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NOTE: This and the following practice tips are designed for intermediate students, but may also be used for beginners and advanced students whenever appropriate.

The problem with the fast track

One of the most common problems I see in intermediate students is moving ahead too fast, too soon.

Whether they are playing music that is technically too difficult or trying to conquer the next piece out of competitive energy, students take on bad habits, quick-fix solutions that help in the short run but are detrimental to long-term growth.

Staying on the musical fast-track causes great strain. You can hear the strain in their music, and you can see the strain in their bodies.

This is partly because their body has not caught up to what they (intellectually) know. They see the notes, but cannot get their fingers and bow to move along fast enough. The result is incorrect positions and lack of balance, which in turn produces tension, poor tone, and lack of fluent movement.

But it is also caused by fear.

Slow Down Phobia

Many students are simply afraid of slowing down. I call it “Slow Down Phobia.”

Slow Down Phobia is caused by two issues: 1) A fear of being bored, and 2) A fear of failure. The first comes from a feeling that slowing down is dull, lifeless, not interesting enough. The second comes from a sense of competition (mostly with themselves) to play faster and faster, harder and harder, on successively more difficult music. If they do not, they feel they are failing.

Well-intentioned orchestra teachers and competitive orchestra programs can contribute to this sense of constant personal pressure to be more and do more.

Slow Down Phobia is detrimental to musicianship. When a student does not wish to slow down, pacing, phrasing, listening for tone, practicing slowly, developing balance and technique, all seem like a waste of time. This mental strain is made worse if they are being asked to play difficult repertoire or competing to get into an advanced orchestra.

What to do about this problem? Simply telling students to slow down doesn't really work. That's because, it's like a band-aid. They will slow down once, but then speed up again, because we haven't addressed the underlying pressure.

And, from a technical development standpoint, slowing down isn't the same thing as achieving balance. If a student is straining at music above her level, even if she slows down, she isn't likely to develop the internal understanding required to play with ease and fluency.

Why rewind?

I talk with all of my students and parents about rewinding to easier material. “We are going to back up” I say, “so that we can go forward.”

Helping students rewind teaches them to be kind to themselves. Extended strain causes burn out and injury. You've heard the horror stories, maybe experienced it yourself: being forced to quit playing because you are in pain is no way to be a healthy, happy musician.

Backing up also makes it easier to focus on technique. It is hard to work on technique when you are barely keeping up. The brain uses a different region for reading notes than it does for internal body awareness. Therefore we have to eliminate the difficult distraction of note reading so that we can get at the level of movement.

Sam’s artistic recovery

I recently worked with a student who I’ll call “Sam.” After hearing a few notes from his working piece, I could tell it was causing tension in his body. He would need more relaxed fluidity in his playing to perform it.

I asked him to “rewind” and choose an earlier piece. At first he thought it was beneath him to go back that far. But as we played together and talked about how he felt, we discovered several areas of practice for him that were both interesting and effective for more beautiful tone.

Simply by focusing on an earlier piece, with special attention on balance and listening, he improved his playing significantly. He went on to perform with success. Eventually we went back to his working piece. Automatically it was better, and he had a new awareness of how to practice it without tension.

Learning from the inside out

By returning to easier music, we can learn again from the inside out. When the music has not been internalized through listening and memorizing, when we have only "learned the notes," we are learning from the outside in. The external notes on the page (or for many students, “what the conductor/teacher says to do") become the operative system instead of a deeply internalized alignment with the musical expression.

This is the beauty of review. In review, students recover balanced playing with a better sense of internal learning. This also helps them to start enjoying themselves again.

Give them permission

Teachers, please understand: Students need to be given permission to rewind. Otherwise we encourage a "been there, done that" mentality with repertoire, which only encourages the race to harder and harder music.

ACTIONS FOR THE WEEK:

  1. Choose a review piece that is early and easy. If you don’t know one well, memorize one so you can use it for tone and technique work. (You can visual tools to help students choose review pieces: click here for an example.)
  2. Leave your ego at the door. This is not about proving a point. Let yourself go back to go forward.
  3. Let your body catch up. Remember that your body may need more time than you think to really learn a balanced technique.
  4. Where is the pressure coming from? Examine whether orchestra goals are causing too much tension, and re-evaluate them if so. You don’t have to strain to play. (See also below under “A note about orchestra.”)
  5. Split it up. You don’t have to abandon all your orchestra music or your current working piece. Spend half your time on memorizing and deeply internalizing an earlier piece, and the other half maintaining your body awareness as you practice reading through more difficult music.

A note about orchestra

It is tempting to aim at orchestra as the ultimate validation for playing. But for beginner-to-intermediate players, traditional orchestra is not necessarily the right environment for them to grow at a gentle, sustainable pace.

Private lessons and Suzuki group classes help students play with polish and musicianship, rather than continually climbing up to harder pieces. Our intention is not to "weed out" unmotivated students but rather to affirm the natural motivation that is already present in children.

The right private teacher can help to establish when it is time to challenge the student with orchestral repertoire.  There is a right time to enter the orchestra stream, but be aware of the danger. We cause unnecessary artistic injury to children when we ask them to strain.

Help them enjoy the journey

Be kind. Help your late elementary, middle-school, and high-school intermediate students form a more balanced view of themselves as players. Encourage them to play music that doesn't cause strain, so they can play with more (internal) attention and observation. By doing so you will not only help them to enjoy the journey, you will ensure their long-term success as performers.