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(The Attributes of Deliberate Practice: Mental Representations)Regular readers: I know it's been a long time since my previous post. I believe that Mental Representations (the topic of this post) are both the most important and most difficult-to-describe attribute of deliberate practice. Because they are abstract and intangible, they defy easy and succinct definition…so apologies in advance for the length. Anyway, I used my summer hiatus to consider how to write about this topic most effectively…and I'm honestly still not sure how successful that's been. So it goes. Also during my hiatus, I read several important books — Deep Work and Digital Minimalism to name two — ideas from which will definitely be making their way into future blog posts. Okay, on to the lede…. Good art needs rules. Compelling stories need a framework to govern the narrative. Tweaking the rules can be revolutionary. (Looking at you, Beethoven.) But ignoring rules altogether usually leads to incoherent mush, and disappointed listeners, readers, or fans.
Thus it was with the conclusion of Game of Thrones, and to a certain geeky extent with Avengers: Endgame. Opinions vary, as always, but among certain strains of fans, an interesting consensus has emerged about the endings of these vast arcs: we feel let down because they broke too damn many rules, and once that happened we basically stopped caring. Rules set up expectations, and these franchises didn't live up to our expectations.
Which is basically how I feel about my own playing. All of the time. I invariably fall short of my own expectations. Let me explain….
The Game of Thrones (GOT) fan response was nearly universal: things went off the rails when showrunners Benioff and Weiss (B&W) departed from the books, stopped abiding by George R.R. Martin’s rules, and generally threw believable character development out the window. (I mean, for god’s sake: the Star Wars prequels are universally terrible, but even George Lucas did a more convincing job of illustrating Anakin’s turn to the dark side than B&W did with Daenerys.) Indeed, this take argues that GOT’s strength was always sociological writing, as opposed to the far more Hollywood-common psychological writing. Exemplary sociological writing is The Wire, where “the characters have personal stories and agency…but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces…and even strongly influence their inner life.” By contrast, in psychological writing, the “overly personal mode of storytelling…leaves us bereft of deeper comprehension of events and history.” B&W defaulted to what they know, unwittingly breaking the rules by morphing GOT from sociological to psychological writing. Consequently, Season 8 was one big letdown.
Avengers: Endgame didn’t commit nearly so conspicuous a sin. But, in geeky fan opinion (which I share), the screenwriters touched the “third rail” of SciFi: time travel. Like the famous dictums “never get involved in a land war in Asia” (Alexander/Napoleon/Hitler) and “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line,” don’t mess with time travel in SciFi unless you really really know what you’re doing! Only a select few SciFi efforts have truly succeeded in this regard: Primer, 12 Monkeys, Looper, Back to the Future, and maybe the original Terminator. Contributing to their collective success was the screenwriters’ knowledge that they were playing with fire, and so they approached time travel with extreme caution, setting up clear rules and adhering to them to preserve logical self-consistency. The list of SciFi time travel failures is far longer, likely because compelling narratives depend on cause and effect, and time travel automatically messes with causality. Thus, there are cringeworthy moments where Avengers: Endgame deviates from logical self-consistency, leaving one saying “WTF?! Argh…I am caring less and less about this time travel silliness….”
In fact, it’s not unlike my previous Tchaik 4 anecdote: if a player behind the audition screen doesn’t abide by certain conventions of intonation, time, rhythm, and clarity – i.e., if they reveal a lack of solid fundamentals – I find myself unable to care too much about the rest of what they’re doing…because I’m too distracted by the flagrant rule-breaking!
And lest this seem too conformist, we should remember that even revolutionary composers still established rules for their works. Berg’s Lulu and Strauss’s Salome and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring shattered some conventions, but the works still abided by an internal logical self-consistency. In many ways, these groundbreaking masterpieces survive as cornerstones of the repertoire because of the way their composers cleverly followed new rules.
So an effective formula for creative output could become:
……..establish logically self-consistent rules
……..+ work cleverly to bend rules without breaking
……..= best chance to create something great
What does any of this have to do with deliberate practice? Well, rules inform our collective expectations, but they’re only part of the story. Think about the expectations we had for GOT and Endgame: what set those expectations? With TV shows and movies, part of it also involves our own creativity extrapolating from what we already know. Moving beyond basic rules, we have abstract intangible worlds in our minds born from the authors/writers/directors, and we want the things interacting in our creative inner world to make sense, follow a resonant narrative, and thereby provide some sort of satisfying meaning. Don’t believe me? Consider the lengths to which fans will go to “fix” mistakes in franchises they love, like Topher Grace compiling an 85 minute supercut that “is probably the best possible edit of the Star Wars prequels given the footage released and available.” Our creative inner world is powerful and highly motivating. And inevitably, our franchise-specific inner world compares itself to other benchmarks in the genre, leading to sentiments like “The Wire and Breaking Bad nailed great endings, but GOT donked the ending as bad as Lost.”
