The previous post introduced the concept of Rule #1 (Never Stop), which trains the mind for performance by teaching it to stay focused, even after mistakes. Simulating the timing and continuous playing of performance is a crucial experience to be repeated many times during training. Through Rule #1 practice, we get important feedback about our technical preparation, stamina, and memory (if applicable).

Rule #2 is the necessary counterpart to Rule #1:

Rule #2: Always Stop! When you are practicing, you must not allow any mistake, uncoordinated motion, scratch, or squeak. If you practice with mistakes or undesirable tone, you are teaching your muscles “this is how the piece goes,” and establishing bad habits. The next time you get to the same place, you will make the same error! Instead, start again from before the mistake, correct what caused it, and repeat the passage until it is second nature.

Rule #1 and Rule #2 may seem contradictory, but are not: in fact, they go hand-in-hand. Rule #2 is intended for detailed technical practice, solving difficult passages, and committing the proper coordination to muscle memory. One must practice Rule #2 with Rule #1 in mind as the ultimate goal: even if only practicing a short passage at a very slow tempo, one must practice the same expression and coordination as will be used in future performances.

The excitement to communicate and share in performance provides urgency and motivation to be focused and disciplined while practicing. Rule #1 can only be achieved through Rule #2: one will not be free to perform in a state of flow until technical mastery is achieved. Further, getting into the Rule #1 mindset in the practice room does not mean being oblivious—one should still be observant and aware to remember any mistakes or near-mistakes (liabilities). These must late be addressed again with the Rule #2 mindset.

Using both Rule #1 and Rule #2 mindsets is necessary for effective performance training. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to practice mindlessly: neither being mindful of mistakes nor achieving expression. Both mindsets require intense concentration and observation. Thus, the player must clearly decide which rule she is following before practicing a passage. A majority of practice time should be spent following Rule #2, especially in the early stages of learning a new work. It is important to avoid forming bad habits and allowing mistakes to become embedded in the muscle memory. It is not enough to move on from a passage after one successful attempt, either. Instead, one must repeat the successful rendition many times and enjoy the feeling of physical coordination and ease. As practicing in this manner becomes fruitful, the player will then switch to the Rule #1 mindset to put the passage “to the test.” This process of isolating individual motions, shifts, bow strokes, etc., and then combining them into larger sequences is called chunking. The player must alternate practice mindsets and build larger and larger chunks until she can consistently play full works, and perhaps entire recital programs, under the Rule #1 mindset. Playing mistake-free is not the only goal, either: she must be able to play expressively, with a feeling of ease, awareness, flexibility, and control. This is only possible after spending sufficient time practicing in the Rule #2 mindset.

The musician can imagine herself as an athlete in training, repeating the same small technical details again and again. Consider how a boxer trains for months before facing one opponent: she will spend long hours hitting the punching bag, jumping rope, running, and lifting weights. A team will rehearse scripted plays repeatedly. A tennis player will hit forehands, backhands, volleys, and serves hundreds of times each day, pinpointing location from many positions on the court. Athletes of any sport will execute a number of drills that develop motions or skills specific to their sport, position, or event (running sprints/lines, running/dribbling through cones in a specific pattern, fielding ground balls, etc.). These may become monotonous and some exercises may not seem immediately related to the game-time/performance experience. These drills are invaluable, though: during the game, the athlete must react without hesitation and be able to execute the stroke, pass, shot, jump, motion, or other skill, nearly without thought.

It is the same for the musician. In the moment of performance, hours and hours of Rule #2 preparation provide the confidence and certainty needed to overcome nerves or distractions. This backstop of intense, focused, and detailed Rule #2 practice allows one to not only play cleanly, but also to let go and perform with great freedom and expression.

So, go put on your game face and become a relentless mistake-eliminating machine!