efficient practice

Are You Mentally Practicing Mistakes? Finding Awareness in Mental Practice

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Earlier this week while teaching two separate students, we came across some difficult technical passages. While playing, there were a couple slip-ups.

Before going any further, I asked each of them to mentally read through the passage and absorb all the notes - no moving fingers, just reading.

I did it, too.


What did I notice?


I was reading it fairly quickly and made mistakes and stumbled in my own head


So I asked: "Did your mental run-through involve mistakes?"


They responded: "Yes!!"


"Isn't that interesting!?"

This really struck me as an opportunity to investigate and gain some clarity for myself and my students.


Mistakes and stumbles aren't necessarily directly caused by fingers slipping up.

The fingers slip up because the eyes haven't looked long and closely enough to allow the brain to process the notes that are there, meaning the correct message hasn't been delivered to the fingers.


Why did we stumble?

When reading through the difficult pattern quickly, we didn't have time to stop and process every note visually. We only saw some of the notes, so we had to anticipate what note was next.

The fingers took over from patterns we've already learned and muscle-memorized. We then realized the note we wanted to play wasn't the note that was actually written, so we stumbled.


Why do we go slower?

To better process, of course! 

It's hard to go fast with confidence until we know it well! Aim to deeply know and understand what's written before trying to play it. 

For example, in order to recite the lyrics to One Week by Barenaked Ladies at full speed, you have to know all the words first, and you'll probably need to spend a good amount of time reading and studying the actual words before you're ready to impress your friends in the car!


So, What Did We Discover?

Taking finger movement out of the picture to simply read and process was a simple and powerful means of absorbing the notes.

If we really took the time to process first, we had an easier time playing. 

Beyond simply playing the correct notes, the subsequent times were also accompanied by a deep sense of confidence and clarity in phrasing.

These realizations really got me thinking - am I really utilizing mental practice in a powerful, mindful way every time I practice? 

Do I really take the time to process without playing often enough?

Awareness questions for mental practice:

  • Does my mental read-through contain the same mistakes as when I play?
  • Do I mentally practice at a tempo slow enough to process and absorb all the notes and patterns?
  • What notes do I see?
  • What notes do I not see or process as easily?
  • Does my mental practice seek out an understanding of patterns to assist with processing and an understanding of structure?
  • Do my practice sessions involve reading the music without my instrument, or do I always play?
  • If I do mentally read through the notes without playing, do I move my fingers silently?
  • What is it like to only read and hear the phrase in my head?
  • Is it the same or different when I begin to move my fingers silently? Do I hear the phrase in the same way? 
  • Am I ingraining confidence in my mental practice?
  • Does my body remain easy and effortless while thinking through the notes?
  • Do I imagine a beautiful sound in my mental practice?
  • Is it slow enough to consider all of these things?






How I Beat "Bad Tone Days" Using Ear Plugs

You put your instrument together, play a few notes, and things just aren't feeling or sounding right. You're cracking notes and struggling to find comfort. All of a sudden, your tone is gone.

In an effort to sound better, you force your sound to come out. All in all, nothing is working, and it's frustrating.

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Where Did My Sound Go?

There are several reasons why a bad tone day can happen. Here are a few reasons I find to be true for myself:

  • I'm physically tense, fatigued, or congested.

  • I've just eaten something cold.

  • My headjoint is slightly off the ideal mark.

  • My flute has a leak.

  • I've gone several days between practicing and feeling "out of shape."


Let's look at that last one...


I've gone several days or weeks without playing many times. (Such as that time I slammed my finger in a door and couldn't play for a month.)

I've found that it is possible to come back and feel like nothing's changed. In some cases, I'm so refreshed and excited to play again that I sound even better than before.


A Deeper Reason

This week, however, my two days off were associated with guilt and fear because a deadline is looming only a few weeks away. When I came back to playing, I was nervous about having diminished my own progress and worried about how much work I still have to do. 

Before I even played a note, I was imagining my sound as being closed off and stuffy.

I convinced myself I was out of shape, and I played that way.


Beating the Cycle of Frustration

  1. Before I began practicing, I told myself I was "out of shape."
  2. I played with the closed off sound I heard in my head before I even started.
  3. I heard my sound and confirmed I was playing poorly and without ease.
  4. I judged myself for taking two days off and began self-loathing.
  5. The frustration extended to my physical use, and I tried forcing sound out.
  6. More tension meant more frustration, more judging, and more self-loathing.
  7. The cycle continued until I became too frustrated to continue.



