It’s how we get to where we are, professionally. Most people are by now familiar with the ten thousand hours theory. It’s the amount of practice (or repetition) necessary to reach professional level in a discipline- not just music. New York Times best-selling author Daniel J Levitin in This is your Brain on Music, explains:
“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists… this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is roughly equivalent to 3 hours a day, 20 hours a week, over 10 years…it seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”
This is a lot of repetition. And even without expecting to achieve ‘true mastery,’ anyone on their journey to playing an instrument is repeating something.
It’s how we practice.
It’s how we sit or stand.
It’s how we bring the instrument to our mouth.
It’s how we make reeds.
It’s how we breathe in and blow.
It’s what we listen to when we’re playing.
It’s our thought patterns while we’re playing.
It’s how we assemble the instrument, and put it away again.
It’s how we feel about playing something difficult.
Our physical movements during practice are repetitive and become habitual, and time and other constraints (having to perform a difficult passage in a short time frame with a less than perfect reed, for example…) can affect our optimal performance. Oboists in particular can be prone to injuries, with the tension and effort that inevitably accompanies blowing a stream of air fast down a tiny aperture while supporting with all the abdominal muscles, having frantically scraped the reed for several hours in order to produce a sound, of which one is rightly self critical, while supporting the weight of the instrument on the right hand wrist, and often sitting down to blow for long hours. Doesn’t sound ideal as a career path!
Recently I joined many of the oboe community in experiencing an injury that forced me to stop playing, take a rest, and gave me the opportunity to look at how I was doing everything: all the habits developed over my 10 000 hours and much more during my career. Doing one thing over and over again in the same way, repetitively, can be both positive and detrimental. How can we ensure that we keep fresh, we keep addressing or counteracting what we do every day?
On the positive side, given that success is often about repetition/practice, more time gives one the chance to do it more often. So, starting early will give proven advantages. Not just physical- in the muscle control of the lips for example, which can be further developed for double reed players who are enabled to start playing earlier with the new Junior instruments- but mentally too, as the work of Norman Doige (‘The Brain that changes itself’) describes:
‘Music makes extraordinary demands on the brain….Imaging also shows that musicians who began playing before the age of seven have larger brain areas connecting the two hemispheres.”
Research has shown that the multiskilling that musicians require to play in an ensemble- watching conductor, reading music, blending with sections, counting rests- all stimulate areas of the brain that can give cognitive benefits in other academic and social areas- and so the sooner this can be started, the better.
Principal bassoon of Sydney Symphony, Todd Gibson-Cornish, began on a junior bassoon. Here’s his teacher, Selena Orwin:
“…as I see it it has given Todd … an amazing start on these instruments which are so usually taken up by older children … (being) able to be involved in orchestral festivals and so on at a much earlier age. Playing with others is now so natural, and in Todd’s case has taken him to great heights at a such a young age. He has had so many more incredible opportunities and successes…we were able to employ a psychology which was that nothing about playing…was difficult… Too often later on, students fill each other’s heads with the concept that this note, and that passage are tricky. You don’t get this with younger children who have no preconceived ideas.”
Selena’s talk of mindset and mental approach- things being ‘easy’- is fascinating because this can apply to any of us, at any age. Take a moment to reassess how you feel when tackling something that is difficult to play. Relaxed? Calm? Confident? Successfully practicing a passage does depend a lot on mindset and approach. I tell my students to isolate the tricky bits, use pencil, put rings around things to highlight changes or fingering and approach them as a small challenge to be overcome, (instead of an obstacle, with that ‘I’ll never be able to play this’ or ‘here comes the tricky bit!’ thought looming in the background.) Never make the same mistake twice (again, pencil!!) and approach difficult passages from new angles- rhythmically or from the end first- backwards- so that during the piece you’re actually approaching a moment you have practiced more and can feel confident about.
Lack of tension/relaxation is vitally important, because muscles are getting into habitual patterns, and if one can play a tricky passage without any tension, then it is truly conquered! Taking ten minutes a day to warm up considering your posture, your breathing habits, letting go of tension, and using the muscles in a better optimum combination could pay dividends later on. Let’s face it, professional or not, most of us will continue playing for 40/50 years…
Repetition helps build up muscles (think of gyms and weightlifting; how many ‘reps’) and helps build brain patterns, including success. But you have to want to do it well. Director of the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, US, Daniel Levitin again:
“I tell my students if they want to do well… they have to really care about the material as they study it…. If I really like a particular piece of music, I’m going to want to practice it more, and because I care about it, I’m going to attach neurochemical tags to each aspect of the memory that label it as important: The sounds of the piece. The way I move my fingers…the way that I breathe- all these become part of a memory trace that I’ve encoded as important. Similarly, if I’m playing an instrument I like, and whose sound pleases me…I’m more likely to pay attention to subtle differences in tone, and ways in which I can moderate and affect the tonal output of my instrument. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of these factors; caring leads to attention. And together they lead to measurable neurochemical changes.”
So: on reflection, how could you do something differently?
Which muscles are being used? Are they all necessary?
How are you standing, how are you breathing?
What are you trying to achieve in this practice? Performance? Or correction: isolate the technical passages.
How do you sound? Can you improve this (eg embouchure, support, relaxation…)?
How much do you want to do this as well as possible?
Let’s use repetition to achieve greater success.
Celia Craig November 2016
(Returning to work at Principal Oboe with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for Pinchas Zukerman Festival Friday 25, Sat 26 November)