Musicians have a necessity to practice. Performance is our livelihood, and just like athletes, the muscles must continuously be trained in order to function at peak efficiency. Personal success and excellence is all a function of how much work (efficient, quality work) one puts into the practice.
Of course I don’t have the same need to practice this as many of my compatriots who I studied with at university because I am a teacher as well as a musician, and the security of my family doesn’t depend on whether I win my next big audition with a major group or snag a repeating gig. However, I live in a small enough city that I end up being near the top of professional musician ranks in my area, which means I have a need to keep up my skills to fulfill the local needs. I play things like musical theatre, workshops, etc., and all of those require me to maintain my proficiency.
Anyone who attempts to succeed at a performance discipline knows how critical it is to maintain their high-level skills. For example, I make a conscious effort to keep extending my range, increasing the speed of my articulations, and fine-tuning the intonations and peculiarities of the instruments I play. Something that gets said a lot in the practice room between coach/teacher and student, however, tends to get glossed over in real life. This is skill of keeping those fundamentals intact.
The high-level techniques are what land you jobs. Everyone is assumed to be able to produce good tone, intonation, and basic techniques of articulation and speed. The performers who land the jobs are the ones who excel. For many people breaking into the business, it can be easy to focus on doing some very ‘cool’ things at a high level. The guitarist wants to show how wickedly fast she can shred that solo, or the pianist wants to demonstrate his ability to keep up with Liszt’s strenuous handspan requirements at tempo. Those things are very important, and it’s equally important to keep adding more of those things and pushing them to new heights.
Sometimes, however, you have to start all over again from scratch. Human beings get wrapped up in leaving behind what you ‘know’ you’ve mastered. Think about grade school math classes. Once you ‘learn’ your multiplication facts, how many times do you end up going back to them and just studying/drilling them upon beginning trigonometry? The assumption is that once you know it, you know it.
Professional musicians, athletes, and even pro video game players are all very good at this hidden skill. Watch a brass player warm up for a set. Probably this warm-up begins with some long tones, gentle flexibility exercises, and scales at a moderate tempo. What is he doing this for? Obviously he doesn’t want to blow out his lips by starting with something too hard, but there’s a deeper purpose.
Whenever you want to progress to a new skill level, you have to make sure that your mastery of the fundamentals hasn’t slipped at all. The tiniest flaw in your breath control means you can’t sustain that new high note you’ve just solidified for very long. If you can’t articulate that speed scale clearly at a lower tempo, the illusion of clarity at higher speeds is just that – an illusion. This is often why you see professionals doing such easy stuff to warm up. It’s a lot like stretching, but keep in mind the purpose of stretching is not just to limber up the muscles. You’re practicing certain necessary motions and extensions in isolation so that the body functions correctly in context of much more difficult tasks.
You can apply this philosophy to almost anything you do. I’ve spoken before about the tendency to want to rush to the complex stuff and forgetting about taking it slow and easy. No matter what the task, whenever you want to excel, it’s like learning all over again.
The first step is to attend carefully to the most basic fundamentals. Solidify those.
Next, decide which fundamentals are involved in succeeding with the new skill. Practice those fundamentals again, making sure the body knows what ‘feels right’.
Combine the parts to form the new skill, but only at a slower/easier/less technical level. Make sure it can be done in complete isolation from other techniques at a lower level of difficulty.
Slowly ramp up to attain the level of proficiency desired. This is the step which is easiest to mess up. If you go too fast, you start losing out on fundamentals. Too, this step can take days, weeks, months, or years, depending on the skill and relative difficulty/level of proficiency. If you ever find yourself losing track, you have to come back a level and make sure you are not messing up any of the crucial fundamentals.
The underlying, hidden parts of performance are so crucial, but so difficult to see. Just remember the next time you see someone do something amazing that you could do it too; it just takes many, many hours of work and dedication to do it.