Traction! Ten Steps to Making Progress

practicing Jul 29, 2018

Before you can get anywhere, you need traction.

Every year at about this time, my entire community where I live in Pennsylvania suspends its regular activities and heads for the fair. It’s one of those traditional state or county fairs with prizes for the most beautiful vegetables, most delectable baked goods and best livestock.

There are musical performances and magic acts, amusement rides, craft displays and just about every fried food imaginable, including some I couldn’t possibly have imagined. Have you ever eaten a deep-fried Oreo cookie?

Among the popular events at the fair are the tractor-pulling contests. Being a city girl, I didn’t know about such things until I moved to farm country, and maybe you’ve never seen one either. The idea is simple: hitch a heavy load to a tractor, and measure how far and how fast it can pull the load before it loses control or the motor burns up.

The tractors are loud, and their fumes are smelly; this isn’t an event for the garden party crowd. But we have neighbors who compete each year, so I grab my ear plugs, try to find a seat upwind and go to cheer them on. And sitting there watching the tractors strain to move the load down the track, I was reminded of a lesson that – yes! – applies to our harp playing: you need to have traction.

Of course, the words “tractor” and “traction” have the same root. That’s why we call it a “tractor”; it’s purpose is to grip the earth and pull equipment through uneven, rocky and muddy fields. Tractors have specially designed engines and tires. They are built to do the work.

The musical connection I made was this: how much of our practice is designed to give us traction?

Much of the time we focus on doing something: working on technique, fixing fingering, conquering a few tricky measures. How often do we consider how that same work that we are doing will help us get where we are going?

Practice shouldn’t just be about the music on our stand. It should also pull us forward, create momentum, provide a path to progress and growth. This is gaining traction instead of spinning your wheels.

In short, to make progress you need traction. And you can gain traction with simple tweaks to your practice. Just adding one or two of these may help you find the traction you need to move ahead.

Ten Traction Practice Tweaks
  1. Practice consistently and regularly, daily if possible.
  2. Play through your review pieces weekly.
  3. Learn one new piece each month.
  4. Practice scales and arpeggios to develop speed and fluidity.
  5. Study exercises that focus on idiomatic finger passages.
  6. Work with a teacher who understands your goals.
  7. Practice hands together more than hands separately.
  8. Include a few short pieces and one or two longer ones in your practice mix.
  9. Balance your practice between in depth learning, focused detail work and big picture playing.
  10. Never fear the mistakes; this is how we learn.

One more tip – stay clear of the deep-fried Oreos!


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