Mental Practicing

Let’s flash back to 1992. I’m in music school but I can’t physically play the piano. Huh? How did that happen? Is this a cruel joke? I chose to go to a conservatory (passing on other schools where I surely would have had more fun and more in the way of broad social and intellectual stimulation) in large part to ensure that the focal point of my days would be practicing. And for a couple miserable months it was, as I recovered from surgery to my right wrist and spent 6-8 hours a day inefficiently practicing with my left hand only and driving that wrist to the point where I couldn’t lift my backpack or a dining hall tray with either hand. I understood the effects of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) very poorly then and in hindsight I am grateful that I did not do such permanent damage that I had to quit the piano forever – I now know that more than 3-4 hours a day is implausible for my body, and even that much depends on being in tip-top shape. At that point I had the good fortune of meeting Caryl Johnson, a hand therapist and the most impressively brilliant health care practitioner I have ever encountered. As I rehabbed, I was permitted 30 minutes of piano time per day, which I gradually built up to 3-4 hours for a few years, interrupted periodically by relapses and other injuries.

Quitting was not an option, but moving forward with so little practice time seemed pretty implausible as well. So my only real option was to figure out how to squeeze several hours of growth and learning out of a day that afforded me 30 minutes of practice time. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I’m a pretty tenacious dude when I need to be, so somehow I did this and actually experienced a great deal of growth in the following couple years, even as I boomeranged between health and infirmity.

Fast forward back to now and I find myself “coaching” a young guitarist with EDS who finds himself in the midst of a similar dilemma. The suggestions below began as an email to him, but I realized that there are plenty of folks who could benefit from some food for thought on the subject of mental practice. There are plenty of fundamentally healthy people who experience accidents or repetitive strain injuries or, for that matter, simply find themselves on the road without access to their instruments except for gig-time. Equally significantly, I’ve learned how much mental clarity can enrich physical practice, even when one has all the time in the world to spend playing. I can’t speak for all genres (shred-metalheads please chime in here), but mindless technique building seems to lend itself to a sort of detached lick-deployment that doesn’t fit so well with high-level, soulful jazz improvisation.

So what follows are somewhat generic guidelines built from my experiences as a musician and teacher. The needs of any individual will vary somewhat from this template, so use it as a jumping-off point and adapt based on your personal strengths, weaknesses, goals and stylistic inclinations. The main idea is not to dictate WHAT you should be practicing, but rather to explore the most physically low-impact way to accomplish the greatest amount of growth, something that should be useful whether your subsequent at-the-instrument time is 10 minutes or 8 hours.

A couple important points before I get into the nuts-and-bolts:

* It is a matter of personal choice, I think, where to draw the line between mindfulness and efficient multi-tasking. While not a formal practitioner of Buddhism, I am very heavily influenced by the mindfulness-based writings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is a particular favorite, but everything I’ve read of his has been inspiring). However, my first encounter with his work was when my guitarist friend Amanda Monaco loaned me a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness in college. I made it through the first half of the first chapter, until I got to the part where he explains that if you’re washing the dishes, you should be fully present in that action, rather than going through the physical motions while your mind is elsewhere. I thought “what kind of bullsh** is that?!” and stopped reading.

What do I think now? I think it depends on the circumstances and on your personal mindfulness goals. I generally make a goal of being present in my daily actions – I don’t read while I eat, for example, or send text messages while talking to my kids. That said, I’d be lying if I denied that I’ve gotten some great mental practicing done while riding the bus, standing in line in the supermarket, sitting in the dentists chair or even sitting through a particularly boring concert. It is not my place to say how you should approach this topic, but it’s one that warrants some thought and introspection.

* Having a positive attitude is vital. Necessary, really. I can preach all I want about how mental practice is great for everyone, but let’s be real – if we’re practicing that way instead of at the instrument, there’s a decent statistical chance that it’s due to some limitation, whether it be physical challenges, intolerant neighbors or some other circumstance beyond our control. Depending on the circumstances, it may be reasonable to get mad, and if it’s something as significant as a physical disability, it may be essential and inevitable that we grieve, rage, cry, vent and otherwise process our pain and frustration.

But not while you’re practicing. The emotional processing needs its own space, and so does practicing. Practicing music (mentally and/or physically) while infected with anger and grief is a dangerous game. You run the risk of embedding whatever you practice with this negative emotion. It is also likely that you will also increase your physical tension, which negates many of the benefits of practicing something. If you can only practice for 5 minutes before you become angry with your limitations, then practice 5 minutes and go (literally or figuratively) into another space to process your anger separately. If you’re not ready to come back to the practicing for 2 more weeks, then that’s just the way it is, and the work you do on your emotional “infrastructure” in the meantime will benefit you more than any scale or chord you could possibly be practicing in the meantime.