It’s very similar in music performance, but our “inner world” is much more central, personal, and individual-specific. What is my expectation for my own performance of a frequently-asked timpani excerpt? It’s formed by the “rules” (excellent fundamentals like time, rhythm, intonation, and clarity), fused with my aesthetic opinions (like phrasing, tone, and style), ultimately creating my “vision” for the music. Or, to use Anders Ericsson’s term, these elements fuse to create my “mental representation.”
So, an equation of expectations could be:
……..Rules + Aesthetic Opinions = Mental Representations
…where mental representations are perhaps the most important attribute of deliberate practice. In fact, their development and evolution is arguably the core goal of all deliberate practice: it requires relentless refinement of one’s craft, coupled with deep knowledge and experience to inform aesthetic opinions, and melded into uncompromisingly high standards. And those standards bring us right back to one of the fundamental realities of deliberate practice: I’m never completely satisfied with my own playing…as it should be.
An Excruciating Joy
Reader: I’m guessing you might be a percussionist at a conservatory, or an auditioning instrumentalist, or a dedicated music enthusiast. You might be a teacher at a music school, or a hustling freelancer. One way or the other, you’re probably hungry to improve. You want to get better. You might even plan to improve enough to eventually win an audition, and play music for a full time living.
I keenly remember that hunger phase – dedicating all of my energy and resources to improving on my instrument, obsessed with the continuous refinement of my craft….
Not only do I remember that phase – I’m still in it.
I claimed above that “our creative inner world is powerful and highly motivating.” Well, I would like to share with you my personal struggle. And to be clear, I acknowledge that my “struggle” is a bit of a luxury: it’s not the same as scrambling to pay the rent, or put food on the table, or pay down steep medical bills. Those struggles are existential, and they are all too real for too many people in modern America.
This is my struggle: I want to be proud of every single note I play, but I know I never will be. I try to hold myself accountable to the highest possible standard, yet I know I must forgive myself in advance for consistently falling short of that agonizing threshold. Playing an instrument is a ceaselessly humbling experience. The struggle is an artistically personal double-edged sword. I want to fully embrace the joy of music-making, but, as I discussed with Noa Kageyama (Bulletproof Musician), the kind of passion that facilitates mastery is also excruciating…resulting in “excruciating joy.”
I actually believe this is THE struggle – an aspect of elite performance confronted by nearly all musicians I know and respect. The relentless drive required to make it into an ensemble like the MET Orchestra is necessarily coupled to holding oneself to an ever-higher standard…and this doesn’t just evaporate once you secure enough votes from a committee to be employed. Nor should it! It lives with you constantly, through every rehearsal, and every performance, and the countless hours spent practicing and preparing. This excruciating joy is my constant companion. And it looks like this:
So, I am never completely satisfied with my own playing…but that’s how it should be. (If I ever get to a place where I think, “yep…good enough. I can’t get any better than that!”…well, then I’m in trouble.) Reprising a key theme from my very first post, being a musician is a process, not a destination. There is no “there” there – no endpoint to refining your craft. As Anders Ericsson writes in Peak, “there is no point at which performance maxes out and additional practice does not lead to further improvement…. As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor are constantly finding ways to get better…and there is no sign that this will stop.”
Therefore, one of the biggest turning points of my career was not in fact winning the Met audition, but rather two major changes I made twelve years ago:
“First, I decided I wasn’t going to have any attachment to an outcome. Second, instead of chasing specific outcomes, I embraced a process of continual refinement. That became the only real goal. Any concrete outcomes, milestones, or achievements would just be natural byproducts of that process, that obsession with continuous refinement.”
Because there is no such thing as perfect. It’s an illusory mirage, constantly moving and redefining itself. What can we do about this conundrum? As related by chef David Kinch in The Mind of a Chef, “Perfection does not exist, but that doesn't mean you can't work constantly to attain it.” And leaving aside for a moment the psychological dimension of this struggle, our relationship to “perfection” and how we conceive of “excellence” informs that most important attribute of deliberate practice: mental representations. I have come to agree with Ericsson in that I believe the true goal of all deliberate practice is developing sophisticated mental representations, and continuously refining them without end. But what are they? And how do we refine them??
No Such Thing as “Perfect”
In my teaching, I’ve found defining and discussing mental representations to be notoriously difficult. I think this arises from the fact that most musicians are unfamiliar with the terminology, but even once they’re familiarized, musicians are still confronting an intangible abstraction. So, caveat emptor: this material is tricky. But we’ll give it a spin anyway, tackling it from several angles….
So far, we’ve defined mental representations as “rules + aesthetic opinions” – essentially a self-created expectation or ideal. Next, I offered the animation above to graphically represent the relationship between deliberate practice and increasingly high standards, where “mental representations” exist as the “excellence” we’re capable of perceiving between our current reality and unreachable perfection.
Anders Ericsson, who coined the term to begin with, defines mental representations as “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about…[and] we all use them constantly.” So far, so good.
Now, consider another augmenting and process-based definition: in my personal struggle, my mental representation is simply that same “agonizingly high standard” to which I try to hold myself, but applied to something specific like an excerpt. It’s how I’m trying to sound. Specifically, it’s how I’m trying to sound according to every conceivable element of musicianship (rhythm, tone, phrasing…).
You can create this high standard for yourself, isolating the idea in this step by step exercise:
- Think of a core excerpt that you play all the time. (e.g., Don Juan, Porgy, Mendelssohn scherzo, Mahler 3, Beethoven 9, etc.)
- Now, consider the cookbook entry for how you want to perform it. Imagine the recipe you'd write down, including all of steps, all of the ingredients, and all of the skills required. (e.g., Target tempo = 64 bpm, using [fill in the blank] specific mallet, with [__] stroke and starting dynamic, employing [__] phrasing, achieving [__] desired tone, and conveying [__] style.) In this step, “everything you can write down” is the domain-specific knowledge which supports your excerpt.
- But now, actually HEAR an ideal performance of it in your mind's ear.
Please bear with me: actually take 30-45 seconds, close your eyes, turn away from your screen, and perform the best possible version of this excerpt in your mind. Employing as much visualized detail as possible, imagine yourself performing this excerpt at your absolute best. Do it now.
- Okay, so that thing you just heard? That is your mental representation. That thing you just conjured is an abstraction which lives uniquely in your own mind. It is intrinsically personal. It is your ideal model – a conceptual cogitation of infinite detail and nuance, beyond the mere knowledge that can be written down to recreate it. It is intangible and impalpable. Your mental representation is the summation of musical rules and your informed aesthetic opinions. It is a manifestation of your agonizingly high standard. It necessarily lives beyond the skill of your current reality…but it is not yet perfect.
And here is an essential key: these mental representations evolve and grow right along with us as we invest more deliberate practice. Our perception becomes more enhanced, and we get pickier with ourselves, and so our ideal version improves along the way. And this continues. Forever.
Even if your mental representation is modeled upon a legendary teacher’s performance, your mental representation will evolve over time because your perception of that teacher’s performance will become more enhanced and detailed, and you'll actually start to perceive very slight imperfections in the performance…beyond which you can now idealize something even better.
To restate: I believe (along with Anders Ericsson and others) that mental representations are the single most important aspect of your deliberate practice. In fact, I would go further: I believe mental representations are the single most powerful marker of your musicianship.
Mental Representations: If You Will It, Dude, It Is No Dream
Granted, it’s a fairly bold claim – that a mental abstraction is the most powerful marker of musicianship. But let me try to unpack that. For assistance, I’m going to turn to one of my favorite dispensers of wisdom, The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak.
Donny has just rolled a strike – “Hooo! I’m slammin’ ‘em tonight!” – and Walter, 20 minutes late, saunters in conveying the following koan-like encouragement:
“If you will it, it is no dream!”
I gotta hand it to Walter: he’s not wrong. Regarding bowling, instrumental performance, tennis, or nearly any other kind of performance, I think he nails it: if you will it, it is no dream. Put another way, you need to be able to conceive something musically before you can achieve it. Mental conception precedes execution.
As musicians, I think we understandably get hung up on the physical aspects of our craft. (“Why can’t my hands make that happen more evenly?!”) But in a way, this physical hangup fundamentally misunderstands cause and effect. As researchers like Daniel Kahneman have illuminated, mind and body are closely integrated. These are not discrete entities, where you work on one, and then separately on the other. “Cognition is embodied,” as Kahneman puts it. And this sheds a different neurological light on Walter’s statement: in order to physically manifest something, you must be able to will it first. Thus, peak musicianship is a mental accomplishment foremost, and a physical accomplishment secondarily.
I find myself thinking about this duality frequently in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera. Among all of my musician colleagues demonstrating their craft, there is one in particular to whom this duality applies in an astonishing way. I would argue that this individual’s job is mostly mental, with thoughtful physical implementation being just a “means to an end.” The “end” is an artistically robust opera performance. The individual? The conductor.
In my previous post on enhanced perception, I noted the ways in which conductors like Yannick Nézet-Séguin or Gustavo Dudamel can emote with subtleties that elude casual observers, but which convey a great deal of information to us performers. To be sure, the precision of their physicality and their highly evolved gestural skills have required incredible amounts of deliberate practice. But I don’t believe that’s the most important thing they bring to the podium. No – in reality, I think the primary job of a conductor is to develop and refine a sophisticated mental representation of an entire work…or an entire program…or an entire season of operas.
In a previous article discussing the role of conductors, I noted:
“It’s my responsibility to bring an interpretation that I think works, knowing that it is one of many possible interpretations. It’s the conductor’s job to take the collective interpretations we bring and, with rehearsal time, make them cohere in a way that is aesthetically consistent.”
That aesthetically consistent coherence? That’s the conductor’s mental representation…not just of an individual excerpt of one instrument, or of the full movement, or the full work…but all instruments’ parts of the entire work. When I think about the level of detail embedded in my mental representation of just one 35 second long timpani excerpt, it’s almost unfathomable to consider the scope of the mental representation comprising all cumulative score lines of all 615 score pages of Wagner’s 6-hour-long Götterdämmerung. (To say nothing of the entire Ring Cycle! I guess that’s why they get paid the big bucks….)
With this newfound vocabulary of mental representations, we can then understand this as the conductor’s primary job: work with each player’s interpretation and, with the limited time available, rehearse us into coherence with the conductor’s own mental representation. Everything else is just technical details, like gestural execution, listening for balance, and succinctly communicating their vision.
Now, those details clearly matter. In April of 2017, I was stunned by guest conductor Daniele Rustioni, who was taking over the final 7 performances of Verdi’s Aida. With virtually no rehearsal, he was able to communicate his vision for the opera solely with his gestures and expressions, resulting in performances that I felt were electrifying. That takes incredible skill. But the point remains that great hands don’t matter if there’s no mental representation to back it up. Rustioni had the chops and the vision. The title “conductor” has been around for a long time, as has maestro, dirigent, and chef d'orchestre. But I would almost prefer the more accurate title, “Chief Mental Representationist.”
“If you will it, it is no dream.” The application of will can make your intentions tangible, whether you’re a conductor, an orchestral musician, or “a good bowler and a good man.” I believe that refining our mental representations is the most difficult thing about making progress through a life in music. That’s the heavy lifting. Simplistically, then, the rest is just getting our physical bodies to execute the abstract thing we’re conceiving. Recall the exercise above in which you conjured your most perfect performance of an excerpt – congrats on the conjuring, but evolving that abstraction over time becomes the most difficult thing. However, when this evolution works well, the process can become a virtuous cycle:
- Practicing with a metronome helps you develop better time and rhythm.
- This enhances your mental representation of pacing associated with a given excerpt.
- With enhanced representation, you can then employ finer gradations of pacing, rubato, or accelerando in a controlled and persuasive manner.
- You’ve just enhanced your skill of pacing!
- …which then lets you think about even subtler ways to refine it….
- Practicing with a metronome helps you develop better time and rhythm.
In the chain of events above, note that this wasn’t solely a mental exercise. You actually had to practice! In Peak, Anders Ericsson hastens to note that:
“Despite the first word in the term ‘mental representation,’ pure mental analysis is not nearly enough. We can only form effective mental representations when we try to reproduce what the expert performer can do, fail, figure out why we failed, try again, and repeat–over and over again. Successful mental representations are inextricably tied to actions, not just thoughts, and it is the extended practice aimed at reproducing the original product that will produce the mental representations we seek.”
Moreover, I previously wrote about the importance of frameworks of domain-specific knowledge – mental models that interrelate information specific to our skills, thus forming a “musical mind palace” of relevant knowledge. On this point, Ericsson continues:
“If you teach a student facts, concepts, and rules, those things go into long-term memory as individual pieces, so if a student wishes to do something with them…the limitations of attention and short-term memory kick in…. However, if this information is assimilated as part of building mental representations aimed at doing something, the individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern [i.e., a framework of domain-specific knowledge] that provides the context and meaning to the information, making it easier to work with…. You don’t build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over and over….”
