Focus. What things we could accomplish if we could only focus!
Yet there are times that too much focus is as useless as too little when it comes to music practice. I’m talking about the “Practice Rabbit Hole.”
If you remember Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you know that Alice’s adventures began when her curiosity led her to follow the White Rabbit down his hole. After that, things became “curiouser and curiouser,” and poor Alice was trapped in Wonderland. Trapped, that is, until she woke up and discovered it was all a dream. (Or was it? But that’s a different discussion…)
In our music practice, there are times when we can’t find the concentration we need to delve into the detail work we know we should be doing. But there are other times when we are so determined to fix or finish the musical task before us that lose sight of everything else.
Have you ever finished what felt like a really productive practice session, only to have your sense of accomplishment reduced by the realization that you didn’t get done what you really intended to do? True, you did a lot of work on those four pesky measures, but the music you needed to learn for the rehearsal next week is still not even marked, let alone practiced.
If that sounds familiar, then you know what the Practice Rabbit Hole is like.
We follow our focus into the rabbit hole. We are so intent on finally getting that one thing right – a few measures, a fingering, a technique – that our focus turns to fixation, and eventually we are so far down the rabbit hole that we can’t climb out. We can’t stop.
Knowing when to stop is the key. When does focus turn to fruitless fixation? And how can you find focus and practice with concentration without losing your perspective?
Time is the ultimate success factor in music practice, not just the hours you practice, but the years you practice, play and study. We develop our musicianship and our technique; we grow as musicians. It’s a process, not a destination. We don’t ever “get there;” we get ever closer.
As no doubt you have noticed, the fact that you perfected a passage today doesn’t mean it will be perfect tomorrow. Practice isn’t once and done. Repetition over time is the path to reliable correction of notes, technique or coordination.
Interestingly, too, variety in our practice and playing experience contributes significantly to our ability to conquer difficulties. We bring everything we have learned in the past to our present circumstances. The Dussek you learned last year has helped prepare you for the Mozart you will play this year. Looked at this way, “rabbit hole” focus actually prevents you from getting the breadth of knowledge that you need.
In order to avoid falling down the rabbit hole, there are two key tools that will act as guard rails to keep you above ground.
First is a practice plan. It doesn’t have to be detailed, merely outlined enough that you know what you expect of yourself in the practice time you have. You still may take detours and have days when you don’t accomplish everything on your list, but you are much less likely to “forget” to do something important.
You can also prioritize your list, beginning with what is most important, so you can be sure that you meet any deadlines. I often save “spot practice” – extra repetitions on a tricky passage – for the end of my practice, so I don’t get so absorbed that I lose track of time.
And this brings me to my second tool – a timer. If you use a timer to help keep your practice on schedule, you can be fairly certain of avoiding the rabbit hole. You can focus as deeply as you want, knowing that the timer will bring you back to the surface when it’s time to move on. Using a timer in conjunction with your practice plan is extremely powerful.
Another strategy that can be very effective is allowing yourself a “rabbit hole” day, when you devote all your practice time to one or two spots or techniques. If you really want to make a deep dive without the guilt of letting everything else go, this is the way to do it. Schedule some super focused time, and then the next day return to a more balanced practice plan.
Ultimately, what these tools and strategies do is help you know when to stop, before you fall down the hole. In the words of Alice’s King of Hearts,
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”