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  • Deliberate Practice Strategies — Part 5: Feeback by Sean Millman

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 28, 2021

    The previous three installments of this series were focused on preparation steps before performance: motivational effects related to motor learning, creating mental representations of the ideal, and pre-performance routines for the last few moments before execution. This article is focused on post-performance: learning from past executions, whether they happen under the lights on stage, when the red light goes on, under the eye of a teacher, or in the practice room. 

    After performance comes analysis. This concept is universally accepted in fields from sports and business to politics and combat. In my experience however, it is used and recognized far less among performing musicians. The only consistent implementation of feedback for musicians is in the form of private lessons, which are clearly an invaluable part of music training. However, the traditional lesson model often does not optimize its variables for the student’s improvement and leaves out multiple other crucial avenues for feedback informing growth. 

    Meaningful feedback can be derived from three main sources: self, peer, and coach. Coach feedback is the private-lesson scenario discussed above; peer refers to a performer’s colleagues, student’s classmates, or player’s teammates; and self refers to the feedback gathered by the performers themselves. The ubiquity of smartphones in the modern day means nearly every musician — professional, student, and hobbyist — has a recording device available at a moment’s notice.

    Psychology tells us that humans are not capable of simultaneously performing and analyzing while doing either task optimally; analysis becomes an element of interference detracting from potential, and it is ineffective anyway because of perception limitations during execution. Thus, self-recording is an indispensable tool for performers to be able to effectively analyze their performance and separate that analysis from the act of performing. This concept is widely known in the music field from Gallwey’s Inner Game books, with his discussion of Self 1 and Self 2 being essentially a mental state of performance and analysis respectively. As Gallwey aims to quiet Self 1 in the moment so that Self 2 can function optimally, self-recording allows players to outsource their self-criticism to the future and focus only on execution in the moment. 

    Part of the benefit of the pre-performance routines examined in the previous article of this series was moving the performer into a mentally-quiet, hyper-focused performance state unhindered by analysis; this article is about the stage at which we turn off the performer and fully embrace the analyst.

    Self-recording is a bedrock action to deliberate practice, because it offers immediate data available to be rewatched, slowed down, looped, zoomed, cut, or otherwise altered for analysis at zero cost once the necessary gear is acquired. A smartphone is enough in most cases. Simply pointing a smartphone at oneself and pressing record on the video function has countless benefits to musical training; I will lay out a few of the most helpful here. 

    First is the ability to hear ourselves from outside our own head, without the burden of analyzing while executing as noted above. In addition to separating the responsibilities of listening and playing, this also allows for checking recordings for objectively measurable musical elements like pitch and time by simply using a tuner or metronome next to the audio. Common are tales of  musicians utterly convinced of their own correct timing, who are then confronted by the objective truth of their wobbly and wavering pulse upon hearing a recording. Consistently recording oneself as a normal part of the practice process not only exposes the flaws in our playing more clearly, but also acquaints us with the feeling of playing while being recorded. Performance anxiety can be greatly mitigated simply by being exposed to that feeling more often, and turning on the recorder adds a feeling of weight to a practice rep, even when we know the only audience is ourself in five minutes. Ancillary benefits include increased familiarity with recording equipment and a repository of content ready for posting in the age of digital media.

    Peer feedback is gained primarily through mock auditions and practice runs for colleagues. Neither of these are novel ideas, but they are often not used with the consistency or rigor that they are in other domains, leading to a diminished return. Recording remains crucial, as the benefits of recording for later analysis from self-feedback remain relevant, as do those related to gaining experience performing under pressure. These mocks have two primary purposes: preparation for the feelings that will be experienced in eventual performances and as an additional source of data on the effectiveness of present execution. Performing for real people can pre-mitigate nerves and performance anxiety when the real thing comes, both through minimizing felt nerves at the time and by giving a player experience in successfully overcoming them, leading to confidence in the moment that they can be overcome again. This is an example of enhanced expectancies increasing performance, as discussed in the earlier article about motivation.

    Mocks as a data source for evaluating execution offer a greater sample size of feedback than can be gained from lessons. Consider a month’s worth of preparation by a student in music school. This most likely consists of four lessons, an hour each, the vast majority of that time focused on information transfer and skill development rather than pure performance. Now, imagine the same player also sets up two mock performances each week, each of them with a panel of four student colleagues. Now the player has eight performances completed, and the feedback of 32 fellow musicians-in-training. The value for crafting effective interpretations that connect to an audience is self-apparent, especially if the players have been able to fill these mock panels with listeners who aren’t percussionists and are thus unencumbered by our predilections of focus. 

