At times, visualizing pictures in our mind helps us get clear about what we want and what we need to do. For my own practice, as well as my students practice, I have found a story that has proven useful. Its value really lies in its simplicity. The picture is very easy to understand, yet it's pretty accurate. May it be useful to you as well.
Picture a meadow. Tall grass grows in all directions as far as the eye can see. The meadow seems infinite. There are absolutely no marks or trails of any kind. Picture yourself in this meadow looking out over the grass.
After a time, you decide that you want to go in a certain direction, so you begin walking. You immediately notice that the grass is tall enough to offer some resistance to your movement, so you have to push your way through in the direction that you've chosen.
After a while, you decide to stop and take a look around. As you look back over the path you've taken, you can see that you have pushed the grass down a bit, and you can see a faint trail in the sunlight. If you wanted to, you could just stand there for a very long time, and if you did, you would notice that the grass would eventually recover. The grass would gradually go back to its original shape, and the faint trail would disappear. If, on the other hand, you decide that you like this place, you can go back and forth down the trail as many times as you wish. Each time that you do, you notice that you push a bit more grass down, and the trail gets easier to spot, and also gets easier to travel down: the grass offers less resistance to your movement. If you walked the path for a week, the grass would be pushed down, and perhaps begin to die. If you walked the path for a month, you might have a dirt path that is very easy to walk. If you wish to go in a different direction, you can do that at any time, but you notice that when you first strike out in the new direction, you encounter the resistance of the tall grass. You have to push open a new trail.
As you make more and more trails over the course of time, you notice that the meadow is always changing. The old trails that are no longer utilized begin to erode and get less and less easy to travel on, and the trails that you are using regularly get deeper and more clear every time you travel down them.
After a while, you begin to understand the rules of the meadow:
THE RULES OF THE MEADOW
1. Movement in the meadow is absolutely unlimited! At ANY moment, you may go in ANY direction that you choose. Even if you have made a very clear trail, you may change your direction at any moment. The DECISION is yours.
2. ALL movements leave trails. You CANNOT go in any direction without leaving a mark in the meadow.
3. NOTHING stays the same – the meadow is organic! Trails that are used more often get wider and deeper, and trails that are not used begin to erode. Notice, though, that once a trail is well-made, the ground hardens. The grass may grow back some, but the trail will now be more or less permanent.
4. The more you use a trail, the easier it is to travel down. It makes no difference if the trail is going to a good place or not. When you decide to make a new trail, you encounter the resistance of the tall grass.
Let us take this idea another step. As you make trails deeper and deeper through repetition, you widen the path and make the trail into a deep rut. If you continue down the path over and over again, you will see that the grass grows up on both sides of the rut creating a kind of tunnel. With the grass growing over your head, you now cannot see any other pathways that you may have cut earlier: the “tunnel” now APPEARS to be the only choice that you have!
Now, we've just taken a crash course in how the brain works. Opening “trails” in the meadow is analogous to creating pathways in our neutral net. Our mind is not “hot-wired”. We build our habits and patterned responses every day. In order to understand this better, we must understand how individual nerve cells work in our body.
A single nerve cell contains many “arms”. The receptor “arm” is called a dendrite and the transmitter “arm” is called an “axon”. At the junction between two nerve cells, there is a small gap, called a “synapse”. The nerve cells are close to, but do not touch, each other. When we send an impulse down our neural pathways, the axon of one cell fires off an electrochemical impulse across that synaptic gap. This message is relayed across many nerves and may end up in an action like picking up a pencil, or playing a high “C” on the trumpet, or feeling angry!
Now, what happens at the synapse?
The answer is that it CHANGES SLIGHTLY!
We leave a trail!
The synaptic gap can become slightly more conductive or slightly less conductive to electricity. With each repetition of the act, we reinforce that electrochemical change, until it becomes permanent.
We deepen the “trail” and make it easier to find and to follow!
We create our own “neural network” each moment of our life. Each action we take or thought we have fires off a sequence of nerve impulses. As we repeat an action, we increase the probability that a particular sequence of neural connections will be used to perform the action. In simple terms, we build our habits and patterns of actions through repetition. A distinction that we must make about this IMMEDIATELY is that the mind doesn't know “right” actions from “wrong” ones. Our “computer” is amoral. It can learn bad habits and good ones equally well! This means simply that if you practice a scale, for instance, and you miss the A# a few times, your body is LEARNING how to miss that note, and after a while, it does it easily! The “trail” to the mistake was made deeper and easier to follow with each flub. Have you ever been frustrated when you were learning a piece of music because you found yourself playing wrong notes even after you knew what the right ones were? The incorrect finger dropped even before you had a chance to think about it! That's the point: the BRAIN can know what the “right” response is supposed to be, but the sequence of events is in the NERVES! You deepened a “trail” – a set of nerve connections – through repetition, but it was not a good one. By the time you think, the incorrect response has already happened. So, you might say success is a conditioned habit. So is failure!
