Thursday, April 9, 2015

How to Convert Complaints into Practice Productivity!

How to Convert Complaints into
Practice Productivity!

As a musician, do you ever find yourself complaining to friends, colleagues or yourself about your practicing or performing frustrations?  Do you ever feel bad or guilty about complaining (especially since it doesn't usually solve your problems)? This blog post is dedicated to not only letting you complain, but also converting your complaints into the solutions that will make those complaints disappear!

Before you indulge in some guilt-free complaining, I want to quickly clarify the difference between potentially productive complaining and what I call Pink Elephant Language. Imagine that someone has just given you firm instructions to "no matter what, absolutely do NOT think of pink elephants!"  Ridiculous, right? 

Odds are, you wouldn't have been thinking of pink elephants at all, but now that someone has put such emphasis on pink elephants, it's almost impossible to keep them out of your mind! 

In practice and performance, Pink Elephant thoughts are usually things like "don't mess up," "don't forget," "don't squeeze the flute too tightly," "don't think about nervousness," etc.  Thinking of something you want to avoid (and assuming that putting the word "don't" in front of the idea will solve the problem) is pretty much as effective as riding your bike and staring straight into a pothole you actually wanted to avoid.  

Often, Pink Elephant Language can be converted into "Performance Power" with a simple change in vocabulary.  Focusing on what you DO want instead of what you DON'T want can completely transform the access you have to your muscle memory, breathing, listening ability, powers of interpretation and more. 


Just because I believe wholeheartedly that the words you say to yourself can change everything, that doesn't mean that I think every musician should walk around giving themselves constant compliments!  Even though Pink Elephant Language is not helpful while you're actually practicing or performing, there's no way to grow unless you cultivate a healthy dissatisfaction with elements of your musicianship that are not up to the highest standards.  

Now... time to complain!

What complaints do you have about your flute playing, practicing, performing or overall musicianship?

Here are some incredibly common complaints I hear from flutists of all ages and levels.  Can you relate?

- Don't have enough time to practice.
- Tried everything and this (passage, section, piece) is still too hard.
- My hands (neck, arms, back, etc.) are too tired or tight.
- I could play this just fine at home (in the practice room, etc.).
- My sound (tonguing, breathing, etc.) is terrible lately.

When I hear complaints from my students, the very first thing I tell them to do is complain more specifically. 

Complaining in a vague, generic or grandiose way is about as effective as saying "this day sucks" or "I hate math." It might feel good for a second or two, but complaining in this manner generally leaves the complainer feeling even less able to deal with current problems. Do you ever find yourself complaining in blanket statements about your tone? Technique? Practicing? Has this helped you in any way so far?

Let's examine potential complaints about the following passage from Francois Borne's Carmen Fantasy and find out how to complain specifically:

Vague Complaint: This is too hard because of so many sharps.
Specific Complaint: I have trouble with the C double sharp and the E sharps. 

Vague Complaint: This section sounds awful.
Specific Complaint: I get frustrated when I try to play the two octave slur from the low B and my tone is rough and uneven as I play the sixteenth note passages.

Vague Complaint: I can't play this part fast enough. 
Specific Complaint: My technique is messy when I play the ascending passages in this section. 
Even more Specific Complaint: My technique is messy when I switch my left hand thumb from the B natural to the B flat key in the ascending passages at the end of this section. 

When you complain specifically, your complaint simultaneously labels both your problem and the heart of your solution! Complaining about the notes being too hard can make you feel discouraged, but complaining about specific notes clarifies what  you are missing.  Think about the three examples above and how the specific problems also point toward solutions.

Problem: Specific notes feel challenging. 
Heart of Solution: Gain a higher comfort level with recognition and execution of these specific notes.

Problem:  Frustration with the two octave slur and and tone in sixteenth note passages. 
Heart of Solution: Increased embouchure flexibility and tonal consistency in these specific spots. 

Problem: Messy technique in ascending passages, especially relating to thumb position.
Heart of Solution: Choreographed muscle memory that makes switching fingerings feel easier and more natural. 

W. Clement Stone

Once you have determined the heart of your solution (meaning the main idea, central concept or skill your solution provides), you can then figure out how you will go about getting there! First, Dorothy determined she needed to get to the Emerald City and then she followed the yellow brick road!

If you're with me so far, but still wondering how you will find what you're missing (in other words, where is your yellow brick road?), then read on... 

Here is a memory jogging list to help kickstart brainstorming for solutions that you already have!

1) Any fundamental exercise that addresses the heart of your solution (i.e. long tones help with tonal consistency).

2) Any game or practice technique that has worked for you in the past with a similar problem (i.e. playing grouping games for a tricky technical passage in a different piece helped you gain muscle memory). 

3) Any simple observations you can make using accessible tools (i.e. using a mirror to help you discover more embouchure flexibility while you work on your two octave slur). 

4) Modeling challenging tasks after tasks with which you've already gained mastery (i.e. when you wanted to improve your breathing, you did slow, patient breathing exercises to gain familiarity with what excellent breathing feels like.  Now, when you want to increase your note recognition, you do a similar kind of slow, patient practice to help improve note recognition and execution). 

5) Experiments with extremes so that you can find just the right sweet spot (i.e last year, you learned how to relax your shoulders by shrugging them too high and then dropping them, now you can gain more physical freedom in your neck by tightening and then relaxing it to figure out what comfort can feel like). 

6) Drawing parallels or making connections from other areas of your life (i.e. when you wanted to squeeze in enough time to finish the last chapter of the exciting novel you were reading, you ate your lunch a little faster so you could make it happen.  Now, when you want to create more time for practicing your concerto, you get ready a little more quickly in the morning so you can hit the practice room earlier!).

7) Drawing parallels or making connections from fictional scenarios (i.e. when Harry Potter wanted to conjure a patronus to defeat the dementors, he had to summon powerfully joyful thoughts.  Now, YOU can find a way to summon powerfully joyful thoughts to perform in front of an audience with all the musicianship, expression and flair you were able to achieve in the comfort of your practice room). 

Hopefully, as you've been reading this post, a formula for practice productivity has been coming into focus for you!  

1) Complain specifically.
2) Access the heart of the solution through the specific complaint.
3) Remind yourself of the applicable tools you already have.
4) Experiment until your complaint disappears!

Sometimes, even when you have a great equation or formula for success, the tasks ahead can still seem daunting, simply because there are so many of them!

I'll look forward to exploring how to tackle feeling overwhelmed with specific tasks in a future blog post, but in the meantime,  remember the Butterfly Effect (the idea that something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can cause a weather system change across the globe). Realize that, when you change one thing through specific complaining and accessible solutions, maybe, just maybe, you might be changing everything!

Happy Practicing!
Terri Sánchez

Did you enjoy reading about Converting Complaints into Practice Productivity? To access even more practical strategies for learning challenging music and growing as a musician, try: