Sylvie’s arrival in the workshop (see above) has made me think again about how we learn things, and how the brain retains and reinforces what we do. Sylvie is a highly trained violin maker, but it’s a good ten years since she last worked in a violin workshop.
Amazingly, her mind and body remember all her old skills, but she just has to bring herself “up to speed” , in exactly the same way a string player would need to do with their instrument, after a gap in playing – by starting slowly, paying close attention to the correct way of doing things, and letting her old dexterity gradually re-establish itself in the right context.
Practising a new piece of music is a very parallel process! Somehow we have to bridge the gap between how we play it the first time (badly!), and how we want to play it in the end (as well as possible!). Of course we want to play it perfectly, up-to-speed on Day One. And it is so easy just to plunge in and charge through the piece, ignoring all the mistakes.
But those mistakes we make on that first run through have been learnt. If you play the wrong thing, the brain neurons form pathways to capture that experience. Which is why it’s so hard to eradicate those early mistakes. The neurons don’t know they’ve captured something bad. Some other part of the brain knows it, though – the part that then tells you off every time you repeat that mistake!
The key is in preparing the mind, and letting it show you the right speed to start practising the piece.
Here’s a quote from a great article in Strings Magazine http://notes.allthingsstrings.com/How-to-Choose-the-Right-Practice-Tempo
“Put your instrument in playing position, place your finger on the string on the first note, place your bow on the right string—and don’t move … Imaginatively see, hear, and feel the passage as you mentally place each finger on each note. When you have found the fastest speed at which you can [mentally] visualize the whole passage without error, you’ve found [the right starting] tempo.”
And if your mum is yelling at you from the kitchen because she can’t hear you playing, you can truthfully tell her you’re doing your “silent practice”.