RULE: Reflexes happen before thought.
How can we use this information? Let me illustrate by first using a negative example. Maybe you've been down this trail, too.
My “Super Highways to Hell”
I don't know about you, but I know that I have “trails” that I've built over the years that are really easy to follow. Some of them go way beyond just pushing down the grass. I've paved some of my favorite ones, and painted in lane markers and put up signs and lights! They're really permanent. The trouble is, some of those trails go to really terrible places. I call them “super highways to Hell”. Let me illustrate.
A long time ago, as a student, I tried playing through the first movement of the Hummel Concerto. By the time I reached the end, I was tired and the high “C” sounded tight and pinched. It might have even sounded lousy. I had made a poor trail. At this point, I asked myself why the high note sounded so lousy. Asking a “why” question is a very dangerous thing to do, because we tend to answer the question EVEN IF WE HAVE TO MAKE SOMETHING UP!! Of course, my brain answered me.
It said: “You're weak”.
To build up strength, I decided to go all the way through the first movement, over and over again, until the high note improved. Each time the ending was reached, it was played with a tight, pinched sound. After a lot of repetitions, I again asked my brain why the high note was so weak. Of course, my brain answered me again.
It said: “You're weak, and you're just not a very good high-note player”.
Now, not only was I playing the high note badly, now I felt lousy about myself, too!! I had become an expert at just how to make those high notes sound really bad! My body knew the easier “path” to take, and , by now, I was beginning to believe that it was the ONLY path that I could follow!
When we have constructed a tunnel that seems to be the only way that we can POSSIBLY go, we lose faith in our ability to change anything. At this point, we have created a BELIEF! Instead of saying “I screwed up” we begin to say “I AM a screw up.” Instead of saying “I failed” we say “I AM a failure” or “I'm just not good at this!” We start saying things like “Well, that's just how I will always be!” We may even “prove” it to ourselves a few times by trying to change, and noticing that we eventually return to the old way.
Remember Rule #1!!
You can move in any direction at any time you make the decision. Remind yourself that just because you have created a clear trail (a habit or a reflex), you have no DESTROYED any nerve pathways in your body. They are all still all there! Moving in the familiar direction is easier, because the path offers less resistance, but remember we're not hard-wired. We don't HAVE to go down that old path. As an example, do you believe that it is possible for a person who has been an alcoholic for 20 years to change his behavior? Of course it is! The lousy trail (the habit pattern of using alcohol) is just the easiest one to follow: it's the one the nervous system knows the best. If the person is successful in recovering, he or she must realize that the old path will ALWAYS be there: just because they have recovered doesn't mean that they have FORGOTTEN how to drink! No way!! We don't “break” old bad habits – we just make new ones.
RULE: Trails don't disappear once they have been firmly established. You never forget how to ride a bicycle. A person who has been an alcoholic will always remember HOW to take a drink! A smoker will never forget HOW to smoke. You simply CHOOSE no to go down that path any more.
What helped me to wake up was a simple question.
I asked myself: “Is that the best sound I can make on that note? I've hit that note many times in the past and sounded better than that. WHAT DO I WANT THE NOTE TO SOUND LIKE? WHAT DO I WANT THE RESULT TO BE?”
This was a better question to ask myself, because it created a “target” of sound in my mind. I had created a “goal”. I hit the high note a few times, and I looked for the center of the sound. I look for a place where the note RANG, RESONATED, and just SOUNDED the best. It didn't take long to realize that the place where the note sounded the best was NOT where I was playing at the end of the concerto! After a few repetitions of the better sounding note, I had a good model in my ear, so I tried to plug it back into the passage. My first try, as you might guess, was not successful. The old, tight, lousy sound came right back out. The old path was still the easiest one to find! I decided to try playing a smaller hunk of the passage that was giving me trouble – play less notes in a row – just the hight note and two or three notes ahead of it – and after a few tries, the high note got better. I then tried to add more notes, and my first try was again not good! By this time, I had learned something really valuable: the body will attempt to follow the path of least resistance, even if the destination is to a lousy place! The “good” note and the “bad” note each made trails. One would come out one time and the other one would come out the next time, and it did not seem to have much to do with fatigue! This realization has led me to alter the way I practice, so that I'm more in harmony with the principles of the meadow! The bottom line is that I practice much more slowly now, so that I don't let poor “trails” get started. We must learn to practice slowly enough to get the response that we want. Don't keep going over and over a passage and playing it poorly!! Keep clearly in your mind that ALL moves in the meadow leave trails. ALL actions produce RESULTS – GOOD and BAD!!
