Early in the process of learning new music, I generally experience the following stages:
1. Sheer excitement - characterized by wild sight-reading with little to no regard for mistakes
2. Childlike optimism - characterized by a bizarre joy for drilling technique and fundamentals, accompanied by frequent positive visualizations of future performances
3. Reality strike - characterized by the identification of true trouble passages, occasionally leading to angry practice
This concept of angry practice is something I have been focusing on in my latest adventure into new repertoire study, and today was my first instance of its ugly head rearing in a practice session. I chose the image of super-angry "El Toro" above in part because he is, indeed, super-angry, but also in part because angry practice became a clear tendency of mine on the baseball (softball) diamond.
To this day, my dad will reference the softball version of angry-practicer Cayla whenever I describe coming up against failure. I spent a good deal of my youth softball days as a pitcher, and I would feel the anger boil almost every time I just couldn't get the sinker to sink or the change-up to change up. Or the strike to be a strike. I would stand on the mound and set my jaw (my muscles clench a little just thinking about it). I would breathe like a bull about to skewer a toreador, and I would snap the ball in my glove.
Snap, snap, snap. That's what we do as musicians in the same situation.
Cracking the articulated A every time? MASH THAT VENT KEY!
Uneven sixteenth notes? TAP YOUR FOOT REALLY HARD! AND SLAM YOUR FINGERS!
Under-supported interval slurs? PLAY THEM REALLY LOUDLY!
Unsurprisingly, these overly-physical, emotionally-driven are not always conducive to good learning. More often than not, the extra drive (my polite way of saying blind anger) drives up the tempo and dynamic of our practice sessions, making it even less likely that we succeed.
Contrary to the advice you may expect, however, I am not about to tell you to calm down. Firstly, rarely are emotional states truly in our control. Secondly, being angry means that you care, and that is wonderful. Thirdly, emotion drives our expression far more than flawless technique. This guy may have some expressive issues -
- but, you know what, so does this guy:
So what do you do?
Angry practice is not good, but anger is not bad. Rather than rattle off a string of unsupported advice, I would rather simply reflect on how I am currently dealing with this trend in my own practice.
For me, the answer to this contradiction lies in the fact that the anger is energy, and we all need energy in some facet of our playing. Focus the fundamental raw energy of the anger on the things in your own personal playing that need an extra kick - for some that is grounded connection with the chair or floor, for others it is embouchure engagement. For us all it is probably airspeed and motion through the phrase or between note changes.
I tried this today in one particularly troublesome measure of Bozza's Recit, Sicilienne, and Rondo that I am planning to perform in July. After spending the standard five minutes letting my angry energy reveal itself in the blunt force trauma to my fingertips as I wildly slapped at an E to F-sharp connection, I stepped back (literally, took a little walk) and contemplated where I could better use that energy. In this case, I needed a more successful voicing, and I was pleasantly surprised at the change in atmosphere of my practice session after.
Success! My angry practicing had become energetic focus.
Now... on to the task of replicating this experience.
What ways have you found to redirect or defuse angry practicing?
Really, I'm curious. Comment away!