Craft refinement is about building skills. Skills exist within a framework of domain-specific knowledge. And using those skills embeds that knowledge in mental representations. Action-oriented mental representations are powerful contextualizers of vast knowledge. But sophisticated mental representations do much more than that. In a way, they function like early warning detection systems, responding to potential problems with an almost eerie kind of precognition.
Preventing the Godd*mn Plane from Crashing Into the Mountain
Later in Lebowski, the Dude is being confronted by Jeffrey “the Millionaire” Lebowski (JTML). Feigning concern since they’ve received somebody’s severed toe, JTML apoplectically exclaims: “the goddamn plane has crashed into the mountain!”
Luckily, his Dudeness – or “El Duderino” if you’re not into the whole brevity thing – keeps his cool. He’s good at thinking on his feet, operating under pressure, and getting himself out of tight jams. And believe it or not, this a defining hallmark of possessing sophisticated mental representations.
Let’s consider something a little more fraught than the Coen brothers’ absurdist noir romp: open heart surgery. Unlike performing excerpts, this is literally life or death, and surgeons are required to be paragons of “cool under pressure.” But this isn’t just some lucky personality trait – no, it comes with training and practice. To begin with, surgeons acquire a thorough understanding of the surgery they’re about to perform, memorizing virtually every detail step by step. (In terms of mortal peril, this is not unlike climber Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan.) This forges the surgeon’s idealized mental representation of the surgery, from start to finish, with everything going as planned.
But anyone who practices medicine can tell you that things don’t always go as planned. Thus, experienced surgeons have also spent time visualizing the various ways in which things can go wrong, and planning in advance how they’re going to respond. (This is virtually identical to the “countermeasures” I planned for my excerpt performances, minus the mortal peril.) You can picture it like a path with increasingly multiplying forks:
…except that the ideal path of open heart surgery is not one dimensional and linear: it is extremely complicated, nuanced, nonlinear, and multidimensional. So instead, consider the fork picture modified to be an intricate spatial lattice, transforming as it moves through time, with different variations branching out as new structures in different multiverses…sorta like the quantum-fissure-generated 285,000 Enterprises in TNG “Parallels”:
This multidimensional-forked-spatial-lattice is what I’ve settled on so far as the fullest depiction of a mental representation. But the forks need not represent something as dire as a patient flatlining; in excerpt performance, they could easily manifest as the committee asking you to play something differently (faster, slower, harder, softer, brighter, darker…). And so, we come to yet another definition of musical mental representations: my mental representation for something like Mozart 39 is actually an idealized multidimensional abstraction with nearly infinite variations forking out into different multiverses.
Is this getting too weird yet?
I promise this isn’t just me riffing! In Peak, Anders Ericsson writes that:
“Over time, [experienced surgeons] have developed effective mental representations that they use in planning the surgery, in performing it, and in monitoring its progress so that they can detect when something is wrong and adapt accordingly…. When researchers interviewed the surgeons after the operations about their thought processes during the surgery, they found that the main way the surgeons detected problems was by noticing that something about the surgery didn’t match the way they had visualized the surgery in their preoperative plan….”
“This ability – to recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one – is important not just in medicine but in many areas. For instance, the U.S. Army has spent a considerable amount of time and effort figuring out the best way to teach what it calls ‘adaptive thinking’….”
This only reinforces the imperative we have as musicians to establish an ideally visualized performance to begin with. When we implement a self-recording process, the result we hear when listening back to our playing is being implicitly compared against our idealized version, just like the surgeon noticing “wait…this doesn’t quite match.” This process of comparing our reality against our ideal is among the most important things we can do in our deliberate practice.
If you’re keeping score at home, this may be the point at which you exclaim “informing that musical ideal seems really important!” Absolutely. Addressing teachers, Ericsson says “the best way to help students develop their skills and mental representations is to give them models they can replicate and learn from…. They need to try and fail–but with ready access to models that show what success looks like.” Then, addressing students directly, he continues: “One of the most important things a teacher can do is to help you develop your own mental representations so that you can monitor and correct your own performance.”
This gets to the heart of what I previously wrote about becoming your own best teacher. Ericsson concludes, “In music, having clear representations of what musical pieces sound like, how the different sections of a piece fit together to create the whole, and how variations in one’s playing can affect the sound allows student musicians to play music for themselves or for others and to improvise and explore on their instruments. They no longer need a teacher to lead them down every path; they can head down some paths on their own.”
