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The Musician’s #1 Labor-Saving Strategy

We have been taught that hard work is the key to success. As James Cash (J. C.) Penney quipped, “I do not believe in excuses. I believe in hard work as the prime solvent of life's problems.”

As musicians, we understand the value of hard work, of putting in the practice time. When we encounter passages that confound our technique, we “take it to the woodshed” to put in more repetitions. When we have a performance coming up, we increase our efforts. No one has to tell us that excuses won’t make you play better.

But sometimes hard work actually prevents you from getting the results you want.

If you’re working on the wrong things, it doesn’t matter how much work you do; you will just be spinning your wheels. Plus, when you’re just spinning your wheels, you’re not only putting effort into something that won’t help you, but you’re also digging yourself in deeper. You’re wasting time that should be spent on what will actually get you out of the hole.

Hard work can be seductive. You have a passage you want to smooth out. You play it ten times, and there is some improvement. So you play it another ten times, and decide you need to adjust a fingering. Once again, you play it ten more times and feel like you’re almost there.

The process is totally absorbing. Just one more tweak, then another metronome notch, then…Before you know it, you’ve spent an hour on two measures and not really accomplished much of anything.

With one simple labor-saving strategy, you can save yourself from being sucked into the “hard work with no results” vortex. This won’t mean you never have to put in lots of effort or drill that tricky passage, but it will allow you to retain your perspective and stay on track.

What’s this powerful labor-saving strategy? It’s just one word: clarity.

When you have clarity about your goal or objective, it’s simple to keep yourself from doing pointless or profitless hard work. Clarity in your practice is about knowing the results you are trying to achieve and deciding what is the best, most effective way to achieve them.

For instance, much of our practice is directed toward the larger goal of playing a piece well. If our practice isn’t intentionally aimed at that result, it’s easy to get off track. Naturally, you will need extra work on the tricky parts of a piece, but not so much that your progress with the piece as a whole stops moving forward.

Clarity can streamline your practice by helping you keep your actions aligned with your intent. Are you taking the right steps, using the best strategies to accomplish what you want to do? Or are you just putting in your practice time, hoping that your efforts will yield results?

If you sense your wheels starting to spin, try asking yourself these questions:

  1. Does the work I am doing now seem effective? If yes, stop here and get back to work. If no, go to question 2.
  2. What is my larger goal that this hard work is a part of?
  3. Does my success at that goal depend at least 80% on the work that I am doing now? If yes, go to question 4. If no, go to question, 5.
  4. Is there another strategy (different from what I am doing now) that could help me achieve the same result I’m trying to achieve? If yes, identify the strategy and put it in play immediately. If no, then take a break and keep doing what you’re doing. (Hint: there is nearly always another way.)
  5. Then why am I doing it? There’s no good answer to this one. Change direction and work on something else for a change.

Now you can celebrate your freedom from unrewarding hard work; you can practice clarity!

(One final note: You might be wondering about that 80% factor in question 3. This is about perspective. One wrong fingering will most likely not be the downfall of your entire performance of a piece. I admit that 80% is a very arbitrary number, but it’s meant to help you keep your perspective.)

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