Okay, here goes:

1) Ear Training: Whether sight-singing or identifying chords and/or melodies, this can happen almost entirely away from your instrument. Furthermore, ear training sits alongside general mindfulness/focus among the most important elements of a strong “mental practice” regimen. Ear training can and should include some degree of logic and deductive reasoning. It’s great to be able to hear anything out of thin air, but it’s also important to develop your ability to hear more standard melodies and chord progressions so that you can quickly identify the obvious stuff and notice the places where you will need to look beyond the usual clichés. There are plenty of books and multi-media programs that help with this (if I had to recommend one, I’d probably go for Armen Donelian’s) or you can do it on your own with recordings or, if available, with a “buddy.” Any way you slice it, the better trained your ears are, the more you can accomplish and synthesize without needing nearly as much physical reinforcement.

2) Transcribing: Most aspects of transcribing can occur away from our instruments – in fact, I would make the case that they should. Ted Dunbar and Kenny Barron both taught me to view the playing of transcribed material as a relatively late part of the process. If I want to learn a Phineas Newborn solo, the first thing I do is listen incessantly and develop a deep relationship with the music. The next step is to reinforce that relationship by learning to sing the entire solo, with all its nuances (yes, even if it’s Phineas Newborn, as can be vouched for by anyone who saw me wandering around campus, scatting along with my Walkman in 1995). At that point the “transcribing” is comparatively simple, as most of the material is already embedded in your consciousness. If you want to take some or all of the material and work it out on your instrument, that’s totally useful, but at that point you’re not wasting physical energy to figure out what to play.

This is all based on the notion that transcription is far more than mundane data collection. I’m not a big advocate of transcribing just to have some licks on paper that you can memorize and deploy on demand. There are plenty of books of transcriptions available, so if that’s what you want, why waste your time doing your own data acquisition (unless it’s as an ear-training exercise)? When transcribing becomes a deeper, more engaged experience, you internalize the meaningful elements of the music more deeply and you need less instrument time to get there.

3) Tune learning/score studying: This covers learning material for any number of reasons, whether to expand your horizons, to generally increase your repertoire for performance situations or to prepare specific tunes for a specific gig. The typical thing is to just play the song a bunch of times and get acclimated to it in that way. This is not necessary for someone with physical limitations, and I’m not sure that it’s that useful for anyone else either. If your ears are well-developed, you’ll be able to “hear” the melody by looking at it, and if your understanding of harmony is strong then you’ll be able to wrap your brain around the chord progression by studying it visually on the page. If there exists a recording of the song, then you have even that much more data to enrich your study.

At least abstractly, there is no reason why you can’t fully learn (and, depending on the complexity, memorize) the tune before you have ever physically played it. This is especially true when you’re trying to develop a real expressive “relationship” with a song, as in the case of a ballad (where you might learn the lyrics and the melody). I recommend to my students, regardless of able-bodiedness, that they learn ballads in this way before ever trying to play them. By the time they figure out the chords and so on, they are essentially transcribing from their own heads, with a strong internal sense of what does or doesn’t sound right.

There are, of course, some instances when all the memorization in the world doesn’t in and of itself prepare you to play the song in real time due to the technical challenges in that song – learning something with a very simple melody like “Bye Bye Blackbird” is obviously not the same as learning a complex Bud Powell or Charles Mingus tune. For more on this facet of tune-learning, read the “technique” section below.

4) Vocabulary development: Some of this falls under the auspices of the “transcribing” section above, but there is more to it. Part of developing improvisational fluency over jazz tunes (whether comping or soloing) is simply applying the principles you already know in a comprehensive way over the chord changes you will find yourself using. If you intend to play “Stella By Starlight,” can you comp through the whole chord progression with whatever sort of voicing you want to master? Can you play arpeggios on every chord? Can you do that over multiple octaves, do it from different starting points and connect each arpeggio to the next with smooth voice leading? If you have a transcribed phrase that you find particularly resonant, can you play it in 12 keys? Depending on your instrument, can you play it in more than one register or in different places on your instrument (e.g. different positions on the guitar neck)?

This would seem to be the sort of stuff that would demand a lot of physical reinforcement, and perhaps it’s a stretch to expect that it can be done without any of that. However, most of it can occur mentally. Things like arpeggios and voicings are essentially math, and it is no more unrealistic to figure them out mentally than it is to do arithmetic without a calculator (something that some nut-jobs like me actually do in order to stay sharp). If you’re trying to figure out different melodic options for voice-leading over a chord progression, you can “do the math,” use your ear-training to guide you through the sound of each, and use your visualization skills to envision the way(s) of physically executing what you’ve figured out.