I've recently been reading Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique by Pedro de Alcantara. One of the first Alexander Technique concepts discussed is the principle of End-Gaining vs. Means-Whereby.

As described by Alexander Technique teacher Hilary King:

"End gaining is the tendency we have to keep our mind and actions focused on an end result whilst losing sight of, and frequently at the expense of, the means-whereby the result is achieved." 
(Click here to read the full article on End Gaining by Hilary King!)

I'm discovering that this concept can appear on many levels, from the action of a single note, to long-term life goals. When it comes to sound, I was desperate for the end-result of "sounding better," and I found myself forcing sounds and feeling frustrated. I lost sight of the means-whereby.



When I was first learning about the benefits of singing and playing in relation to support and optimal body feeling during grad school, Professor Amsler had me use ear plugs to turn attention to feeling rather than hearing. With the work we were doing to change and improve sound, the dramatic difference in tone from my ears often sounded strange from my own perspective: my sound no longer sounded big to me, because it was projecting and sounding big for the room. 


using ear plugs, the emotional response of hearing and judging can be replaced by feeling and observing.


Since my sense of hearing caused me to end-gain, adding ear plugs re-directed my reliance on hearing and allowed me to include more senses into my approach.

I could invite my kinesthetic sense (the sense of movement) into my awareness, and observe the movements that would allow me greater freedom:

  • The 6 Places of Balance
  • Can I Release the lower back and abdomen to allow freedom for breathing and support?
  • Where do I lose support from the ground?
  • Where is my tongue?
  • What is the space between the teeth like?


Singing + Playing

Singing and Playing naturally encourages me to notice optimal support within the body without forcing. Doing this with ear plugs is a powerful way to observe the body with greater clarity, and the first thing I lean on when I'm bringing my best sound back.


20 Minutes Later...

After using ear plugs and lots of singing and playing, I was out of the loop of self-misery and enjoying a more resonant sound with ease! I could move on to a more productive practice session, feeling grateful for having worked through it!


Want 20+ Ideas For Bad Tone Days?

One of the first posts I wrote back in 2012 is called How To Cope with a Bad Tone Day.

Reading it again now, I still rely on these same things! (Minus travelling up and down 3 flights of stairs to the practice rooms at the University of New Hampshire!) 

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Maximizing Improvement With Video Recordings

If you've been following this blog, you may notice the theme of focused self-improvement. I approach my practice sessions with great awareness in observing from within, but often have difficulty perceiving myself from the outside. I know how it feels to play, but how am I coming across? Am I effective musically?

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Video recordings are a perfect solution. Many of us dread listening to ourselves, or dwell on mistakes from recordings of live performances. Rather than judging the performance, choose to use it as information and focus in on smaller chunks, either from a performance or from a practice session, and examine specifics. 


My example is from Boehm's Grand Polonaise. I recorded an early progress video of this small section, and when listening back, I noticed several things right away that could be more effective.

1. Listening and Score Study

Identify the Bigger Picture of the Piece. What is the context? Allow the score to guide musical choices. Commit to the character of each section, you will then use your own recording to measure whether your contrasts are effective.

Listen to as many recordings as possible of these few measures. Search on YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, and more, to hear a range of interpretations, and take notes on how the character is achieved, as well as details that make for an effective (or less effective) performance. It won't take long to hear 15-20 recordings when comparing only a small section. (Observe the ideas of others to learn, do not judge.)

  • Here are my notes from the many different recordings I studied: 
    • Maintains a flow and grace through the fast moving notes and resonates through each - every note can be heard without sounding overly athletic or held back - flows forward with solid tempo rhythm.

    • Follows the piano as a guide for taking time, growth, direction, and “punctuation” of phrases.

    • Flows, effortless in the upper register, not forced, stays graceful throughout, even through technical passages. Takes time and makes a statement when piano drops out.

    • Peppy and Bright! Faster than the others, but with clarity and always energetic in character.

    • High notes sing and connect as melody notes. Brings out style contrasts within this small section by singing on the higher notes. Push and pull of tempo to shape the phrases, moving forward with the piano, and lingering when along (high notes), punctuating each as a statement.

    • Flows - Second phrase begins small and graceful, tension and release but always graceful and singing - every note is heard, and each has the supple and warm tone, never forced. Triplets flow and move forward, not static.

    • Effortless light upper notes, she has lots of flexibility to shape them and keep them singing, warm, and alive at soft tempo, never forced or closed, and moves effortlessly through all registers with consistent sound.

