Study tips

31 Dec 2010

The way in which you study is an extremely important factor in preventing performance anxiety and injury. Most musicians play/sing/conduct a number of hours per day in their own practice room. For most musicians it is worthwhile taking a critical look at how they spend these hours.

It’s not so much (naturally to a certain extent) about how much you study (quantity) but primarily about how you study (quality). Practising in a qualitatively good manner saves you:

  • time
  • energy
  • injuries

and you will experience:

  • better results
  • more enjoyment
  • less chance of performance anxiety

Study tips

  1. Practice in such a way so as not to separate technique from music. While this separation is extremely unnatural, unfortunately it is a habit common to most musicians: first we have to be able to play the notes well, only after the notes are ‘perfect’ do we allow ourselves to add the music. Or: first we practise scales and etudes (sometimes very mechanically, while our thoughts drift) before moving on to the appealing pieces which involve our emotions. If you constantly keep your feelings for the music (inwardly singing along) at the forefront while you study, you greatly increase the chance of enjoyable music-making on stage. Naturally, this also enhances coordination, relaxation and pleasure in playing.
  2. Take regular breaks. Research has shown that our optimal concentration has already disappeared after 20 minutes. However, we quickly regain it: after 2 minutes we are again fully recharged. So take a 2-min break every 20 min (time for a cup of tea, or to water the plants). And taking a 30-min break every hour will enable your body and your brain to recover and rest. The lying-down exercise (see below) is a perfect way to take a break in an extremely efficient and ‘healthy’ way.
  3. Practising in a positive and calm way is better for body and mind, is more relaxing and gives better results. Do the lying-down exercise before you start studying in order to attain a positive, strong and calm state. Practising in a negative and nervous way is a leading cause of performance anxiety. Anxiety and negative thoughts cause cramping which negatively affects coordination. By constantly practising in this frame of mind you are unintentionally conditioning this vicious circle of negative effects.
  4. Pause occasionally while playing, to think about what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. All too often practising consists of mindlessly playing through a piece without a clear plan in mind (just take a walk through the corridors of a conservatoire and listen!). During this pause you can put the principles of the Alexander Technique into practice in order to release excess tension.
  5. Repetition. Always try to find the cause of the problem first. This necessitates pausing briefly in order to consider the problem. Many musicians have a tendency to repeat passages mindlessly, without really putting their brains to use. However this often does more harm than good, for in this way you also unintentionally train and condition bad habits very efficiently! If you repeat a passage, do so with as much variation as possible. Never play something more than twice without alteration. Change the bowing, rhythm, tempo etc. Or consciously focus on listening to a different aspect each time.
  6. Practise mentally, without instrument. It’s more important to train your brain than your fingers. If your brain passes on well-coordinated instructions your body will automatically obey. By practising mentally, you can inwardly bring to life the phrasing, colours and interpretation of a piece extremely well. Naturally, you can also mentally study the notes of an unfamiliar piece. This is a highly recommended practice method, as stress, negative thoughts and unhealthy movement patterns are much less of an issue during mental study. In this way you can become acquainted with a piece in a calm and positive way, the ultimate form of bad habit prevention!
  7. Practise small sections extremely precisely and intensively, focusing on solving problems and phrasing. In this way you can achieve more lasting effects than when you repeatedly play through an entire piece and study it in a general way.
  8. Practise with good concentration. But… what does that involve? Good concentration means that you are aware of yourself and your environment, so that you can absorb as much information as possible from both sources. You feel calm and positive and all your senses are alert, improving the quality of your listening, your emotional connection to the music and your ensemble playing. For some people concentration means turning completely inwards and closing themselves off. This is more likely to result in their becoming detached from their surroundings and it will not result in better ensemble playing.

Most musicians spend much of their time studying alone. So it is vital to spend all these hours in an efficient, preventive, healthy and positive manner. In this way you:

  • improve your performance
  • prevent injuries
  • reduce performance anxiety