5) Technique: This requires perhaps the greatest leap to imagine how the mental approach can substitute for the physical – this is where the visualization skills I just discussed really come into play. Have you ever heard about the study done with basketball players? Purportedly a player who first visualizes shooting 100 successful free throws will then have a higher success rate upon actually shooting than he would have had just going straight into it. I haven’t examined the science behind this particular experiment, but the principle behind it makes total sense to me. Imagine practicing something technically challenging – don’t just vaguely think about it, but really visualize all of the physical actions that go into it from beginning to end. This could be a set of technical exercises, an etude or a technically challenging portion of a tune. Doing this visualization means your muscles will be prepped to do what they need to do when it comes time to play, because your brain will already be ready to send the proper messages.

Ralph Bowen, another of my college mentors, is a great saxophonist and one of the strongest technicians I’ve ever met in the jazz field. When teaching, I often paraphrase an observation he made that sounds something like a modern Zen koan. “What sound does the piano make?” This seemed like a straightforward question, whereupon he pointed to the piano (sitting there idly) and asked again – “what sound is it making?” His point, as I understood it, is that it (or any instrument) is an inanimate object that makes no more sound than the chalkboard or chairs in the room. It is only when we come to the piano and use it as an “instrument” that a sound is produced. As such, the genesis of any sound production lies in the clarity of our intention.

Does that mean that instrumental technique is purely mental? Of course not, and to this day the lion’s share of my own practice routine consists of using whatever time my schedule and body will allow to do relatively mundane technical “maintenance” so that my muscles remain as strong and limber as possible and so I can check in with those muscles and thus have a decent ability to predict what will be available to me the next time to go to play. That said, technical practice can be made much more streamlined than most people make it. You needn’t fumble around to “find” things on your instrument that some forethought would make clear already.

So there you have it. Jazz is a technically and musically challenging music, and there is no way to entirely sugar coat the fact that playing it at a high level is an uphill battle for even the most able-bodied. Doing so with limitations in playing time is an even greater challenge. It requires a good deal of ingenuity, a lot of determination and realistically some degree of compromise. The compromise isn’t all bad, though. There is no question that when I compare myself today with the me of, say, 20 years ago, the present-day incarnation has more limitations in terms of strength, dexterity and endurance. There is similarly little question, though, that I’m playing better than I ever have. Perhaps this wouldn’t be true if I were a death-metal pianist (take a moment to contemplate how that would sound) or if I were trying to play Rachmaninoff on a concert stage. As challenging as jazz may be, though, it offers an unusually high degree in flexibility of content. I’m not going to be channeling Art Tatum anytime soon, but the lyricism of Monk, Miles, J.J., Dexter and others is pretty darned compelling too.

Part of the technique practice is developing a realistic sense of what my body can handle and then finding ways to reconcile that with what I want to accomplish musically. Interestingly enough, I have generally found that I appreciate the musical outcomes of choices made largely for technical reasons. If you ever hear me play my tune “Patch Kit” or anything comparably intense at a performance, you’ll likely notice that a ballad follows. Fact is, if I tried to play something else “note-y” after that it’d be a disaster, because I invariably “empty the tank” to play the things that I hear on that tune. But pretty much without fail, the ballad is exactly what the music calls for at that moment anyway.

And in general, I have benefited from a greater economy of notes. Note that “economy” of notes doesn’t inherently mean fewer of them, though that is often the case. The issue is not so much playing more sparsely, but having a greater degree of intention behind every note I play. When I was younger and healthier and had more chops at my disposal, I much more frequently deployed them in a semi-vacant way, a sort of auto-pilot. This is just one of the ways in which my physical limitations turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There is the whole “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” silver-lining perspective (most of which I do genuinely believe – I don’t enjoy having EDS, but I can hardly imagine who I would be without it and all that I’ve been forced to learn because of it). But on a more concrete level in the context of this discussion, I was forced to develop a level of mindfulness with my musical practice that helped me grow far more than a vacant mind and 6 hours per day at the piano ever could have. This is why I want to share this more broadly – anyone can benefit from letting the mind do its job and reserving the body for the things for which it is genuinely needed.

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  1. Marina

     /  February 9, 2012

    Great post! And before I said anything – Granola song was very enjoyable :)

    If you knew people who couldn’t physically play anymore, what did they do?
    I’m afraid I have already done some irreversible damage to several fingers on the fretting hand, no guitar playing anymore, even typing causes pain. And I’ll be able to see a proper hand therapist at the end of the summer, may be even later. It is/was a hobby, but it’s hard to stop eating myself about it. Sorry for rant.

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