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On Practicing - Part VII, "Problem Solving"

Welcome back to the penultimate installment in my series discussing Ricardo Iznaola’s practice guide, “On Practicing.” If you’ve read any of my other posts in the series you should fully understand how important I believe this text is for any musician, and honestly for any person in a skill development field. I hope you’ve found a way to apply these concepts and strategies to your practice. Send me a message or leave a comment if you have! Let’s get to today’s post.

Good Practice and Problem-Solving

Any professional musician will tell you that the majority of what happens in the practice room is problem solving. Through practicing we solve issues of accuracy, speed, articulation, sound, and so much more. So how do we solve these problems efficiently? Well, here are three steps that Iznaola breaks down for us.

1. Identify. We must identify that there is a problem, what it is, and where it begins and ends. A famous pedagogue (I can’t remember her name, I’m sorry!) once said that almost all problems are caused between two notes, if you can identify those notes you can fix them. Now, I don’t think it’s as black and white as that, but I do agree that the overwhelming majority of our problems in any given piece can be confined to very small passages. Identifying that passage accurately should be a top priority; why do more work than you have to?

2. Understand. That is, you have to understand the cause of the problem. This is something that will be very difficult if not impossible for the beginner student as he/she has not yet developed the necessary knowledge of the instrument, but that is why we have teachers. Iznaola makes a great point, usually a strong understanding of the problem will come with a good solution, but some cases may require the experimentation of several options in order to find what works best for you. Don’t be afraid of trying different fingers, musical ideas, articulations, etc… in order to find what works best!

3. Assimilate. This is, essentially, practice. Having found a solution to the problem, you engage in guided repetition. We’ve talked about that before, another way of saying guided repetition is goal oriented repetition. Read carefully now, Iznaola clarifies that “assimilation through repetition happens regardless of whether we are doing something right or wrong.” If the previous two stages of problem solving are not carefully prepared, you will end up engaging in mindless repetition. The repetition where we’re just moving our hands assuming we’re making progress but in reality you are doing very little to improve and are possibly regressing if you’re implementing bad habits.

It should be noted that steps one and two are of the upmost importance. If those steps are not properly managed, then the physical execution of the practice will serve very little purpose. Those first two steps are the most difficult for beginners. Teachers should be well aware of this and guide their students towards success.

Iznaola gives further advice for how to successfully problem solve. First, keep your scores open even if you’re playing from memory. A good understanding of the score is fundamentally connected with a high level of physical and mental comfort with the piece.

Iznaola talks about his process of “spotting,” or what I tell my students is the three-step process to problem solving: Identify, Isolate, Break Down. You or the teacher must identify the problem, isolate the appropriate amount of music to work on, and break down the issue into the smallest, most manageable passage as possible. If something is still too hard, break it down into something easier and then incrementally increase difficulty until you are back to what is on the original score. For example, I LOVE the music of JS Bach. That being said, there are a number of difficulties with playing his music on the guitar. A consistently tricky issue is balancing the articulation of bass notes with the counterpoint in the upper voices. It is physically difficult for one to play counterpoint with the fingers while simultaneously articulating and controlling the sustain of the bass notes with the thumb. After identifying the passage as one that needs work, you isolate that passage. If isolating the original material is still too difficult (which it may be), you break it down into something easier. The first step for me would be to isolate just the right hand alone. That means I am playing the open strings with the right hand (as if I was still engaging my left hand so all the string crossing are the same). That gets rid of a MAJOR complicating factor, the left hand. If it still proves too difficult of an isolation, I would continue to break the passage down by just playing the right hand thumb. Once that step is comfortable, I would add the other voices in the right hand alone, and then again I would add the left hand. Once those steps are all comfortable, you then add that passage in context of the material surrounds it. This is an EXCELLENT way to engage in mindful, goal-oriented practice.

Well, I think that’s enough for now. Thank you all for reading so far. Stay tuned for next week’s recap of the text and insight into the end of the book. Let me know what you think in the comments and remember to share with your friends!

- JB


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