Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Brain Game- Practicing in your...mind...?

When I was in high school I was friends with a young lady named Monique,,,

   Monique was a baritone saxophonist and was really good. She ended up being All State her senior year and for a high school player was one of the best I'd heard at the time. She once told me how she'd often practice and, frankly, I thought she was nuts.
   You see, a baritone saxophone isn't the most transportable item in the music world so on days when she couldn't get it home, she'd set up like the bari was actually in her hands and 'practice' her audition music (Ferling etudes, in case you're curious). This just seemed dumb to me but I looked at her results and thought it best to not say anything. What the 17 year old incarnation of myself THOUGHT, though, was "That's dumb. How can you get better at saxophone without playing saxophone?!".

  Fast forward....well.....more years than I care to mention.

   I had lunch with my undergraduate major professor on Friday. We were discussing common issues with being a music major and a big one was being healthy; both physically and mentally. You see, when you are training for a profession a common mentality becomes the 'Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!' mindset to practicing where the student just practices to the point of sheer exhaustion. SOME students can get away with this for a while before problems start to occur but eventually....physically, mentally, motivationally, the student is going to begin to have break downs. Doug then brought up a study that he'd once read and it fascinated me to the point where I had to go and look it up myself.


  There was a study done several years ago which looked at different techniques for improving free throw shooting. The participants each shot 20 free throws and were then divided up into four groups.

  1. Practiced free throws
  2. Didn't physically practice free throws but visualized themselves shooting free throws with perfect technique
  3. Went through both physical practice AND visualization
  4. Did nothing but watch a basketball game on TV

  The results were astonishing. The first three groups all improved their free throw shooting. The astonishing thing was that group two improved almost as much as group one and group three blew both out of the water. 

  Obviously, playing an instrument, like free throw shooting, is a learned skill set and having read this study, I sat down in a chair, pulled out some music (Darius Milhaud's Scaramouche) and had my first go at 'mental practice'.

  To say I struggled was an understatement. I ended up mentally fingering through the first movement at about 25% of the suggested performance tempo. It got better as I went along but it was still challenging. What I found, though, was this- I could hear the piece in my head and was able to concentrate on how my fingers felt as well as practicing the air needed for each phrase. It was almost meditative and allowed me to get the saxophone out of the way and really concentrate on the music as well as my physical instrument (always remember that YOU are part of the instrument you play).

  So  back to Monique. It amazed me that when Doug mentioned this study the image of her showing me how she practiced immediately popped into my head. She instinctively did something that took me years to figure out.

  Lesson learned. I think from now on I'm going to give most ideas I hear a real listen and open my mind more. 

   For those of you who would like to read the free throw study:

digitalcommons.brockport.edu › HHP › PES › PES_THESES › 3