As my students at the Royal Military School of Music start preparing for their pass out exams later in March which, if successful, allows them to join their bands, the question of effective practice and performance anxiety becomes a critical topic.
The first part of their exam focuses on scales, arpeggios, dominant and diminished 7ths, chromatics and whole tone scales together with transposition. This part of any exam can be the cause of extreme anxiety, often highlighting flaws in the learning process. “What happens if I forget everything?” To answer this fear filled question effectively I feel that an understanding of learning needs to be established. “How can I be halfway up a scale and then lose where I was?” To retain focus is possible, if there is a formula in place that keeps the brain focused which the student has practiced playing during the scale, arpeggio or even chromatic with a consciousness that keeps the mental and physical synchronised.
As an examiner I have seen more candidates tumble in chromatics then almost any other scale that I deduce from the student’s habit to use the chromatic as a purely physical warm-up with brain not engaged with fingers. When I start work with a new student who has a fear or even hatred of scales, they often feel very distressed that when we start putting thought to the preparation and planning, ahead of even playing the scale, the actual playing becomes more cautious, slow and seemingly less assured making it look like they know the scale even less. “If I don’t think about it I can play the scale”, is a comment I hear a lot in teaching. And while the student starts replacing the old method with the new, moments of anxiety are often left behind in the form of fingering or note confusion. As I always say to my students, this is where rich pickings lie as once the areas of weakness can be clearly exposed, solutions found and fear eliminated through a clear correction process.
Developing the ability to multi task – thinking the method, applying to the fingers, alerting themselves to ‘non default’ fingering, supporting sound and embouchure considerations, all while often playing in a semi-hostile setting, takes practice and is crucial not only for playing under pressure but in playing in general. And yet this ability to combine what seems like very different skills is what we have to develop as human beings whether crossing the road, driving a car, playing a sport like tennis.
While there is no doubt that Andy Murray has the ability to win every grand slam, it was recognised in his training that emotional issues rather than ability where impairing his ability to stay focused, and as such a psychological coach was employed. Even for young sports men and women training, this need to embrace the psychological element as an essential strand in the training process even in the very early stages of learning has been recognised to be an essential investment if the true level of the sports person is to be given the best chance.
Another way to illustrate the idea of multi tasking is considering the complex wiring in a heavy duty piece of cable. What we see is the plug and the thick cable but look inside the thick cable and you will find lots of small wires each with essential duties to perform which will allow the equipment it is serving to function efficiently. Should one of these wires be faulty or a connection become lose then a malfunction will occur which will either result in the equipment not working at all or at best erratically.
In all areas of our daily lives and most particularly as musicians we can draw a direct parallel from this imagery and there various strands I have articulated which need to be in good working order at all times with regular checks/evaluations to ensure reliability is maintained.
So why is this essential element so neglected in the training of young musicians? I would suggest a common cause could be time pressures “We have so much to fit into a lesson as it is!” But with many students who struggle to progress, investing time in exploring the psychological area in my experience will enhance and maximise the technical side of learning, even if explored at the simplest level.
Some teachers and students might well have their own way of learning and recalling their technical tests. If you the student have a system that you feel works then stick with it. Just make sure you have tested it in a more pressured situation to ensure it is robust and full proof and that you can access the information with clarity and confidence despite the distraction of nerves.
For those instrumentalists using a scale book, and I refer particularly to clarinet and saxophone students, I will lay my cards on the table; I don’t use scale books and discourage my students using one. Ok, shock horror, it’s out there! (Appreciating pianists and string players have fingering considerations and therefore the need for a scale book is very different from ours.) A scale book if used to play from rather than refer to, relies on visual memory. At some point the student is going to have to play the scale, arpeggio for memory. So we are back to the method; while memory can fail, a method that has built-in hooks, once learnt, will become a fixture, however pressured, because it takes advantage of more than visual memory. Logic, formula, and rhyme add to finger recognition and aural sense. All complement each other and like a builder building a house or a mechanic building a machine, having incorporated the method in the building of the scale during the learning process, the awareness of the learning will have been tailor made to the student.
My personal learning comes from the understanding of applying a formula which has a clear route and connecting learning path which is simple enough to recall and has enough hooks to prompt an answer the test situation might throw into question. This security in my opinion is critical to self belief and confidence, changing fear and anxiety of the exam or assessment into the normal nerves and adrenalin; like a mountain climber who has trained to take informed decisions and evaluations even while finding themselves in a hostile environment.
Learning scales and technical requirements can be fraught and anxious for many students. To then tell them (as I and I’m sure many other teachers) how important they are to the development of their playing, is perhaps not always helpful, dispute being true. So if the actual learning process is assured to be as valuable as the learnt and fluent scale, a more tolerant and patient approach is established, making the learning environment a more positive place.