Neal over at Sax Station wrote a post a few days ago about focusing whilst practicing, and that made me think back a couple of years when one of my tutors voiced something quite profound – that practice was not the same as performance, and should never be treated as such.
I’m glad I saw his post, because something I’ve been struggling with for the last couple of weeks is actually making decent amounts of progress in both of my projects. I think this is direct consequence of performance at the expense of practice. On the saxophone, I find that I wind up doing pieces I can already play, and in Cantonese I’ve been reading things I can already read and saying too many things I can already say.
Something that Neal specifically pointed out was that practice time is limited – and if there’s just a single bar in a piece of music that’s causing problems, then it doesn’t make sense to play the entire piece from start to finish just to try to get those few notes right. It wastes time on stuff you can already do at the expense of learning something new – this is something I’ve been getting wrong.
I’m pretty sure the reason for this is twofold – at the moment, I’m playing my saxophone for fun, as relief from my soon-to-be-handed-in dissertation; also though, I think it’s psychological, insofar as I think I have an audience whenever I play (since there are other people in the house).
I think this applies to language learning too. I have flashcards in my Anki deck which are just native speakers reading out a sentence; my task is to mimic them and understand what was said. When I come across such a card, it’s tempting (and faster) to just make a half-arsed effort at mimicking the speaker and move on. Again, the fact that I’m conscious of other people around in the house (who may or may not be listening to me) tends to make me skip over it – after all, I don’t want them to think I’m an idiot saying the same words over and over! I wind up glossing over the mistakes and not improving as much as I could do all too often.
It takes a considerable amount of self-discipline to accept that neighbours and housemates are going to have to endure a certain number of mistakes and screwups if I’m going to get better; as long as I’m playing through pieces I already know, or glossing over sentences that that aren’t up to scratch, I’m not going to get much better.
Music and language students are always trying to be able to do things they couldn’t do before. By definition, performance is something you can already do; practice is perfecting what you can’t. As fun or easy as getting out there and showing off what you can already do is, a performance can only ever be as good as the practice put into it.
Man. This progress malarkey is difficult.