    Consider how much more effective these players’ lessons will be. With experience performing their repertoire, informed interpretation feedback, and significant time reviewing those recordings and self-recordings in the practice room, the lesson teachers are free to focus on pushing the players to another level rather than diagnosing simple issues that are obvious and apparent to anyone — ones that do not require the teacher’s expertise. The players’ questions will be far more detailed, specific, and informed, leading to answers that are more useful and impactful. And by recording these lessons as well, the players arew free from taking notes and can be fully present at the time and review the recording at a later time to squeeze the information out of it. 

    One final element of feedback that should be implemented is an archival system, to store these self-recordings, mock performances, and lessons for the players to review again in the future. As scientists have lab notebooks, athletes have game film, and soldiers have debriefings, many musicians are now using digital archives to track their progress over time. 

    This topic is too large to cover completely in this article, but I will offer a few basic concepts. First, don’t let technology at hand dissuade you from starting. Again, a smartphone is enough for the vast majority of information needed. External microphones, dedicated video recorders, even entire studio-quality recording setups are useful, but involve a significant investment with diminishing returns of improved data on improvement. While professional-level recording gear will improve the look and sound of your recordings for online publishing or school/festival/gig applications, for the purpose of feedback, use what you have. In terms of organization, the most effective system is the one you will use consistently. Mine is nested folders within my local and cloud storage; I also know many players who have used iTunes to organize things. You don’t need an entire computer or program dedicated solely for this purpose, just digital storage space and a system for cataloging feedback from yourself, your peers, and your teachers. 

    This process of systematizing feedback received is a way to minimize the mystery of artistic expression. If players have a specific interpretation idea they really like, but 95% of their mock listeners hate it, that is a valuable piece of information. That same players might be convinced their performance is in time, but then on listening back to self-recordings realize their perception during performance is not aligned with reality. Recorded lessons mitigate the potential for forgetting or mishearing an important piece of advice. And the archival system that is saving all of this data, in addition to all of these benefits during a process of improvement, offers players the ability to listen to lessons from months or years ago on coming back to a piece of music after a time off from it. 

    Feedback doesn’t make you better; watching self-recordings and hearing peers and teachers tell you what to fix is no substitute for actual practice. But it can be the silver bullet for gaining a full understanding of what needs to improve. 

    Next month’s article will address recognizing which targets are the most important for improvement and crafting plans to most effectively and efficiently hit those targets.

    Sean MillmanSean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt, and a freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at millmanpercussion.com.

    This series examines and applies elements from the author's forthcoming dissertation, "A Deliberate Practice Loop for Music Performance.”

  • Apps Make Metronomes Fun by Rick Mattingly

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 23, 2021

    I recently came across my first metronome. I haven’t kept everything from my teenage years in the late 1960s, but I held on to that, perhaps because of all the hours that metronome and I spent together exploring Haskell Harr, Podemski, Stick Control, and countless other drum books. 

    If you always use a metronome, it can become a crutch. But if you never practice with a metronome, how do you know if your time is steady?

    I couldn’t use it for drum set practice, however; I couldn’t hear it. It was one of those that came in a wooden case in the shape of an elongated pyramid. When you removed the front panel, a metal bar was revealed that rocked back and forth like a pendulum after you wound it up with a key. It had a weight at the bottom and a slider that served as a counterweight. The bar was marked off with tempos, and the further you slid the counterweight to the bottom, the faster the bar would swing back and forth, making a click at each end of its arc.  

    metronomeIf the device wasn’t sitting absolutely flat, those clicks would be somewhere between straight time and a shuffle, so I had to be careful with its placement. When I went to college, I advanced to an electric metronome. I was getting pretty tired of having to stop every few minutes to wind up that original metronome.

    While in college, I started teaching drum lessons at a music store. Parents would often ask if there was something they could get their son or daughter for a birthday or Christmas that would be related to drumming, and I would recommend a metronome. Many of the parents took my advice, but many of the students told me, in all honesty, that they hated practicing with that thing ticking away.

    It wasn’t just kids who hated metronomes. Countless professional drummers have confessed that they despise having to play to a click track in the studio, feeling that it destroys all hope of getting a good “feel.” But not everyone feels that way. Andy Newmark (whose credits include recordings with Carly Simon, Sly & the Family Stone, John Lennon, and Roxy Music) told me that he always pretended that the click was master percussionist Ralph McDonald standing in the next booth playing a cowbell, and all he had to do was lock in with Ralph to achieve a steady tempo. He felt he could still be loose within that framework, but the click would prevent the time from speeding up or slowing down.

    I also encountered the argument that “if you always practice with a metronome, you’ll never learn to keep time.” I agree with that to a point. If you always use a metronome, it can become a crutch. But if you never practice with a metronome, how do you know if your time is steady? So, I practiced both with and without it and advised my students to do the same.

