Day 3, Less is more

I realized today that I’ve practiced more in the last three days than I usually do in a whole week.  Since my recital at the end of April I only had three concerts and two recording sessions, all of which was much less taxing than a solo recital, so I took it easy.  I averaged about 1-2 hours a day and was only doing the bare minimum I needed to get by.  After my recital I had earned a break for sure, but more than a month of laziness was pushing it. In this context, jumping from about an hour a day to a solid four hours is huge.  But as I talk to fellow musicians about this project I start to get a sense that four hours a day is kind of normal for most people.  This makes me feel alternately proud and embarrassed.  Sometimes I think “Wow, four hours a day!” and then a little later think “It’s only four hours.  There are twenty four hours in a day.  Normal people work eight hours a day!”  For now I think I’m just going to consider it a big improvement and be satisfied.

Right now one of the challenges I’m facing as I fit a comparatively more rigorous practice schedule into my life is breaks.  How long, how often, and what kind?  If I could sit down and play the clarinet for four hours straight and get high quality work done, I totally would.  But inevitably I lose focus around the hour or hour and a half mark.  Ok, so I’ve divided my practice into chunks no longer than 60-90 minutes, easy.  However I’m still figuring out how big a space I need between those chunks in order for the next one to start fresh.  Thirty minutes?  An hour?  Two hours?  And then there’s the question of quality.  If I just sat in my chair not playing clarinet, it wouldn’t count as a break.  Should my breaks always include…exercise?  a snack?  Leaving the house?  Reading?  Writing?  I feel like this is something I should know by now but this blog has me re-examining everything about what I’m doing.  Tomorrow I’m going to try to tweak things by taking only an hour break, but making it as far from practicing as possible (take a 30 minute work out on the elliptical, for example) and see if that’s enough for me to feel fresh again for another long session.  If I can shorten the break time between practice sessions then I won’t need to be up till midnight practicing.  I’ve noticed that my practice sessions after 11:30 tend to be far less productive and I become more prone to injury (my forearm is a bit tense, so I had to stop 20 minutes early.)

My solution to the tension was part of today’s theme:  Less is more.  As an extension of the Alexander Technique stuff I mentioned yesterday I’ve been much more aware of the way I’m using my body to play clarinet.  Reducing my jaw tension continues to be a great idea, my intonation is always better when I do this.  The foot tension I mentioned is also less frequent as I keep an eye on it.  I wonder sometimes where all of this irrelevant tension comes from.  If I don’t need it to play the clarinet, why do I do it at all?  The foot stuff I think originated in the fact that I sometimes tap my foot when I play.  It’s something a lot of musicians learned to do at the beginning and still do out of habit.  But by now my internal pulse lives in my mind, not my foot, so I can discard this.  Old habits die hard, but at least being aware of it is the first step.

In trying to “undo” habits I have I’m reminded of a really terrific exercise I was shown by an Alexander Teacher I worked with in Virginia.  The exercise was this:  On a table was a small toy basketball.  My teacher told me to pick it up.  So I reached out and picked it up.  “Good” she said “now put it down.” So I did.  “Now pick it up again but use half the effort.”  So I did.  She had me put it down and pick it up again and again, each time requesting that I use half the effort I had previously used.  I did this over and over again until out of annoyance I used so little effort to pick up the toy that I failed it pick it up.  My fingers grazed the ball but couldn’t lift it.  This was the moment she was waiting for.  “Good!  Now, using only the tiniest bit of effort more than that, pick it up.”  I used a tiny bit more effort than before and I succeeded in picking it up!  She explained that the friction from my fingerprints was enough so that I didn’t need to exert very much energy at all (more than closing my hand around the ball) to lift it.  I’ve never forgotten this exercise.  Today I used it in the form of seeing how little physical effort I could give towards playing my instrument and still be able to play.  The result was always a better sound with greater ease.  Mentally it’s tough to get out of my physical comfort zone, but hey, “You can’t do something you don’t know if you keep on doing what you do know”.  -F.M. Alexander.

Another idea that kept coming up in my practice was “musical solutions to technical problems.”  As I’ve been recording myself, one of the most common things I realize when I listen back is that sometimes, especially with orchestral excerpts, there’s a big risk of sounding very “by the book.”  Sure anyone wants to play in time and in tune, but if that’s all you do, that’s all there is.  I hit a ceiling a few times today trying to fix some technical glitch like a tricky interval or the smoothness of a passage.  Every time the solution lay in being more expressive.  Technique serves music, always.

Misc. thoughts:  “put fingers on air, put tongue on air” – Yehuda Gilad.  And also, knowing when to give up on a “solution” that isn’t working.  Three tries seems like a good re-thinking point.

G’night internet.  Going to try to finish my practicing day much earlier tomorrow. :)

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