Get better. Practice less.*

*Some restrictions apply

I took some arts administration courses while I was studying at Indiana University, thinking that it might open up some interesting possibilities for future work, or at least give me a greater sense of perspective on the business of classical music. I wasn’t expecting bassoon advice when I signed up for a course taught by Michael Rushton, and I’m sure he similarly didn’t expect to be offering any advice on music performance. One of the key themes of that course was the law of diminishing returns, and two years later it would save me when I had an audition to prepare, but not the time or energy to properly do so. I got the job. Here’s how.

So first off, the law is pretty much what it sounds like. As you invest more resources (time, money, etc.) in a given task, the return you get on your investment decreases. The law doesn’t work for all things but it applies in a big way to practicing. Someone who doesn’t practice is probably not going to sound great. If they spend an hour a day practicing, there’s going to be a huge difference in their musical abilities compared to the non-practicer. If they practice two hours every day, there will be a noticeably higher degree of refinement in their playing, but productivity is going to decline somewhat in the second hour as the mind tires. Three hours a day will yield an audible difference once more, but a more subtle one.

From three hours up, an untrained listener will perceive very little difference in performance from the harder and harder working musician, but negative influences begin to intrude as practice time increases. As daily practice loads reach and exceed six hours, risks of physical and psychological injury become significant. Eventually you get to a point of counter-productivity, where you’re becoming worse with every added minute of practice.

There comes a point where a rational person declines to practice any further, and instead devotes their time to other activities. During my undergrad years I wasn’t a rational person and practiced as much as physically possible. It was a dumb way of doing things and I wasted a lot of time while constantly living at the physical and mental breaking point. I got a little less dumb in grad school.

When I was preparing the KWS audition, I didn’t have a lot of energy to spare. I was facing the stress of a very low-income existence in an expensive city, and I was deeply depressed and burned out. I kept falling short on my practice goals until I finally accepted that two hours a day was the realistic limit for my playing, at least while I was working full-time at a coffee shop.

The time limit made audition prep an exercise in extreme efficiency. A vast amount of mental focus had to go into every note, since there was no time for excessive repetition to build the correct neural pathways. I was forced to jump more frequently between excerpts, in order to cover the complete list every two or three days, and the jumping taught me to quickly “change character” between excerpts, just as I’d have to do in the audition.

I used some of my time that was freed up by me practicing less to plan out practice sessions in detail so I would be free to get straight to work during the sessions themselves. After every session I would take notes on my practice and check if I met my objectives – if not, I’d make changes to the plan for my next session until I found a process that worked. One of the most important implications of the law of diminishing returns is that if you put resources into something you aren’t already putting resources into, you’re going to get more bang for your buck than if you put the same resources into more of what you’re already doing. By taking a half hour a week I was using for practice and using it to planning, I got to the point where I was accomplishing in two hours of playing what used to take me four.

I put some more of the time I used to spend practicing into score study, listening and generally forming ideas about how the excerpts should sound without the bassoon in my hands. This completely changed my confidence in presenting the excerpts – since auditions are alien and freakish experiences unrelated to normal music making, I like to imagine a ghost orchestra around me playing along with the excerpt so I don’t feel so alone on the stage. The more detail I could put into my mental picture of the accompaniment, the easier it was to make music in the audition room, instead of just playing  bassoon by myself behind a screen wondering when the panel would put me out of my misery and send me out to drown my sorrows at the pub next door.

As I started to really learn the excerpts as pieces of music away from the bassoon, something truly frightening happened: I started having my own opinions about things, about how the excerpts should be played, and those opinions were formed from my years of experience with music rather than by what famous bassoonist X said in a masterclass one time. Then it hit me that the panel wasn’t looking to hire someone terrified of disappointing their teachers by using the wrong amount of vibrato in Bolero, they wanted to hire a musician who was not just flexible and competent, but who would play music, not just excerpts, without having to be told to do so.

Anyways, to make a long story short, if you’re not where you want to be, and you think the answer might be to do what you’re already doing, but more of it, maybe consider attacking the problem from other angles. When you come at an issue from more than one direction, you’re literally building stronger physical connections in your brain. You are building a better brain for yourself. How cool is that?!?

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2 thoughts on “Get better. Practice less.*

  1. Agreed. I had the same kind of experience when preparing for the most recent TSO bass audition; it’s amazing the progress you can make in such a small amount of time.

  2. Daniel Warren says:

    This is a great article and it rings true in every way for me. My teacher called it “sharpening the knife” but not to the point where you wore away the blade and ruined in completely.
    When I started taking conducting seriously I was so afraid that my trumpet playing would suffer. Far from it! As I started to understand the music on a deeper level my playing improved dramatically. I think another important realization for me was that I was good at something other than just playing the trumpet. There was an growing confidence that I could provide for my family, satisfy my desire to make music and become a better musician through it. The pressure was off. Less stress – better trumpet playing. Thanks for this Michael.

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