Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Best Bad Practice Advice You'll Ever Get!

The Best Bad Practice 
Advice You'll Ever Get!

I am about to give you some really, really bad advice. 

In fact, I'm pretty sure any number of music teachers could read this blog post and immediately have a list of reasons why the thing I'm suggesting you should try you should absolutely NOT try. Before you decide whether or not you should take this terrible advice, however, do a quick personal inventory.  

1) Do you have some challenging music you wish you could play much better than you can now?

2) Are you having trouble doing the amount of repetitions it takes to get rock solid muscle memory? 

3) Is it possible that your lack of motivation might sabotage your best intentions to truly prepare this challenging music?  

If you answered "No" to any of the three questions (even one!), you probably don't need this amazing bad advice.  If, however, you answered "YES" to all three, read on...   

Have you ever been driving to or from work (or school) one day and felt a serious case of the blahs? 

Traffic, stress, busy schedules and even busier minds can really add up to a mood that puts us at less than our best.  That is, until you crank up the music, right?

When we listen to music we love, our mind lights up with incredible, mood altering neural activity that can change a bad day into a good one, a heavy heart into a light one and yes, even practicing something 100 times into a joyful, effortless activity.  

So... here is the "bad" advice!

Try practicing your challenging music to the beat.  The strong beat of any kind of music that puts you in a great mood.  Rock, Rap, Country, Disney, Techno, Tango... no rules apply here!  

You may ask, how can I listen to music I love (even Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga or the Frozen soundtrack?) while working on this really hard classical music???

Quite easily, it turns out!

Recently, I was helping a student "work up" the tempo for the famous bird solo from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

After I mentioned practicing the excerpt incredibly slowly with plenty of repetition and a high degree of accuracy before notching up the metronome a little at a time, her facial expression told me how much she was NOT looking forward to this disciplined activity. 

Identifying completely with that feeling myself, I pulled up YouTube on the computer in my studio and turned on Maroon 5's Sunday Morning.  My student's mood lightened right away, she smiled, and I could tell she was feeling the beat.  

I walked from my computer to the music stand so I could practice with her for a moment.  Accompanied by Maroon 5, we did a few repetitions of the entire excerpt, guided by the beat of the music filling the room.  It was almost effortless to stay together with a cheerful and lifted approach to the challenging eighth and sixteenth note passages. She then told me she was actually looking forward to going home and doing as many repetitions as she could squeeze into her busy schedule!  

No matter what your current motivation level, there is no getting around the fact that muscle memory is an absolutely essential aspect of performing challenging flute music.  Intermediate students (and even some advanced students) often don't realize the amount of repetition that a professional musician employs to achieve the fluid, masterful execution of famously difficult passages in the flute repertoire.  

In order to move from awkward to confident, clumsy to smooth and slow to fast, muscle memory MUST be present so that you, the flutist, don't have a brain consumed with reading the notes while you're playing them. With muscle memory as your friend, you can feel free to devote more mental energy to character in the music, breathing fully and truly enjoying your performance.  

Though it might seem like muscle memory actually exists in our fingers (and lips, etc.), it doesn't.  All muscle memory occurs in the brain.  "Muscle memory" is actually kind of a simplistic term describing the complex set of neural connections we need to hold our flute, close or open the correct keys with the appropriate curve in the corresponding fingers, aim our embouchure so that the right amount of air goes into the instrument, etc.  (And all this just to play one note!). 

Considering that all of these neural connections take place in our mind, do you think it might be a good idea to have a mind that's happy and relaxed enough to actually create the connections?

Remember how I mentioned any number of music teachers probably wouldn't like my (really good) bad advice?  Here are a few reasons why:

1) The music you are listening to won't be in the right key for your piece.  There will be dissonance and completely unrelated melodic material. 

2) If you listen to your "fun" music while practicing (especially in headphones, which I actually highly recommend!), there's no real way to hear your flute sound properly.  You'll be learning finger oriented muscle memory, but not sound based muscle memory. 

3) There's no real way to concentrate intently on your music with other music on to distract you.

I truly do understand these concerns, so let me clarify with this simple explanation: 

Practice with the fun music as your metronome to get you in a good mood, get in enough repetitions to kick start practice momentum and enjoy listening to your music with the different harmonies and melodies as an exercise in perspective and creativity.  After you have enough finger, tongue and rhythm oriented muscle memory to feel comfortable with the passage or passages, enjoy practicing with the fun music off so that you can work on truly listening and refining your tone, intonation and interpretation. 

Oh, and one more answer to the above concerns ... 

Happy Practicing!
Terri Sánchez

P.S. If you try practicing with your "fun" music as a motivating metronome and love it, here are a few ways to take the idea and run with it!

1) Try a website like, which can actually help you find songs for particular tempos!

2) Spend some time either Googling or figuring out the bpm (beats per minute) of your favorite songs.  Then, arrange them in a playlist that goes from slow to fast or any order that will help you practice!

3) Anytime you need a break from basic repetitions of challenging passages, feel free to improvise with the fun music you are listening to.  It will do wonders for your improvising, ear training and overall musicianship skills!