When we practice, we are seeking to create a chain of physical and mental processes that work together to produce a whole comprehensive unit, which allows us to execute whatever music we are attempting to play. When either a physical and/or mental link is broken we could say our melody becomes ‘unchained’, which results in us making mistakes. Our goal in practicing is to take these “unchained melodies” and “chain” them.
This may sound complicated, but let me attempt to explain how this process works, why most students spend their practice time ingraining unchained melodies, and how we can break the cycle and chain our mental and physical links to get the results we are seeking.
Let me first define what I mean specifically by physical and mental links.
Physical Links are those things which pertain to any part of a chain that involves us using a part of our body. We often refer to these things as our technique. They include any movement as well as how we are holding our instrument or the posture of our body. Muscle memory is an example of a physical link.
Mental Links are those parts of the chain which take place inside our head. They are the thought processes we must go through to execute physical links. They can be conscious or unconscious. Mental links could also be defined as the synapses and neurological patterns that exist in our brains. As my husband likes to say “neurons that fire together wire together”. Cute, catchy and true.
To most of us it is easy to understand that there are physical links involved in playing an instrument. What is easy to overlook is that each physical link that occurs must be preceded by, and happens in conjunction with, a mental link. Both these physical and mental links are part of the completed connected chain. In as much as these links are responsible for getting things right when we play, they are also just as much responsible for when we get things wrong. Therefore, both must be addressed when correcting a mistake.
Let’s work backwards. Mistakes are an indication that there are one or more broken mental and/or physical links in our chain. Most students will notice a mistake and do one of three things:
- They take a mental note of it and keep going;
- They stop, go back to the mistake, play it correctly and keep going;
- They stop, go back to the top of the piece (or somewhere before the mistake) and play it again hoping for a different result.
All three of these approaches fail in actually addressing the mistake in a way that will correct the broken link(s) in the chain.
I have given you a third of the information you need already to fix an unchained melody. The next third of information that is needed is to understand that when we make a mistake the problem actually occurs before the mistake that we hear. We were either not mentally prepared or we were not physically prepared for a certain note, passage or technique and therefore failed to execute it properly. In order to fix this problem we need to go back to the chain before the mistake and work out the physical and/or mental links that went wrong.
Here is where a teacher is necessary. The last third of the information we need in order to successfully chain our unchained melodies is to identify the particular physical and mental links that are broken and know how to correct them. A good teacher will be able to hear the mistake, identify the problem before the mistake, break it down into its physical and mental components, address both the physical and mental components with the student, and show the student what they need to do at home that week to fix the mistake. Parents are also necessary to this last third of the solution, especially for younger students who will need help in following the plan the teacher has outlined. Over time a student will be able to take on some of this process themselves. Our goal is that eventually the student will have all the necessary tools to successfully do this completely on their own.
Often when I am teaching and a student makes a mistake I will tell them to “try again”. This sounds strangely similar to one or all of the three things I listed that students often do themselves that I said were unsuccessful ways of dealing with a mistake. You’re right! There are three reasons for initially taking this approach:
- If the student has done their work during the week in working to correct this mistake both physically and mentally, it gives them another chance to “rethink” what they were doing. Often another chance is all that’s needed. Successfully executing the mistake on the second try shows me that the student has the necessary tools to correct this mistake. Failure to execute it on the first try just means that the student needs some more repetition to ingrain the repaired links.
- If the mistake is one that the student has never made before, and the student has executed the passage or technique flawlessly many times before, it may just have been a fluke. Allowing the student to do it again doesn’t waste precious lesson time on correcting a mistake that doesn’t actually exist.
- While the student is getting one more attempt at solving the problem themselves I get the opportunity to see the mistake happen again, and can specifically watch one element or another to accurately assess, or more thoroughly address the origin of the problem.
If the problem still exists after taking this approach once it is important to move on and identify if the mistake was due to a physical and/or mental broken link. As a teacher I usually know whether a mental or physical link is missing, and nine times out of ten it is a combination of the two. Sometimes I will tell my students precisely what the problem is. Other times I will ask them what they think the problem might be so I can help them learn to do this process themselves.
As a student or parent, being aware of the fact that mistakes are only a symptom of the real problem (a broken mental or physical link) allows you to begin the process of learning how to practice correctly and successfully, or help your child practice correctly and successfully. It allows you to take the information that you or your child learns in lessons and put it to the best use possible.
Here is a summary of the three components necessary to fix unchained melodies:
- Note that mistakes are a symptom. They indicate that there is a broken physical and/or mental link.
- Broken links happen before mistakes.
- Get a teacher to help you and/or your child identify where the chain broke, and the mental and/or physical links responsible. They should prescribe a solution that you can go home and use to fix the mistake over the next week.
For more information on what some of these solutions might look like, and what types of practicing techniques are useful in repairing broken links, please read some of my previous blog posts on practicing, and be looking for future posts to come!