The Art of Neutral Practice

The Art of Neutral Practice

What is the difference between aspiring to excellence and being “hard on yourself”? Striving for excellence is emotionally neutral, fun and doesn’t affect your sense of self worth. It is not personal, rather it is simply a matter of observing what you are doing and making corrections to things you notice are not meeting your own standard of excellence. You do not suffer disappointment when you are unable to solve a problem. Instead, you work towards the excellence you desire without demanding it. The success of an individual performance or practice session does not create a strong emotional reaction within you. You see the personal bests and the things that didn’t work out so well as equally valuable in the process of learning. In this way learning remains neutral and consequently you will more than likely reach your goals much faster.

Being “hard on yourself” slows the process of learning considerably. This means of practice involves a dangerous cycle whereby your sense of personal value or worthiness becomes intertwined with your ability to achieve excellence in your playing. If your playing is going well you may feel happy, or even a sense of relief. However, if things are not going well you may feel high levels of anxiety, fear, disappointment or even depression. RED FLAG! If you are feeling these emotional extremes as part of your process you can be certain that your process is not emotionally neutral.

In the short term, many students would argue that the strategy of being “hard on themselves” motivates their practice to be longer in both duration and intensity, therefore producing quicker improvement. This is simply not true as this style of practice creates some unwanted side effects that become huge obstacles to improvement.  Some of these characteristics are listed below;

  1. Low opinion of one’s ability to play/ eroded self – esteem
  2. Significant performance anxiety
  3. High levels of self doubt in ability to reach future goals/difficulty imagining a successful performance
  4. Easily become emotionally distressed when receiving feedback in lessons
  5. Difficulty appreciating the performances of others, especially those who demonstrate a more advanced skill set than their own
  6. Struggle to enjoy practicing and/or performing

These characteristics slow down learning because they create many new obstacles that a player must now face in addition to learning the flute. Keep in mind that students who have low confidence in their ability to play are sometimes more difficult to teach because their sense of self-worth is intertwined with their playing. This can create a situation where they take constructive feedback from a teacher or colleague personally rather than neutrally applying it to their playing. They may be defensive, anxious or depressed during lessons. They need positive feedback in order feel ok about themselves and the teacher may feel pressured to provide numerous compliments and reassurance throughout their lessons. The student may only feel relief when their playing meets their expectations. The pressure they place on themselves is substantial and does not assist them in creating great performances; rather it becomes a major obstacle to their success.

So what can you do about it?

If in reading this article you have realized that your process might not be emotionally neutral here are some steps to take towards changing it.

1) ACKNOWLEDGE THE ISSUE. Accept the fact that being “hard on yourself” is not helping you achieve excellence. This will be tricky because a part of you really does believe the harder you are on yourself the better you will play. You must DECIDE this is no longer true and be COMMITTED to stop, recognize and change unwanted behaviors.

2) WATCH YOUR SELF-TALK. You will likely be quite surprised to notice how many times a day you may be making negative observations or comments about your playing. Building an awareness of what’s going on in your head is the first step to changing. Any thought that makes you feel anxious, disappointed, or depressed is not neutral. Once you start to realize what’s going on you can choose to replace habitually negative thoughts with more neutral ones.

Example of a negative thought;

“ My double tonguing sucks, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to perform my piece with double tongue at the next recital”.

Replace with;

“ I am excited to learn to double tongue. Playing pieces that challenge me keep learning fun and interesting. I look forward to eventually mastering double tonging.”

The difference between the two thoughts is profound in the way they feel. The first feels awful and may inspire a panicked practice session or a total lack of practice and reinforces self-doubt in the player’s ability to succeed. The second feels much lighter. It takes the pressure to learn double tonging by the next recital off completely, instead focusing on the expectation of acquiring a new skill through challenging pieces. Replacing thoughts consistently is as much work as learning to play the flute in the first place. You will need to be diligent about not allowing old thought patterns significant airtime in your mind or speech. It will be tricky at first because your habits of negative self-talk may be very firmly ingrained.

3) APPLY IT TO YOUR PRACTICE. How do you feel when you practice? Practicing in a state of emotional neutrality is the key, especially when practicing things you consider difficult. Are you tense? Anxious? Discouraged? Remember, you are practicing an emotional state as much as you are practicing a particular skill. To change a negatively charged emotional state when playing a particular passage, employ the same practice technique used to get the notes correct in the first place – SLOW DOWN! There is a speed at which you will no longer perceive the passage to be difficult and your emotions will become neutralized. Practice feeling the way you want to and slowly increase the speed of the passage maintaining the feeling as you progress. It is very likely this will take several practice sessions to achieve. You do not have to reduce your emotional reactions to zero to be successful. Any movement towards emotional neutrality will be a benefit to your playing!

Remember why you wanted to learn to play the flute in the first place. It was likely born out of a love of music or a love for the sound of the instrument. No one starts learning an instrument just to feel badly or to be perfect. The love and patience you show yourself in the process of learning absolutely shines through your playing to those who have come to hear you when its time to share. That is the message we want to spread, one of patience and joy in music making and that is possible at any skill level.

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