Studio: Contextual Interference Effect Applied to Practicing

More on effective practicing–I want to link to this article:

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight

The research by Dr. Christine Carter on the Contextual Interference Effect supports some of the practicing strategies I propose in my column “Performing Exercises” (Soundboard Magazine, Vol.39 No.4).

Developing a Musical Technique

In the wake of the 50th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturnal Op. 70″—and to continue talking about technique—I would like to share a personal experience that happened when I was learning this work. In so doing, I hope to illustrate the importance of thinking about musical goals in the development of our technique.

The upper line of the 7th variation, “Gently Rocking,” reminisces the Dowland song in continuous thirty-second notes, murmuring. It is juxtaposed against “out of key” open strings, which recall the structural leap of a fourth from the song. Both elements are presented pianissimo; in fact, the entire variation stays at soft levels, even sinking to ppp. Romanticism aside, I like to interpret it as Britten’s distorted, hazy recollection of the Dowland song (perhaps during a dream) set against the faraway bells of an Aldeburgh church.

The originality and effectiveness of this variation are remarkable. However, I believe the spell is lost if the continuous thirty-second notes of the melody are louder than a far and blurry pianissimo. When I was studying the variation I found that I could not play these rapid notes softly enough as I wanted them, especially for more than a few seconds. It was only after I envisioned the effect I wanted to convey in the variation that I made the effort to soften my index-middle repetitions at that fast speed; there simply was no point in playing the variation unless I could get the effect through. (Needless to say, being a guitarist, I had always aimed for more volume, not less.)

I hope this example illustrates that clear and uncompromising musical goals are the best teachers of technique. Although it is well-known that technique has to serve the music, in practice we tend to separate both realms (see my article “Performing Exercises” on Soundboard Vol. 39, No. 3). And although a proficient technique is something we should work towards, most of it is acquired subconsciously. Therefore, the analysis and understanding of each piece we encounter—picturing how it should sound before trying to play it—is crucial to develop a technique that is truly at the service of the music, instead of one that will condition how our interpretations sound.

Understanding what is molded into a piece, and its connotations, can bring us more excitement about playing it, which in turn drives us to master the techniques required to play it. Clear musical goals are the most alluring and useful developers of technique—more so than isolated exercise assignments or insistent requests by teachers.

Interpretative Individuality

In the previous studio post (“Learning Unknown Works”) I warned about a likely outcome of hearing pieces before learning them, which is copying other people’s interpretations. For this post, I’d like to draw attention to something that might seem the opposite: we should not be concerned if our interpretation of a piece happens to resemble that of another guitarist, as long as it is the product of our work, and not based on that somebody else’s interpretation. In other words, as long as we put the composer and the work first–and if our goal is some sort of artistic honesty–we should not modify our final interpretation just because it sounds similar to that of other guitarists.

I don’t believe that there is an ultimate way of playing any given piece, but I do believe that there are margins of objectivity; by following the score, and supported by stylistic and/or historical information, we can picture how the composer wanted the work to sound with a fair level of certainty and confidence. That is what should guide us when working on our interpretations.

Many times, doing something different in a piece becomes a priority. We assume that that is a fair way to stand out from the rest. But our role as musicians should never be to try to be different from others. Thinking on the lines of “what can I do differently here?” or “I’ll play this section like this, because no one else does it so” puts us in the wrong state of mind as artists. Instead, we should ask ourselves “how did the composer want this section to sound?” or “what works best in this section for the piece as a whole?” These questions anchor us in the role we should embody, that of a translator between the composer and the audience.

Such a posture does not curtail our artistic individuality in the least. Consciously or not, we always add our own conspicuous “personality” to the music, for each of us have our way of phrasing, tone, technical abilities, mannerisms, etc. In trying to perform a piece in a way that conveys what the composer wanted, we naturally–and unavoidably–add a lot of our own. We should never lose sight of this fact. Building interpretations on the premise of doing something different from the rest is not honest to the composers and their music.

Learning Unknown Works

Students usually learn pieces that they heard before–that is many times the reason why they want to play them. Even if they never heard the piece they are about to learn, they can easily access recordings or videos of it. And they do it! Therefore, being acquainted with a piece before or while studying it has become the most common learning scenario. However, this should not be so; students should regularly learn pieces they never heard before, the music score being their only source.

Having heard a piece saves us time when learning it. The piece is stored in our aural memory, which greatly facilitates developing the other memories. However, this shortcut comes at a cost, for we tend to not pay as much attention to reading the right notes, measuring the exact rhythms, obeying the composer’s markings, deciding on phrasing, articulation, etc. We continuously compare what we are playing with our preconceived aural picture of the piece, instead of figuring it out from the score itself. Moreover, sometimes the reading process becomes rather a predicting process, in which our ears direct our fingers, bypassing any real reading and/or analysis of the score.

When such a learning process is the norm, recordings become a necessary crutch. An all too common trait among guitarists is that the time needed to learn an unknown piece is dramatically more than that needed for a similar piece already known. Another one is that many guitarists can deliver proficient interpretations of traditional repertory, but not-so-great interpretations of unknown pieces, as is the case with newly-commissioned set-pieces in guitar competitions. These are clear signs that learning from recordings has been the norm during their formation.

On the other hand, unknown scores force students to look at every aspect of the music on their own. Although more burdensome, this is a much more fruitful process. Granted that students might not be able to “solve” all the technical and musical aspects–at least in the best way–, attempting to do so constitutes an irreplaceable learning experience for them.

Perhaps the biggest risk of learning familiar pieces is that students will almost certainly end up emulating the performances they heard. This not only accounts for a sort of interpretative plagiarism, but it is also hard to overcome. Once the mind decides that it likes a certain interpretation, it is hard to convince it to change. From my own personal experience and that of many students, not only we run the risk of copying mannerisms and mistakes from other interpretations, sometimes we hold to them because we like them better than what the score actually asks for.

Recordings or videos of contemporary repertoire are generally not so plentiful, so I use this opportunity to foster it. When dealing with traditional repertoire, we should ask our students to try not to listen to other versions–a tough self-discipline task in a time when virtually any recording lies only a few clicks away.

The importance of learning unknown pieces might be ignored or underplayed by students, but cannot be overlooked by professionals, or by teachers who aim to educate not only guitarists, but musicians in the broadest sense.