As a further illustration, here's an idea on how to learn to shoot free-throws.
The “Free-Throw Drill” with respects to coach John Wooden
If I wanted to help a basketball player with his free throw percentage, I'd go about it this way:
“Practice” according to the principals of the meadow, would mean that we should make a good trail-that is, the ball should go through the basket, and then we should DEEPEN the trail by repeating the correct action at least once more. Simply put: make a shot, and then make it again. That, by the way, is my definition of “practice”. You must get the RESULT that you WANT and you must get it AT LEAST twice. For my basketball player, the first shots should be set up so that the percentage of correct responses is high. Let's say we put up a ladder by the basket, and have the player stand on it so that he can simply drop the ball through the hoop.
“OK, kid, give me a hundred baskets!”
No, not a hundred ATTEMPTS!
A HUNDRED BASKETS!
RULE: Our skill level improves not by the number of attempts we make at something, but by the number of CORRECT repetitions of the skill we are trying to habituate. In other words, you can shoot at the basket all day, but if no shots are going through, you are NOT improving your skill level. Only MADE shots do that!!
The learning that we want to reinforce happen when the shots go in. If we take a thousand shots, and only make two, we've just taught our body how to miss really well!! EVERYTHING WE DO PRODUCES RESULTS!!
After the “shot” is successfully repeated 100 times, the player would be instructed to take a step down the ladder, and make 100 more shots, take another step down the ladder, etc. until he is making shots from the floor underneath the basket. After each 100 correct repetitions, the player takes a step back toward the free throw line and makes 100 more correct throws. He must stay in that place until his shots are accurate. If this exercise were done as part of a daily drill, my choice would be to start a step or two closer than the last place where 100 shots were accurately made, and try to better the old best mark. It is important to correct errors immediately so that you don't cut too many poor trails. When you begin to notice a rise in failed attempts, STOP! Remember: you cannot make a move in the meadow without leaving a trace! EVERY shot leaves a mark, good as well as bad! In time the player should be shooting with deadly accuracy from the free throw line.
John Wooden once won an award for hitting 100 free throws in a row!
Carl Malone practiced his free throws at the end of a practice session and wouldn't leave the floor until he's made 30 in a row! These people aren't great because of their talent! They're great because they work at it so hard!!
We have done another thing to our basketball player: we have begun to create a “belief system”. The player should feel very confident about his ability! After all, he only knows success! He must be “good” at this! He should believe that the next time he shoots the ball at the basket, it's going to go in, and this belief should get stronger with each success. Remember, success, like failure, is a habit! We are “practicing” confidence.
Using the principals in practice
If we structure out a daily practice using the ideas contained in our little fable, how would we go about it? Step one is that you must have a clear destination – a good “target”. Then you must establish the trail to the target through repetition, and you must always be conscious of the fact that every move leaves a mark! This means that you must set up your practice so that you are successful many more times than you fail. Also, each time you repeat the action, you should try to improve it in some way. Going over and over an action without trying to improve it means that you're making a clear trail to mediocrity! Lets say you begin working on the Second Study of Herbert L Clarke's “Technical Studies”. your first try at a line should be slow enough so that you get all the right notes, and you get a great sound on each note. Keep a record in a notebook of the number of your correct responses on each line. You might try doing them in “sets” the way a weight lifter does. For instance, do two “sets” of three correct repetitions of the first five lines of the 2nd Study each day for a week. After the notes are secure, add tempo, that is, do two sets of three correct repetitions of the first five lines at half note = 60 beats per minute. After a certain number of correct responses, advance the speed. Do not go so fast that you begin to make errors! Remember, it's the number of shots that go THROUGH the basket that count toward your skill at getting better. It is NOT the number of shots that you ATTEMPT. As your skill and endurance increase, add more lines, or add varying articulations. The critical thing to remember is that you are ALWAYS TRYING TO MAKE SOMETHING BETTER!! DO NOT JUST REPEAT LINES OVER AND OVER WITHOUT TRYING TO IMPROVE SOME SKILL.
Remember to keep a positive attitude about your playing. Limited beliefs about what you're capable of just shut down your progress. As barriers begin to fall, your confidence level with strengthen. There are no limits other than the ones we put on ourselves! Enjoy every moment of your playing, that is, enjoy making the journey, not just getting to a destination.