minutes every day for practice, and we use it to do nothing but review our technique or some repertoire we already know, the product of our labors will be like multiplying one times one.
We stay in one place, day after day after day, with no growth or development, and we all know what happens in nature to living things that stop growing and developing; before long, in the natural cycle of things, they wither and die.
Repetition is necessary to keep our playing tools sharp enough to at least stay where we're at, coast on the steam we've always had, and to brush up on our repertoire so we don't forget how to play it, but practicing is more than maintenance ... more than mere repetition of the foundations that have already been set in place.
Practicing is many more things than that:
It's a time to train our ear, listen to what our hands and feet and mind all three are doing, and make certain adjustments based upon what our ear is telling us [See blog, Listening For The Listener].
It's a time for applying what we've learned away from the keys since our last practice session.
It's a time for extending the borders of what we can do, be it ever so slight ... a time for multiplying what we can already do by something a little more than that to come up with a product tomorrow that's a little greater than what we can do today.
It's a time to hone things around ... to do some different things ... to add in new concepts.
It's an opportunity to learn new things, think new thoughts, and feel new feelings; it's an incredible gift, to be able to do that.
New research from Johns Hopkins University is showing that the key to learning a new motor skill like playing the organ isn't necessarily how many hours we spend practicing but the WAY we practice; with subtle (emphasis on "subtle") variation introduced into our different practice sessions we can keep the brain more active throughout the learning process and just about halve the time it takes to get up to scratch.
The modifications between practice sessions need to be subtle however; if we make them too different, we don't get the gain observed otherwise.
This goes somewhat against the old assumption that simply repeating a motor skill over and over again, like practicing scales, was the best way to master them; instead it turns out there might be a quicker (and more enjoyable) way to level up.
What's been discovered is that if we practice a slightly modified version of a task we want to master and thereby mix things up a little (like practicing scales first on the organ, then at the next practice session switching to practicing the same scales at the piano, which requires different force and a different "feel" to press the keys), we actually learn more and faster than if we just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row at each practice session with no modification.
This is believed to be due to something called "reconsolidation," which is a process by which existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge; it's long been suggested that this reconsolidation could help strengthen motor skills.
When we give ourselves a minimum 6-hour gap between practice sessions, earlier research has shown that's how long it takes for our memories to pass from temporary storage in our brain to a place of permanent storage ... which would explain why whatever we practice in the evening or before bedtime can be recalled fairly well the next day.
Our practicing should also begin with a warm-up.
Diving straight into a Bach prelude and fugue, for example, the moment we sit down to practice without a warm-up of any kind sets up our expectations at the highest level from the get-go, and any little errors that tend to creep in during the first few minutes of this (without a warm-up we can expect that there will be some errors) can leave us disappointed, even frustrated.
But if however we start out by sight reading an unfamiliar hymn or psalm harmonization or improvise even a short bicinium (piece in two parts, one for each hand) without pedal at the very start of our practice it not only serves as a good warm-up but also gently nudges us another inch or two along the path of new learning.
This succeeds in introducing a different figure into the multiplication process ... it yields a different product when multiplied with what we can do already ... it moves us to a different, slightly more elevated place that will be our starting point tomorrow.
The product of our practicing will be the learning of some new material or further development of some skill, be it ever so small every day.
It may not seem like progress, but, we progress day to day to ever larger numbers over time, and everyone's time table is their own.
The product will be measurable.
It's mathematics.
(con't in Part VI)