    I agree, though, that those metronomic clicks were never the most pleasant thing to listen to. So, when digital drum machines came out in the 1980s, instead of just listening to a click, you could program, say, maraca sounds to use as your metronome. That made playing to a metronome more pleasant — and more musical.

    In those days, not many students could afford a LinnDrum or a Yamaha DMX, so they were stuck with traditional metronomes. But these days, most people have some kind of device that uses apps, such as a tablet or smart phone. And most metronome and drum machine apps range from free to under $10.00. GarageBand comes loaded on Apple iPads and iPhones, and it has a wide variety of pre-programmed drum and percussion loops that are fun to play along with. It’s also easy to create your own enhanced click tracks with that any many other apps.

    It is certainly more fun to play along to a percussion groove than to mechanical-sounding clicks. With these apps, it’s easy to adjust the tempo, so from almost day one, when a student is learning rhythms made up of quarter, half, and whole notes, I’ll find a basic groove on whatever device that student has, show the student how that tempo relates to the patterns in the book, and use it as a play-along. I don’t let students advance the tempo until they can play their lesson perfectly at whatever tempo they’re at. That’s a big motivator for most students, whether they are eight or eighteen. (Heck, it motivates me, too!) They love coming back a week later and showing me how much faster they can play it than the week before.

    Of course, another huge advantage of these devices over my original metronome is that they all have earbud jacks or Bluetooth capability, so students can wear headphones and play along with something when practicing drum set.

    I haven’t forgotten the caution against “always” practicing with a metronome. As students become more advanced, we don’t use the apps quite as often. It’s fun for younger students to play along with a full out drum set-and-percussion groove, but for older students who have been playing a while, I’ll often program just a bass drum, cowbell, or shaker pulse. It might start out as eighth notes, but then I’ll back it off to quarter notes, then half notes, then whole notes. By the time the app is playing whole notes, a drummer is by no means being straightjacketed by a mechanical click. There is plenty of room for feel, but that bass drum or cowbell on the downbeat of every bar lets you know if the tempo is steady.

    There are all kinds of creative ways to use these metronome and drum machine apps, so download a couple and play around with them. You’ll probably find some ways to rejuvenate your practice while reinforcing your sense of time in a way that’s just as effective as using a metronome — but a lot more musical and fun!

    Rick Mattingly is a drum teacher, an editor and author of drum-instruction books for Hal Leonard Corporation, and Executive Editor of Percussive Notes.

  • Five Question Friday: Liz Kan

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 23, 2021

    Liz KanLiz Kan is the Percussion Instructor at Ashland University, Percussion Instructor at Shelby High School, Principal Percussionist of the Mansfield Symphony, and works for Freer Percussion. Additionally, she is an active freelancer, having performed with the Louisiana Philharmonic, West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Erie Philharmonic, Lansing Symphony, and Springfield Symphony. Liz has also performed and recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on the Grammy nominated album Transatlantic. She has shared the stage with Keith Lockhart, JoAnn Falletta, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Louis Langrée, Itzhak Perlman, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sō Percussion, Rich Redmond, and Michael Burritt. Liz studied with Jerry Noble at Wright State University, earning a BM and MM in Percussion Performance. Liz has served as percussion TA at Brevard Music Center while performing in the faculty orchestra, and has served as president of the Ohio PAS Chapter. 

    Rhythm! Scene: If you weren't a percussionist and educator, what career could you see yourself having pursued?

    Liz Kan: I have had many experiences that could have led to different career options, but I was always drawn to music and never considered any other career paths. 

    R!S: As a freelance artist, what's one of the weirdest gigs you've taken or oddest jobs you've had outside the industry?

    LK: There haven’t been any gigs or jobs that could be classified as weird or odd, but I have had some very memorable musical experiences that were very special and stand out for me. I had the privilege to perform
    “Amériques” by Varèse with the Cincinnati Symphony. It was an arrangement that had 19 percussionists and 2 timpanists! During my time at WSU, I performed “Water” by Viñao and was coached by Bob Van Sice and Svet Stoyanov. 

    R!S: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

    LK:  One thing people don’t really know about me is I have met and performed for Tom Hanks! I was really pleased to find out he is very personable and kind! 

    R!S: What is your favorite percussion instrument and why?

    LK: My two favorite percussion instruments are the xylophone and tambourine. I love playing rags and I have always gravitated towards the xylophone. The tambourine is my favorite accessory because it’s an instrument I can hold and feel more connected to. There is such great repertoire with so many interesting techniques and sounds for the tambourine!

    R!S: Where did you grow up, and what’s one interesting thing about your childhood (musically or otherwise)?

    LK: I grew up in a rural town in northern Rhode Island and lived on a small family farm where we raise sheep. My favorite ewe, Figgy, still greets me when I visit home!

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