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
Whether or not we use the terminology “mental representation,” we all have them, and we all rely upon them. Every musician operates with these abstract ideals living in their mind, against which they continuously measure their own day to day performance. By definition, these ideals always exist beyond wherever we currently are, and they serve as conceptual lighthouses guiding us through the “dark and stormy night” of deliberate practice, enforcing that excruciating joy of the struggle. And upon arriving at any given lighthouse, we look out and realize there’s always another waiting for us further up the coast.
So, whether you knew it or not, you have mental representations, and you use them all the time. The question is this: are you willing to dedicate focused energy to refining them?
Throughout the admittedly sprawling narrative above, I offered multiple definitions of mental representations in order to clarify their abstract nature as best as possible. Here they are again in one place:
- Music equation definition:
Mental Representations = (Musical) Rules + Aesthetic Opinions
- Graphical definition:
The “excellence” we’re capable of perceiving above our current reality, asymptotically approaching unreachable perfection as we invest more deliberate practice.
- Ericsson’s definition:
“A mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about…[and] we all use them constantly.”
- Process-based definition:
An auralization or visualization of infinite detail and nuance manifesting the “agonizingly high standard” to which one tries to hold oneself.
- Multiverse-based definition:
An idealized multidimensional abstraction of an idea or process, with nearly infinite variations forking out into different multiverses.
I would assert that these are all correct in their own ways, and best applied at different times in different circumstances. Mental representations are a big tall mountain, and we’ve now got at least five different routes to the summit.
Throughout this post, I also started dropping some hints as to how I set about deliberately refining my own mental representations; I’ll consolidate and elaborate upon those here.
Guidelines for Refining Mental Representations:
- Immersion in “Domain Experiences”:
As suggested in the intro, mental representations are highly contextual. Scrutinizing Endgame’s use of time travel required knowledge of Primer, 12 Monkeys, et al. Thus, soaking up relevant contextual experience is extremely helpful in refining your own mental representations. If you’re a SciFi film buff, watch curated lists of influential films. If you’re a Star Wars nerd, edit together your own supercut of the prequels. And if you’re an orchestral musician, recommendations include:
- Attend concerts of great orchestras playing great rep with great conductors.
- Scour iTunes/Spotify/YouTube/Amazon for performances of 1.a, and save these to reference playlists.
- Read. Voraciously. About anything remotely related to music and/or deliberate practice. There’s an abundance. Pretty much anything Alex Ross writes is gold (e.g. The Rest is Noise). Maynard Solomon's biography of Beethoven is epic and exceptional. Definitely read Ericsson’s Peak, Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis, and Greene’s Performance Success. Sacks’s Musicophilia is fascinating. Copland’s What to Listen for in Music is classic. And so on….
- Attend all possible masterclasses / seminars / workshops. At best, it will open up whole new ways of thinking about your craft. At worst, it will clarify for you why you’re not pursuing things a certain way.
- Interactive Aesthetic Opinion Enhancement:
This falls squarely in “informing your ideal” territory. Go beyond playlist-curation (step 1.b) and actually consolidate the digital music files on your computer. (Many methods exist for this…some more legal than others. I leave that up to you.)
- Once you've got a folder full of 20-30 different recordings containing a certain excerpt (e.g. Beethoven 9 coda), go through and make a bunch of copies of those mp3 files.
- Then, using software like Audacity, crop them into the ~60 second segments that match the excerpt.
- Create a separate playlist for these new snippets. Listen to all of them in sequence. Over and over. Note which versions you prefer, and why. Note which versions you dislike, and why. Get deeply familiar with the nuances and variations of each one.
- Then, set the playlist to shuffle, and test yourself to see how good you are at identifying the different orchestras/conductors based on sound and style alone. (e.g., “That's Berlin-Karajan” or “that's Chicago-Solti” or “that's Cleveland-Szell” etc….) I think you’ll quickly begin to notice certain “tells.” This is great, and it’s a marker of your evolving mental representations.
- Next, create similar 20-30 snippets for all of the rest of the repertoire you’ll ever be expected to know. (Yes, this could take months…and it is exactly the kind of valuable “homework” you can do to amplify the neurobiologically-constrained time you’re able to spend in the practice room.)
- While you’re at it, go ahead and download the parts and scores of all of this repertoire from IMSLP. After all, it’s free!
- Go through these digital scores and bookmark the excerpt spots using software like Adobe Acrobat. Then, import all of these scores to a program like ForScore – a fantastic tool for iPad-based score study.
