In order to judge the outcome of a practice session most of us tend to have a set of qualifiers, -things which we use as a sign that we have either succeeded or failed in what we are doing. But the type of qualifier you use can make a huge difference in how efficient you are. And how well your body functions during playing.

In the life of a musician a lot of time is spent alone in rehearsal rooms, practicing new repertoire or refining and building technical excellence. It is a time and a situation when we become intimately acquainted with our own inner climate, most often manifesting as an instant personal feedback based on how well we are performing.

Without the ability to assess our performance any type of rehersal would be more or less impossible. A rehearsal is a constant loop of trying, assessing and re-trying. But the way we assess our performance can differ. It can also often be the magic ingredient which increases the output of our practice session dramatically.

So how do we assess an activity? Very often by looking for some kind of
marker as to how well we are doing. We could call these markers for qualifiers.
Just take a moment and consider for yourself: What do you use as a qualifier to judge how well your rehearsal session went?

  • how many hours you have practiced?
  • how fast you can play certain passages at the end?
  • the degree of pain or discomfort afterwards in your arms, shoulders, and neck or just
    your body in general?
  • how you feel afterwards?

A qualifier might be concrete and measurable, or vague and insubstantial. Here are some examples of concrete qualifiers which are a useful part of a practice routine:

  • being able to play certain parts of the music by heart
  • being able to play that difficult passage on page x at a certain speed
  • being able to fully master that specific rhythmic pattern on page x.

These qualifiers give us a concrete way of measuring the outcome of our practice session, and thereby, our degree of «efficiency». They also make it easier to know how to progress with a problem:

  • I was able to play that piece of music by heart.
  • I was able to play that difficult passage almost at the speed I´m going for and I
    discovered that I need to memorize passages x, y and z better in order to get the
    speed up to where I want it to be.
  • I still have some issues with the rhythmical pattern and need to ask a teacher for
    input on how to solve it.

I should be feeling..

But sometimes our qualifiers might be more unconscious and abstract, more like an
unspoken rule which we might not be fully aware of, but which a part of us nevertheless hold as a truth.

I might for instance have an unconscious expectation that a «good» practice session will make me feel a certain way. And my subconscious might be expecting this particular feeling as a qualifier that I have succeed or, by the lack of it, that the practice session has been a total waste of time.
Qualifiers are important because they are a way for our subconscious to judge ourselves and our actions, not to mention a way for us to judge the actions of others.

They might also easily be confused with our «gut feeling».

Here are some common abstract «qualifiers» in the music world, which might be
more or less conscious:

  • True art is serious and demands hard work and often suffering, physically or mentally. If I´m too happy and things feel too easy it means I´m missing something.
  • Only people who practice more than x hours a day have a chance at becoming really good. Me practicing for less than x hours and feeling happy means I´m not applying myself fully and that the session was a failure.
  • Being a successful musician means you do not get stage fright, so feeling fear or anxiety means I´m doing something wrong.
  • In order to express passionate music, I need to be able to feel the passion myself as I´m playing. If I´m not feeling it it means I´m faking it/not being genuin.
  • A good concert experience or practice session should always leave you feeling elated and happy. If I feel anything else, it means the concert/practice session did not go well.

Notice how all these qualifiers are based on how something feels?

The trouble with qualifiers which are based on how something should feel is that they ignore the fact that change, including the physiological changes that happen in the brain and body during learning something new, very often trigger feelings of discomfort, no matter how useful and necessary the change.
To re-train or learn a new movement pattern when playing our brain needs to change, and the brain is by default in an energy preservation-mode.

Doing something which demands an increase of energy can often trigger a sense of unease. If we then take this sensation as a qualifier that we have not been efficient because we are not feeling elated or radiantly happy, we are misinterpreting the signs our body is sending us.

The sensation is not a sign that we are not being effective, it is simply a sign that we are doing something new, – also known as learning.

Another reason it might be good not to always use emotional sensations as Qualifiers
has to do with a part of our nervous system called interoception. Just as our exteroception is based on sensory input from our surroundings and our external world, our interoception is about the brains ability to detect signals from our internal world: activity in our organs, how much food we have in our stomach, the resting tension in our muscles and connective tissue.
Interoceptive signals goes to a part of the brain called the insula, and this part of the brain is, among other things, concerned with our somatic experiencing, – in other words: how the movements we do with our bodies is linked to how we feel.

Inner somatic sensations have a huge influence on our lives, more than most of us realize, because very often the way something makes us feel is a decisive factor in if we choose to do it or not. In other words: Our physical sensations play a big role as a motivational or discouraging factor.

In some situations, this is a good thing: when something smells rotten or tastes bad our first instinct is, rightfully, to back away or spit it out.
But in other situations, the somatic discomfort might simply arise because we are trying to change an old movement pattern.

As a pianist I spent 10 years playing with massive tension in my shoulder area. The tension allowed my body to have the stability it needed in order to play but at the price of developing tendinitis (yes, «tension» is actually necessary to play, but more of that in a later article).
Understanding how to relocate the “tension” to parts of the body that were more capable of long-term support while playing was a lengthy process. This process did not always feel good as it involved releasing tension from parts which were used to acting as solid parts. Tension is also a thing our body uses to protect us with in experiences which are unpleasant or overwhelming. Releasing tension can therefor easily trigger emotional reactions of various kinds.

Finally: the way we treat ourselves after we have judged our performance less
than desirable plays a much bigger role in our performance than most people think. That inner climate which we bring into our practice room has a direct physiological effect on how well your body can perform technically.
As grown-ups we have the sole responsibility of how we talk to ourselves when alone and what language we use. Have you ever been scolded by someone for something?
When under attack certain physiological mechanisms and hormonal changes are set in
motion which has a direct effect on the muscles of the body.
And your brain can´t tell the difference if the scolding is coming from someone else or from yourself.

Photo by Steven Aguilar on Unsplash

So take note next time you are in the practice room. What qualifiers are you using? And is the language you use towards yourself the same you would use towards a friend.

This article was published in Corpsonore.com september 20th, 2022

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