    • Other performances that seemed less effective did not let the longer, high notes ring out at the ends, could not hear every note projected and placed as clearly. High notes may feel too aggressive and less resonant - maintain AHH openness and add vibrato to these notes to keep them warm. The last notes of phrases should ring and have vibrato, even the shorter notes at the bottom of runs.

    • Drive through the triplets if lingering on the higher notes to keep energy up and to make a contrast and add character! Don’t let it slow.

    • Effective to make choices on how the longer notes relate to one another. Where do we want to come in lighter.


Listen back to your recording and identify specifics of what was unclear, not effective, out of tune, not in tempo, and so on. Some of the notes I made were:

  • I made note of the dynamics - the opening is 'mp' with no written crescendo in the repeated triplet figure. Measures 13-14 feature a crescendo to the height of the phrase, the high G, and decrescendo down to the end of the phrase at m. 16. The new phrase begins at piano, and should feel much lighter and contrasting. 
  • Allow the high notes to sing effortlessly, translating the same open sound to each, rather than closing down just before leaping up to the high notes.
  • Lengthen the last note in m. 16, and maintain intensity to avoid losing presence and pitch.
  • Make a contrast in beginning the new phrase at m. 17 by coming in with a new color at a distinct dynamic level lower than the opening, and keep the notes short and light.
  • Make a greater distinction between the articulation noted in m. 9 and m. 13.
  • Clarify the first note of measure 12.

3. Practice, record + repeat

Address and practice the ideas listed. Find solutions to each through trial-and-error or personal reminders, and record the selection again. Listen back to hear your progress and repeat!

The Takeaway



In choosing to focus on a very small section with heightened detail and immediate feedback, we're ultimately learning more in less time. I am guilty of listening back to my recordings of live recitals, wishing I would've spent more time studying recordings ahead of time. I always find sections where I regret not having been more intentional in my musical choices, finding out too late that I needed to do more to achieve the appropriate character. Taking it section by section requires you to make musical choices and practice with intention. 



CLICK HERE to download the Self-Lesson Guide for Improving with Recordings! 

Slower Practice with Greater Impact

Back in 2012, I wrote this post on practicing slowly: Making Slow Practice Meaningful.

Many of the ideas of integrating a full scope of movements and observations still ring true for me, and guide every one of my practice sessions. 

  • Slow practice should always include more than simply playing the correct notes with the correct rhythms. Even in the stages of learning the notes, greater musical intentions should be included. Take the time to decide how it should sound, what is being said, and what ingredients to include.
  • Slow practice gives a chance to watch how we're producing sounds, and therefore we can experiment and uncover greater possibilities for achieving our desired musical interpretation.

Quality Over Quantity

Principal Chairs shared a wonderful interview with Elizabeth Rowe, principal flutist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and her thoughts on practicing efficiently are noteworthy:

"I am a huge believer in quality over quantity. So often, I see musicians working on just one element of the music at a time. For example, I might see someone slowing down a difficult passage and repeating it a number of times to clean up their fingers, but all the while they’re using a relatively poor sound and not inflecting the music with much shaping or character. They then have to circle back to add those elements in later on. I always try to layer on as many musical elements as possible when working. So I don’t just play scales, I try to play beautifully shaped scales with a singing sound, perfect intonation and some sort of interesting rhythmic element. I don’t just work on playing the Firebird with excellent rhythm, but while I’m working with the metronome I ask myself if those rhythmic figures are conveying the character I want. In other words, use your whole mind and soul when practicing. This is the quality part! If you do this at all times, the work will be very intense, efficient, and tiring!! Twenty minutes of this sort of in-depth work accomplishes much more than an hour of drills. I also advocate practicing without the flute if you can’t find a practice space or only have 2 minutes to spare—our minds are powerful tools, and simply thinking through a phrase or imagining a certain quality of sound can produce results later on."

- Elizabeth Rowe via Principal Chairs, 2015 - Read the Full Article Here

Slow practice doesn't just provide an opportunity to get the notes right, but an opportunity to practice with every element included. I find that I have to go even slower when practicing with heightened observation, emotion, intention, and efficiency, and I always learn more when doing so.

Detail-Oriented Practice

Select a short, difficult passage and commit to learning about every detail:

  • What is the overall character or mood of the piece, specifically this part?
  • How does that influence the shape and sound quality of my notes?
  • What indication does the composer give for tempo, style, dynamics, and articulation markings, and what effect do these elements provide?
  • Uncover phrasing and structure related to the bigger picture.

Make these choices, put a timer on, and practice slowly.

Just how much detail can I practice with?