Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Working away

Up until now, I've written a whole lot about working at the instrument. (And, although I haven't clarified it before, I should point out that, by "instrument," I also mean the voice. A singer's instrument is just that: an instrument.) But what about working away from the instrument?

On the whole, I strive to spend as much time working away from the instrument as I spend working at the instrument. There are many stages to the memorization process, so a 50/50 ratio doesn't always work out. Then there's my own little secret: I don't really enjoy working away from the instrument. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't, so I force myself to make it a part of my daily practice.

I suspect that a lot of musicians don't enjoy working away from the instrument. For me, I simply enjoy playing too much. Sitting on a sofa and visualizing my score isn't a whole lot of fun. But working away from the instrument is probably the best way to quickly develop visual and even aural memory. 

It should be stated that visual memory isn't just about "seeing" the score. Some visual memory can be related to how one visualizes chord shapes or hand positions at the instrument. It can also be how one envisions a musical form. Nevertheless, I feel that the best visual skills come from working away from the instrument. In fact, what we're really talking about here is mental practice, as opposed to physical practice.

In my day-t0-day routine, there are many times when I don't feel like practicing a specific piece or practicing at all. Keeping my practice agenda concise and creative helps me stay motivated and inspired. In that same vein, I keep my mental practice as varied as possible.
Not only does this help to keep me interested, it also keeps the work from becoming routine and, therefore, thoughtless.  

Here are some of my techniques: 
  • Do mental practice away from the instrument. Use a different room, use a different chair. Go outside, even if for a ten minute session. Use your mental practice as an opportunity to stand up and not be sedentary. Who ever said that cerebral work didn't burn calories!?
  • Apply everything already discussed to your mental practice: landmarks, metronome, mnemonics. 
    • Landmarks: Jump around. If you know all your landmarks, don't visualize your piece in forward order. Go from Z to A. Or skip every other landmark. Make sure you can visualize the start of each landmark.
    • Metronome: I use a metronome for mental practice because it helps keep me from daydreaming. It also keeps me from mentally rushing the easy spots.
    • Mnemonics: Visualize those patterns and differences in patterns. This is really helpful when in the early learning stages. When you return to the instrument, you'll identify those patterns much quicker.
  • Visualize a piece straight through. This is really hard to do early in the memorization process, but it does help develop aural memory. Later on, once a piece is more or less memorized, a straight-through visualization can become a good exercise in concentration. (I'm not terribly good at that, so I tend to work with landmarks instead.)
  • Can't sleep at night? Try some mental practice. If it doesn't help you sleep, at least you're doing something with the wasted time. You can also do mental practice while out for solitary walks or sitting in a park.
What about learning a score completely away from the instrument? Why not? It's something practiced by many musicians, and I've been incorporating more and more of this type of practice into my own routine.

Do you have any techniques for mental practice? Or maybe you have your own anecdotes. Post them here!