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On Practicing - Part I, "The Inner Poise"

For the last couple days, I’ve been re-reading Ricardo Iznaola’s “On Practicing.” I’ve always thought highly of this book, but I’ve only recently truly understood the depth and wealth of information he presents. Every time I read it, I catch something new that inspires me. If you’re not a guitarist you probably won’t know who Ricardo is, so I’ll tell you. He’s an incredible performer and pedagogue. His performances are always captivatingly engaging, and his teaching is full of unique but completely useful tactics.

The book is specifically designed for guitarists but the methods he describes should absolutely be utilized by students and professionals of any instrument. Even though I primarily teach guitar, I am going to try to break the book down in a way that is applicable to any instrumentalist. Join me for the next 8 weeks for some of the most beneficial practice techniques you can implement.


Part I.

I want to precede my discussion of the book by a description of three levels of practicing that I give my students.

1. Playing guitar: This is the least focused work you do. You pick up the instrument and play some tunes for fun but don’t invest your best into the work. This is just as important as the following two levels as it gives us an often much needed mental and physical break.

2. Practicing guitar: This is where you’re focused in on a few things but you’re mostly just trying to get your fingers moving and maintain a certain level of technical or musical proficiency.

3. Studying the guitar: This is your most focused and energy draining level of practice. You go in with a particular strategy to achieve short term goals you’ve set for yourself. This is the level in which you achieve the mental state that is described below.

After reading the book again (for what I think is the third time), I noticed that Iznaola opens with possibly the most important topic for any performer: The mental game. One of the things I teach my students is a 4-step process to begin any performance. The ENTIRE process is geared towards making sure the student’s mind is as prepared as possible to have a successful experience. That being said, that performance will only be as good as the quality of practice prior to getting on stage. Here is Iznaola’s view on what I think is one of the most important factors of successful performance preparation: The mental game.

Iznaola defines this mental game as the “Inner Poise,” or as mental alertness and readiness, and the lack of judgmental notions towards our practice. So here are the three characteristics that Iznaola describes on the “Inner Poise” of practice.

1. Emotional detachment: This is the emotional detachment from the music itself. It’s controlling our emotions so we don’t let them interfere with the quality of work we are achieving. How many times have you played a passage wrong and gotten so frustrated you had to take a break? That is not being emotionally detached; that is letting your emotions interfere with your ability to think critically and make rational decisions. Iznaola takes this idea and describes it perfectly by saying we have to be “like scientists in a lab,” methodical, precise, and calculated with our intentions.

2. Objective observation: This coexists nicely with point 1. Do not lose sight of your objective, self-criticism. We are often our own worst critics when it comes to performance, but during practice we let mistakes slide by saying things like “one-time event” or “it wasn’t a huge problem” or “I’ll fix that later.” You must maintain a constant state of focused observation during your practice. If you find yourself losing focus during a session then take a break. Personally, my ideal practice session lasts about 45 minutes, after that I start get glassy eyed and I switch from studying the music to just playing guitar

3. Ease of action: Iznaola describes this is as “…developing a keen sense for the amount of effort needed to achieve the motions of the hand…” This is incredibly important. In Julian Gray’s “10 Laws of Learning,” Julian describes it as “insisting on happiness and comfort in physical practice.” You have to be very aware of what you are capable of first. Andrew Zohn always taught me to know my limits and stay within those limits during your performances while continually developing those limitations into strengths. This doesn’t mean that everything you do will be “easy,” it just means that you insist on comfort in your practice to avoid fatigue, pain, and undue stress.

Everything we do in practice should be directly related to how we envision our performances. If you let your inner poise be disturbed in practice, it WILL happen during a performance. If you let memory slips, technical limitations, or one-time mistakes frustrate you or cause you to lose focus in practice those same issues will inevitably manifest themselves 10-fold during a performance. Practice your poise every day, make a conscious decision today to remain calm, focused, rational, and analytical for an entire practice session and see how you benefit from it.

This is a book I think should be on EVERY single music student’s shelf. Mark it up, study it, absorb everything about it. A cheap investment for potentially career altering information. Check out the link below if you're interested in owning the book.

As always, if you found this post helpful or inspiring hit that like button, leave a comment, and share the link with your friends, family, and colleagues!

- JB


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