- Go for a nice walk, hang out on your favorite park bench, and spend an hour re-listening to all of those snippets with the score in front of you. Retrace all those nuances. Start connecting these back to the way you want to play the excerpt, and why. This is now directly building and refining your excerpt-specific mental representation.
- Leverage all of the above into your experience with the full work. During a “cool down” session – for me, this would often happen after 4-5 hours of intense deliberate practice – play along with your favorite recording of the entire symphony (e.g. Beethoven 9). Note how your various decisions connect between themes A and B, the exposition and recapitulation, or the first and last movements.
- Finally, specifically relate this to the previous anecdote about the conductor being the “Chief Mental Representationist”: for any work you are actually performing, spend time thinking about your interpretation. Ask yourself “why am I playing it this way? Is it justified by the score? Or the drama? Is there a more effective interpretation?” There is no limit to how far you can take this part of the process.
- Self-Recording Analysis:
Above, I noted my Tchaik 4 anecdote, in which I claimed to only need to hear the first 5 measures before being 90% certain of how I was going to vote. Well, to a large extent, I developed that capacity by listening to hundreds (if not thousands) of recordings of myself playing that same Tchaik 4 excerpt.
I also said “this process of comparing our reality against our ideal is among the most important things we can do in our deliberate practice.” Proceeding from steps 2.a-j of “informing your ideal,” you are now well equipped to make these self-assessments.
I’ve previously written about my self-recording process; I will continue elaborating in subsequent posts. For now, consider the “virtuous cycle” noted above – this forms one kind of template for you to use in self-recording analysis:
- Choose several specific elements of your performance you want to improve. (e.g., Time, rhythmic integrity, and intonation.)
- Record yourself playing the excerpt. Listen back multiple times, focusing on only one element at a time. Analyze its condition. (e.g., “Rhythmic integrity starts okay, but by the 6th measure the 16ths and 32nds are not consistently differentiated.”)
- Brainstorm ways to practice that specifically identified problem. Sometimes, simple awareness is all that’s required for the problem to mend itself. Other times, you’ll need to shed targeted exercises for months.
- Repeat 3.b-c for all elements you’ve chosen to improve.
- After sufficient deliberate practice, return to the passage and re-record it. Listen back multiple times, now specifically comparing this new version to your previous version. Did your targeted elements noticeably improve? If so, congrats! Move on to the next step. If not, no worries. This is the process. Rinse and repeat.
- Relisten to the new version several more times, now directing your attention to other elements ripe for improvement. What jumps out most immediately? These should become your next highest priority. Write them down, and how you plan to practice them.
This cyclical process is how I experienced my “excruciating joy” chart in practice. It was a tangible way to compare my current reality to something better I could perceive, put in the work to get there, and then check my progress.
There is no limit to how far you can take this process as well. Because, after a certain point when you’ve substantially polished some of the more objective musical elements (like time, rhythm, intonation, and clarity), it will be really useful to seek feedback from others. See if your teacher(s) and colleagues agree with your assessment of next step priorities. And keep writing all this stuff down: here’s what’s improved so far, here’s what I’m currently noticing, and here’s what I want to improve for next time. Critically, this process establishes your own reference models, an essential point that Ericsson made above, and which is integral to you developing your own musical personality and artistic fingerprint. As I previously noted,
“My 2017 ‘ideal version’ of the Beethoven-9th-Symphony-1st-movement-coda timpani excerpt exists at a level of detail, refinement, and understanding that is staggeringly more sophisticated than my 2007 ‘ideal version.’ The refinement of those intervening 10 years involved everything from my process of score-informed musical decision-making to my perception of tone and my overall ‘artistic vision.’ We can all relate to this: the more you do a thing, the finer degrees of detail you’re able to perceive, and the more discriminating you become. This informs your ‘ideal,’ and that union of perception and knowledge creates an increasingly sophisticated mental representation.”
- Mock Auditions:
Rigorously organized mock auditions are a common theme for nearly everyone I know who’s pursued/pursuing instrumental performance at a high level. The value of these mocks tends to correlate with how closely they simulate the real thing, such as:
- Choose a sufficiently large space that will sound something like the real audition space. (i.e., A cramped practice room is better than nothing, but not as useful as a recital hall or concert hall.)
- Invite multiple friends/colleagues whose ears you trust, and try to make sure the majority don’t play your instrument. Not only does this simulate most real committees, it also works to eliminate instrument-tradition-specific biases.
- Setup screens. Make the process blind. Even if you are the only one playing, this is a psychologically important adaptation.
