Effective practice without the frustration and drudgery? Piet Koornhot looks at ways to direct your imagination.


We all know the joke about the lost tourist who asks a passer-by in New York, 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall?' and gets the reply, 'Practise, practise!'

Many musicians have resigned themselves to the drudgery of practice that occupies the best part of every day for a lifetime. They have accepted that there are no shortcuts to achieving virtuosity and they pay the price with fatigue, injury and even burn-out. And yet there are those who seem able to learn notes and develop playing skills so much faster and better. How do they do it? It is safe to assume that the difference is the result of what experts do in their heads and that detecting the structure of such 'software' in the brain could allow others to do the same.

1. Set well-formed outcomes for each practice session
The more specific our goals are as we represent them to ourselves, the more of a road-map our nervous system has for getting to them.

In order to have a compelling and rich internal representation of our outcome, we need to focus on what it is we want, rather than on what we don't want. Thinking of what you dislike in your vibrato is different from thinking of what kind of vibrato you like; these are two alternative sets of information. Focusing on what you don't want is like trying to side-step yourself in a mirror - what you are trying to avoid keeps following you around.

Make a positive formulation of what you want to achieve. Then imagine in great sensory detail what your evidence would be for having achieved it completely. What images, sounds and physical sensations would be the signs of a perfect outcome? Be the Steven Spielberg of your own internal movies: watch and hear yourself performing like a true expert. Then imagine stepping into your own skin and feeling from the inside what it's like to do it perfectly.

2. Systematically increase your awareness through all your senses: experience excellent examples
We need examples or models: listen to and watch the experts. Absorb as many images and sounds as possible of great examples of what you want to achieve. By doing this we learn unconsciously as well as consciously. Our unconscious minds are vast storehouses of information, absorbing images, sounds and sensations that are the raw material from which our nervous system eventually constructs our skills.

3. Increase your cognitive understanding: analyse structures, look for patterns, work out strategies, plot logistics
We need a cognitive frame of reference when developing playing skills: when we understand something, we have a structure for learning to do it. One such frame of reference is the analysis of the logistics of playing actions, which might include creating an imaginary grid of fingerboard locations, exploring finger patterns, using familiar locations as stepping stones for accessing unfamiliar ones, using differences in pressure to differentiate fingers or relating actions with those preceding and following.

When we recognise such patterns (musical as well as technical) and develop strategies for executing playing actions, our brains can send very precise messages to our muscles.

4. Search for solutions
A theory known as the Law of Requisite Variety also known as Ashby's Law, basically states the necessity for variation and flexibility within a system. The amount of flexibility of a member of a system must be proportional to the variety encountered within the system as a whole. The implication for learning is that we must have as much variability of means as is required for outcome achievement. When practising, this means that we should keep on trying different ways until we find what works. As Delay used to say, 'there always is a solution - it is only a matter of finding it.'

The brain is always learning and even if a new way of doing things is not in itself useful, it changes the way in which the familiar is experienced. In the light of new experiences, older ones can never be quite as they were. Practise a troublesome passage with different rhythms, dynamic levels, colours or inflections. Stand on a chair - your balance will alter; turn your bow around - the weight distribution and balance will feel different; play in the dark - you will hear in a new way, undistracted by visual stimuli. Variety adds perspectives to the nervous system's understanding, increasing in the process the complexity of playing skills.

5. Play softer and lighter
Expertise is the ability to make fine distinctions: the musical performer who can detect and manipulate the finest musical and technical subtleties will be the most skilful. A useful principle to keep in mind is what is known as the Weber-Fechner Law in psychoacoustics. It states that the smaller the sensory stimulus experienced, the finer are the distinctions which the brain can make. Conversely, the greater the sensory stimulus experienced, the greater differences must be for the brain to perceive them at all. For example, the difference between the light of 100 candles (high stimulus) and 101 is not noticeable, while that between a single candle (low stimulus) and two is clear.

The same principle applies to all the senses. A first step when learning to make finer distinctions is to lower the stimuli that you are producing. When you want to make finer auditory distinctions, play softer; when you want to make finer kinesthetic distinctions, apply less pressure or tension.

6. Play slowly and practise short sections
Making fine distinctions also depends on the size and the tempo of the information. If too much happens too fast, the brain cannot notice small differences. It is like a speedy train blurring through our field of vision, making it impossible to see the individual faces of passengers. Learning needs to happen in manageable chunks, and slowly enough for the brain to notice critical bits of information. The greater the detail that can be noticed, the richer the feedback loop of learning. If we cannot manage the learning process, it is simply because we have bitten off more than we can chew. By working one step at a time, slowly enough, we ensure a successful process of achieving outcomes.

7. Make small movements to stimulate your kinesthetic discrimination
Movement and awareness go hand in hand. In order to be able to sense, we have to move. For example, we can only see because our eyes are constantly making quick micro-movements imperceptible to the normal glance. An eye that is perfectly still cannot see. Similarly, in order to have any tactile sensation, our fingers must move, however minutely. That is because our brains need to register differences between stimuli in order to have any information at all. Information is the news of difference.

In order to become aware of kinesthetic sensations that serve as feedback, we need to introduce movement as a way of enhancing sensory awareness. For example: to become acutely aware of your bow grip it helps to make small movements with your fingers on the bow; to sense tension in a shoulder, it helps to move the shoulder slightly in different directions. The quality of our practice is determined by the state of mind we bring to it as well as our understanding. Experts who practise well typically put themselves into resourceful states for learning and then bring useful frames of reference to their actions. They have effectively taught themselves how best to learn and to enjoy the process.

This article was first published in the September 2002 issue of The Strad