Don’t Learn It Wrong (I)

DLIW” is the working title of how I’m attacking each exercise in a more systematic way.

The concept here is unsurprisingly… don’t learn it wrong in the first place. And the way to do this, is to play it correctly more times correctly than not. Many, many times.

What do we usually do with ad-hoc practice? Play it over and over until you get it correct, right? But all we’ve accomplished is learning it wrong – we’ve screwed up 50 times and done it right twice.

Those aren’t very good odds for performing it well.

I realize this is old news to all the real musicians in the world — “perfect practice makes perfect”. But for the life of me, I can’t recall ever being specifically instructed or reading how to really do this. So we’re left to figure how practice perfectly, and it if we can’t figure that out, well, now we’re stuck.

Simply saying “play it slower”, while true, isn’t enough. What if I can’t play it at q=40, and my lip can’t hold out the notes that long – how much slower can I go? At that point we have to explore alternate ways.

How to think of it

I think as like a growing a small plant. Call it “weed theory” of practicing.

You start with a tiny, fragile sprout. Each time you play it perfectly, at any tempo, that nice little sprout grows a little bigger. Each time you play it imperfectly, it dies a little bit.

Because of its frail initial state, it doesn’t take much to kill it. Worse, once you do kill it, a weed grows in its place. Just like the sprout, every time you play it badly, the weed grows. Now you have two problems! First, stop making the weed grow (“when you’re in a hole stop digging”). Then, kill it – play it perfectly many times. And even then you only get the sprout back.

That’s a lot of work to end up where you started.

Putting it into practice

With this mindset, now we can evaluate every action against both the short term result (did I play it right?) and the desired long-term result (am I learning it right?). After all, playing it right means nothing if you don’t learn it right.

This was a revelation, and it made the work both more enjoyable and more efficient at the same time! Less head-banging on hard stuff. Suddenly, progress through even difficult exercises took half as long as they did, if not more.

As I write this now, I realize it even applies to performance.

It’s now obvious after sight-reading something, there is a limited window of time before we ingrain bad habits. The longer we wait, the harder it is to fix. Now we have a concrete idea of what to work on next, and why.

Maybe this is why all the good players I know tend to take pictures of even moderately-difficult charts on the bandstand. I always wondered why they did this. Surely the pieces was easier for them than it was me, and I didn’t have much trouble. The difference was they were perfecting it, and I would get it 95% right. They were solving their technique problems long-term by preventing bugs from creeping in, and I wasn’t. Maybe that’s why they’re so much better than me! Huh, funny that.

We’ll get in to the specifics, next.