- Provide the committee with clean, unbound copies of the excerpts. That way, when the committee chooses a given round, they can select those 4-5 excerpts and stack them in order, just like a real audition. Giving your audition committee a spiral-bound book of excerpts is annoying and impractical; listeners waste time and attention flipping through to find the next excerpt instead of listening and writing thoughtful comments.
- Record the entire mock, including all of the committee’s comments. (Let them know you’ll be recording.)
- Before you begin playing, let your committee know you’ll need 1-2 minutes to “self-debrief” after you play your round. Use this time to journal your unbiased impression of how you played your round, what you thought went well, and what didn’t.
- Then, engage the committee for their comments. Accept all feedback graciously, and never argue or get defensive. You’ll have plenty of time later to sort through their comments and decide which are more or less applicable.
- When you initially listen back to your mock, compare the reality to the real-time impression you wrote in your practice journal. These will likely differ! That’s okay: the good news is that these will tend to converge over time and more mocks.
- Next, compare your playing to your idealized mental representation, just like you’ve been doing according to self-recording steps 3.a-f. Note what went well, what didn’t, and what are your highest priorities to improve for next time. Write all of this down for reference later.
- Finally, spend as much time listening behind screens as playing in front of them. Reciprocate for your friends and colleagues: you’ll learn a ton, and build meaningful relationships along the way.
- Mental Practice (Auralization, Visualization):
This final guideline really deserves its own blog post (forthcoming), but when coupled with high quality time in the practice room, there is a great deal you can achieve with your mind alone. You may find yourself able to harness otherwise “useless time,” and channel it into productive mental practice. Whether it’s a two hour flight, a long subway ride downtown, or a 45 minute wait at the DMV, you can put your mind to work refining your mental representations. In fact, I’ve found this to be so useful that I don’t wait for “useless time” – I make time for mental practice of its own accord:
- Choose one of the top excerpts you need to master, and both auralize and visualize yourself playing through it from start to finish. Put in earplugs if it helps to block out external distractions. Closing your eyes frequently helps. After the first pass, write down any spots where you got mentally stuck, or where you mentally messed up, or where your visualization became foggy or fuzzy. (It can be helpful to keep a pocket moleskine with you for this purpose.) Target those spots for later work in the practice room.
- As an extension both of steps 4.a-j and 5.a, now run this mental simulation with specific things going wrong. Brainstorm the various things that can go off the rails, and how you’ll respond to them. (e.g., It’s easy to be out of tune on the Mozart 39 Bb, so I’ll keep the pedal disengaged so I can respond quickly and fix it if necessary.) Document these countermeasures. This is your multi-forked plan to avoid crashing the godd*mn plane into the mountain!
- Repeat steps 5.a and 5.b for successively longer sequences. This is mentally fatiguing, so you may only be able to work on a few measures of an excerpt at first. That’s okay. Build up to full excerpts. Then full rounds. Then even a full audition day. (During masterclasses, my Met percussion colleague Steven White has discussed his extensive daylong visualization process prior to his October 2016 audition – it’s extremely impressive!)
…and this is just the beginning….
If the steps above seem like a lot of work, they are! Refining these mental representations is an arduous process. It takes time and effort. It’s a lifestyle. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor was Winterfell, or King’s Landing. Or Wakanda, or Asgard. It took Arya Stark 8 long seasons to settle her vendettas, and Endgame was the 22nd Marvel-verse film.
But it’s important and necessary work that will have a direct impact on your playing; the mental representation itself is intangible, but a refined ideal model against which to critique your playing on any given day will result in highly tangible improvements. You will hear the difference. Your colleagues will hear the difference. Audition committees will hear the difference.
This refinement process is the core of deliberate practice, the central engine that moves everything forward. In an almost-too-perfect case study of these exact principles, real life human being Eliud Kipchoge just ran 26.2 miles in under two hours. That is astonishing, and begs the highly-relevant full version of Ericsson’s quote:
“In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way…. You can keep going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you…. There is no point at which performance maxes out and additional practice does not lead to further improvement…. To date, we have found no limitations to the improvements that can be made with particular types of practice. As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor are constantly finding ways to get better…and there is no sign that this will stop. The horizons of human potential are expanding with each generation.”
This should also make clear why I’m never completely satisfied with my own playing, and why that’s not just understandable but in fact necessary. Complete satisfaction can only arrive once I’m incapable of conceiving a better mental representation. And if I can’t imagine anything better, then it’s time for me to retire. No – as long as mind and body allow, my goal is to continue pushing that envelope. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the whole point of it all.