Tuesday, September 19, 2006

When you find yourself in a hole - stop digging!

If I could get pupils to follow this one rule they would think I was the greatest teacher on the planet.

We have all been brought up to believe that if you work hard you will succeed. If you work out you will get fit. And if you practise hard you will play better. Well, maybe not. Too often I get pupils coming to me feeling bad about themselves, angry at me, ready to give up - because they practise and practise and don't see much improvement. I am going to try to offer you some insight into why this happens.

When you find yourself in a hole - stop digging! By being in a hole I mean you are making the same mistake again and again. You know you are getting a rhythm wrong, missing a couple of notes in a passage, forgetting the B flats, running out of fingers - whatever. Well what do you want to practise? The mistake? Probably not. You want to practise NOT making the mistake. You are in a hole. Stop digging.

By digging I mean just going over and over the thing and wishing it would get better. Stop! Try to look at the thing from some new angles. How can you break it down? The most obvious solutions for accordionists would be play each hand seperately until it is correct, then put them back together or take the passage out of the piece and go over it slowly, then work it back in. This is a good start, and if you aren't doing this in your current approach you will be amazed at how much it helps. But it takes self discipline! Most of us think we are "having more fun" if we just play the whole piece through over and over. In the short term, maybe we are. But which is more fun - having a repertoire of five pieces that you can play okay as long as you don't make a mistake? Or having a repertoire of fifty pieces that you feel confident about, and feeling pretty confident that the next fifty are on their way?

I have lot's of techniques to help pupils stop digging. There are endless ways to think outside the box (no pun intended). I will try to give you some more here when describing people's lessons, or when you have video coaching with me. However, even more important is that you don't get in the hole in the first place. So how does that work?

There's a concept I call the rule of three. If you repeat an action three times it's on its way to becoming a habit. If you repeat it three times on several occasions it will become ingrained, entrenched and even once you have dug yourself out of the hole it will take a lot of effort to reverse things before the action you repeated will not be your "default position" when you get nervous or are inattentive.

So what does this mean? Well, when you are trying out a new piece or exercise - pay attention to your actions very carefully. As soon as you notice a problem or mistake stop and fix it. Okay, you might try it one more time, but if the mistake is still there - - - LOOK OUT! You are already very close to the magic number, and it isn't nice magic. Step away from the shovel. Now is the time to start thinking laterally, break it down, look for exercises that will help you with the technical problem, go slower. get help - or even walk away and try it another day when you have more patience or insight.

We are great at kidding oursleves. "I see what I am doing wrong, I will just keep going over it until I get it right." (So that's maybe 15 repititions with the mistake, then a victory lap or two without it. I don't like the maths.) "This piece isn't that hard, I will probably get it without breaking it down or slowing it down" (But will it be dependable, or is this just another version of the first rationale?) This kind of thinking is so hard to get out of. Heck - I've caught MYSELF thinking "I'm a professional teacher, I can get this by just running through it a few times more."

What? You mean even teachers and pros have to break every little thing down and practise it this way? That depends. If I can get it right on the first or second playing then no - it's within my capability and I can just play it for fun or whatever. If it's still got problems after twice through, then yes, absolutely. If I want it to improve and remain consistent I'd better not dig.

In fact, I see this happen to me sometimes when pupils bring music in that I'm not familiar with. We play it together, or I play it for them. Maybe there's a little passage somewhere that I misread, or I get caught out with the melody going up when I felt it was going down, etc. I can keep the piece going, sure, but there's a little rough spot, and maybe it happens again the next time. They take the music home and I forget all about it. But forever after I have a rough spot there when they produce that piece in their lesson. It occurs to me as I write this that I should probably just lead by example and stop and sort it out right there and then.

Now, where did I park that back hoe.....


Kris

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

would be keen for some fingering lessons, and tips, as i've only taught myself so when your playing reels at full speed my fingers get a bit tangled sometimes!

also some use of the bellows, was once told the accordion is 3 equal instruments - right hand/Bellows/and left hand! and each should be given equal priority! what do you reckon to that? my left hand is fairly good but need to work on right hand and bellows!

the third thing which i have recently learned is the importance of playing slow and steady for my style (ceilidh dancing) - this importance of this cannot be underestimated!

Iain said...

would be keen for some fingering lessons, and tips, as i've only taught myself so when your playing reels at full speed my fingers get a bit tangled sometimes!

also some use of the bellows, was once told the accordion is 3 equal instruments - right hand/Bellows/and left hand! and each should be given equal priority! what do you reckon to that? my left hand is fairly good but need to work on right hand and bellows!

the third thing which i have recently learned is the importance of playing slow and steady for my style (ceilidh dancing) - this importance of this cannot be underestimated!

Kris Hughes said...

Hi Iain - re fingering. Do you read music? The easiest way to discuss fingering in print is to write the fingering on the notes. I can help you in person or by video without this. Otherwise, here's some basic advice. Learn the correct fingering for scales and arpeggios in the keys you usually play in. (I can help you with this, if you like.) Get these to where they are 2nd nature - and as you are learning them, also try to learn to picture very clearly in your mind both the piano keyboard and your finger movements as you play it. If you have some of the basic principles of good fingering in place (and a good place to start is scales) and you can really see where the melody is going geographically on the keyboard, very clearly in your mind, you will find it much easier to avoid running out of fingers at crucial moments.

The bellows is a huge subject, and I absolutely agree that it is tremendously important. I think the fact that I played a lot of wind instruments as a kid, as well as the piano, really helped get me ready to play the accordion. When I had a few lessons with Freeland Barbour many years back, and he explained to me that you should use the bellows to highlight the phrasing it all fell into place for me. I consider this very important, although many players and teachers choose to ignore it. I have been thinking about putting together a DVD on this subject, as I believe it will really help those who are committed to playing well.

Playing with a steady rhythm is very important (I mean steady in the sense of not changing speed or wavering) whether you play fast or slow. As far as how fast or slow is best - that's something the band and the dancers have to reach an agreement on! :-)

Kris

Iain said...

Some good points your raise there.

I do play many instruments and like many musicians are often striving for answers to questions like WHY?! im fine with fingering over one octave, but get unsure with more than that! to learn the correct way would definatly be useful...im only young-ish anyway! (21!!)

interested to hear more on these subjects! many thanks

Laurie Sammons said...

Hi Kris,
I just discovered your blog after seeing it listed on thesession.org. Thanks for creating this! I think it's great. I particularly like this post. I've been playing my 120 bass almost always alone in my living room for quite a few years. Probably my biggest frustration is how many mistakes I still make, inspite of the endless time that I spend practicing. I'm going to start practicing your philosophy of "stop digging" and see how that helps.
I'd like to see a post where you comment on how to learn music by ear. I've just started "Irish Music Lessons" from a fiddle player (only two lessons so far) and I'm very keen on learning how to learn by ear.
Thanks again!! Laurie (outside of Boston, MA)

Kris Hughes said...

Welcome, Laurie!

That's an interesting topic for more discussion. Thanks for the suggestion. I've been meaning to write something (anything!! LOL!!) for a couple of weeks. I'll do my best.

For me, it takes even more self discipline to practise well when playing by ear. Having visual landmarks to go back to seems to make it a little easier, I also find it easier to start at any given point in a tune when reading music. It's quite a skill to start at random points in a tune you learn by ear. However, it's incredibly worthwbile to gain this ability, and like everything else it's a matter of perspiration and dedication.

Kris

Bill said...

Great blog site!!!
I have been playing accordion for two years. Every thing you say is exactly what my teacher says. Do not play your mistakes because they get into you head and are hard to shake out. My teacher says the less brain cells you have to use the better off you are. I'm learning to agree.
Bill